Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship

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Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship
File:Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre 1795.jpg
Title page of first edition
Author Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Original title Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre
Language German
Genre Philosophical novel
Publisher Johann Friedrich Unger (Berlin)
Publication date
Preceded by Wilhelm Meister's Theatrical Calling (Wilhelm Meisters theatralische Sendung) (1777–1785)
Followed by Wilhelm Meister's Journeyman Years (Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjahre) (1821–1829)

Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship (German: Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre) is the second novel by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, published in 1795–96.


The eponymous hero undergoes a journey of self-realization. The story centers upon Wilhelm's attempt to escape what he views as the empty life of a bourgeois businessman. After a failed romance with the theater, Wilhelm commits himself to the mysterious Tower Society.

Books III - V

Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship depicts the eighteenth-century German reception of William Shakespeare's dramas: the protagonist is introduced to these by the character Jarno, and extensive discussion of Shakespeare's work occurs within the novel's dialogues. Wilhelm and his theater group give a production of Hamlet, in which Wilhelm plays the lead role. Shakespeare's work had begun to be translated into German in the 1740s, and had attained tremendous popularity and influence in Germany by the end of the century. A young Goethe had presided over and given a speech in celebration of Shakespeare's genius on October 14, 1771, in Frankfurt. A second simultaneous celebration was held in Strasbourg.[1] Goethe has Shakespeare play a prominent role in Wilhelm's growth with the theater group as he "rejoiced the more that his name was Wilhelm" and acknowledges Shakespeare as a namesake, friend, and godfather.[2]


Goethe's work on the novel began in the 1770s. An early version of the work, unpublished during Goethe's lifetime, was discovered in the early twentieth century by Gustav Billeter, and published under the title Wilhelm Meister's Theatrical Calling (Wilhelm Meisters theatralische Sendung). When the Apprenticeship was completed in the mid-1790s, it was to a great extent through the encouragement and criticism of Goethe's close friend and collaborator Friedrich Schiller that it took its final shape.[3] Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjahre ("Wilhelm Meister's Journeyman Years" or Wilhelm Meister's Travels), the sequel to the Apprenticeship, was already planned in the 1790s, but did not appear in its first edition until 1821, and in its final form until 1829.


Further books patterned after this novel have been called Bildungsroman ("novels of formation"), despite the fact that Wilhelm's "Bildung" ("education", or "formation of character") is ironized by the narrator at many points.[4]

According to Andrew Crumey, "while Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship is billed as the classic coming-of-age tale, or Bildungsroman, it’s really far more than that: a story of education and disillusionment, a novel of ideas ranging across literature, philosophy and politics, a masterpiece that resists all pigeonholing."[5]

The novel could also be described as an example of what Graham Wolfe has called "theatre-fiction".


The novel has had a significant impact on European literature. Romantic critic and theorist Friedrich Schlegel judged it to be of comparable importance for its age to the French Revolution and the philosophy of Johann Gottlieb Fichte.

Arthur Schopenhauer cited Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship as one of the four immortal romances.[6]

Schopenhauer also mentions the book in his Aphorismen zur Lebensweisheit.

Arguing against chasing transient pleasures, Schopenhauer says, "Where we were looking for pleasure, happiness and joy, we often find instruction, insight and knowledge, a lasting and real benefit in place of a fleeting one. This idea runs like a bass-note through Goethe's Wilhelm Meister; for this is an intellectual novel and is of a higher order than the rest."[7]

Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship provided the text for many lieder, among others by Beethoven, for example Sehnsucht: Gedicht von Goethe viermal in Musik gesetzt von L. van Beethoven, four settings of "Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt", WoO. 134 (1808), and by Schubert, for example D 877, Gesänge aus Wilhelm Meister, Op. 62 (1826).[8] Schubert set eight excerpts, several more than once. They are:[9]

The 1866 opera Mignon by Ambroise Thomas is based on Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship.

The romance from 1869 song-cycle by Russian composer Peter Ilych Tchaikovsky named "None but the Lonely Heart" (Net tolka tot kto znal) is the Russian translation of the song "Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt".

The film The Wrong Move by Wim Wenders is a free adaptation of Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship.

Minjona, women's choir based at the University of Latvia is dedicated to Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship; in 2015, the ninth best female choir in the world.[10]


  1. England, Martha Winburn (1964) Garrick's Jubilee, "Part VIII Reactions in Europe," Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press.
  2. Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von, Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship and Travels Book IV, Chap. ii, Translated by Thomas Carlyle (1895) London: Chapman and Hall, LD.
  3. Ludwig, Emil (1928) GOETHE: The History of a Man 1749-1833, Schiller and Wilhelm Meister Translated by Ethel Colburn Mayne, New York: G.P. Putnum's Sons.
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  8. "Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt" at LiederNet Archive
  9. (German) Otto Erich Deutsch, with revisions by Werner Aderhold and others. Franz Schubert, thematisches Verzeichnis seiner Werke in chronologischer Folge (New Schubert Edition, Series VIII: Supplement, Volume 4). Kassel: Bärenreiter, 1978. ISMN 979-0-0063-0514-8 — ISBN 9783761805718, p. 553
  10. INTERKULTUR World Rankings as of April 2015. Archived 2015-05-12 at the Wayback Machine

External links