About the Lieder of Ludwig van Beethoven
Beethoven's importance as the creator of the nine symphonies, Fidelio and the Missa solemnis, the 32 piano sonatas and a multitude of brilliant chamber music works for different combinations is so immense that for a long time his Lied output remained relatively uncelebrated. And whilst for Schubert, Schumann, Brahms and Wolf the composition of Lieder and songs was central to their work, Beethoven turned to Lied composition regularly but with less intensity than his successors. One reason why his songs have been neglected in concert life is the maestro's reputation for writing unsingable music on account of some extremely difficult solo and choral passages in the Missa solemnis and the Ninth Symphony. Few biographers refrain from telling the story of how the famous Cherubini, dissatisfied with the first version of Fidelio, sent Beethoven a French vocal composition manual for him to study in earnest. This prejudiced view of Beethoven's handling of the human voice has long meant that, apart from a few popular concert pieces such as An die ferne Geliebte, Adelaide, Andenken, Der Kuß and the Flohlied setting of the well-known text from Goethe's Faust, only a few of his Lieder have come to be performed regularly on concert platforms.
However correct it is for Beethoven's main importance to lie in his instrumental oeuvre, it is equally unjust for his vocal works to be disregarded. Anyone listening to his Lieder and songs in combination will realise that this rich bouquet of influential works, occasional compositions, love songs, humorous songs and serious pieces with religious or philosophical texts can offer music lovers an extraordinary amount of pleasure. Beethoven's Lied universe contains an abundance of musical beauties, and through their texts he offers today's listeners a variety of insights into the intellectual, imaginative and emotional world of the late 18th and early 19th century. In our mind's eye he creates a panorama which very vividly brings to life the Classical and early-Romantic world of ideas with its specific blend of natural sentiment, enlightened thinking and religious sensibility.
Beethoven's literary taste was marked by a preference for great epics and dramas. He particularly admired Homer and Shakespeare, and we know that he enjoyed reading Plutarch and the writings of Plato. As for his contemporaries, his highest esteem was reserved for Goethe and Schiller. Although he left a lasting monument to Schiller in the finale of the Ninth Symphony, it is Goethe who appears in his Lieder more frequently than any other poet. Beethoven wrote several settings of some of Goethe's works; for example, there are no fewer than four completely different versions of the famous Mignon's song Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt (Only one who knows longing). Some commentators have interpreted this as Beethoven wrestling to find an appropriate form because one did not come to him immediately, but this is contradicted by the fact that he published all the versions at the same time. This text evidently exerted such a great fascination on him that he found it necessary to illuminate it from different angles.
Of all the poems in Beethoven's settings, those by Goethe are of the highest literary standard by far. Other poets to whom Beethoven turned and whose names are still familiar to us are Gottfried August Bürger (1748-1794), Matthias Claudius (1740-1815), Johann Wilhelm Ludwig Gleim (1719-1803), Johann Gottfried Herder (1744-1803), Ludwig Hölty (1748-1776) and Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729-1781); Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) is also among them. All of these poets are however represented by only a few texts.
Special mention should be made of Christian Fürchtegott Gellert (1715-1769), one of the most widely read authors in Germany in the middle of the 18th century, whose poems were also set to music by C. P. E. Bach and Haydn. Beethoven's setting of six texts from Gellert's Geistliche Oden und Lieder (Spiritual odes and songs) is one of his best-known Lied compositions and is performed relatively frequently.
Pietro Metastasio (1698-1782), the great librettist whose works served as sources for numerous important composers of his time, is also represented in Beethoven's Lied catalogue by six pieces – all in Italian. The name of Friedrich von Matthisson (1761-1831), who was highly regarded by his contemporaries but then forgotten, probably only lives on through two particularly popular Beethoven settings: Adelaide op. 46 and Andenken (Remembrance) WoO 136. Friedrich Treitschke (1776-1842) may be familiar to some as the librettist of Fidelio (in the version of 1814); he wrote Ruf vom Berge (Call from the mountain), which is a reworking and extension of the folksong Wenn ich ein Vöglein wär (If I were a little bird).
Christian Ludwig Reissig, born in 1783, is represented by eight texts, making him one of Beethoven's most frequently set poets. Even readers with a literary education might not be familiar with his name nor with other poets who are not mentioned individually here, although their writings were the sources for Beethoven's Lieder and songs. As suggested above, studying the texts selected by Beethoven evokes a colourful impression of the life and intellectual richness of an entire epoch. Nowadays the internet is a wonderful resource for researching and studying the poets' biographies in more depth.
Beethoven was already grappling with the Lied during his years in Bonn, his earliest composition in this genre probably being Schilderung eines Mädchens (Description of a young woman), which was published in 1783. According to a more recent edition, it was composed in his eleventh year1. The opus numbers are not necessarily indicative of the date of composition; for instance, the pieces published relatively late as op. 52 were written in the years up to 1793. After that date, apart from occasional interruptions of one or two years, Beethoven composed songs on a more or less regular basis until the beginning of 1820. The Gellert songs were written around the turn of the century, whilst the Goethe songs op. 83 date from 1810. The An die ferne Geliebte cycle, which was composed six years later, marks the end of the composer's path to maturity as a Lied composer.
Forms and musical language
"Lied" is a neat term which covers a multiplicity of different musical forms. Beethoven used a broad spectrum of musical formats ranging from the simple strophic song, whose numerous repeats can often make it anything but straightforward, through recitative-style pieces, ariettas and works based on cantata form to the through-composed song cycle. This formal richness is a large part of what makes his Lieder so fascinating. The hallmarks of Beethoven's vocal treatment are the use of exposed registers, a wide tonal compass, frequent changes between forte and piano and often very lengthy phrasing. The piano writing is less varied than Schubert's, but it is always appropriate for the textual content and is vividly characterised in the best songs.
In these liner notes there is not space to consider each individual song. Many do not need explanation in any case – the occasional compositions, for example, should simply be seen for what they are: delightful little gems meant to make life more pleasurable and to provide entertainment at social gatherings. The acknowledged importance or unmerited neglect of some songs does however call for further comment.
An die ferne Geliebte (To the distant beloved) op. 98 is incontestably not only Beethoven's longest Lied composition but also the most significant, and for the performers the most demanding. Composed in April 1816 and highly esteemed even during the 19th century, it is considered the crowning glory of Beethoven's Lied output. In this work the composer is pioneering the cyclical arrangement of songs, thereby sowing the seed that will bear more fruit a little later in the great song cycles of Schubert and Schumann. The text was written by a medical student named Alois Jeitteles (1794-1858); it encompasses six poems which follow each other without a break, the only links being short instrumental transitions. One of the main challenges is how to emphasise the characteristics of the individual sections without compromising the coherence of the work as a whole. Beethoven was known for always asserting his own expressive will over any notions of technical feasibility, and this beautiful piece is one of many examples in which he pays little heed to the performers. Although the composition does not present any really extreme difficulties, the notes in both the vocal part and the piano accompaniment do not lie comfortably; the writing style is occasionally a little awkward. But anyone who overcomes these problems is richly rewarded with musical images of nature in which the lover's feelings find their metaphorical expression.
Another fine example of this vivid sense of nature is the song Der Wachtelschlag (The quail's cry) by the now forgotten poet Samuel Friedrich Sauter (1766-1846). In his 6th Symphony, the "Pastoral", Beethoven points out that the composition is "more an expression of feeling than painting", but Der Wachtelschlag uses a wealth of tone-painting effects which convey the meaning directly in sound. Incidentally the pictorial quality of the text also inspired a setting by Franz Schubert.
Adelaide op. 46 is perhaps Beethoven's most famous individual song. It owes its success not only to the tender lyricism of the opening and the repetition of the name at the end of every verse but also to its operatic style: the fast concluding section is like the cabaletta of an Italian aria.
Unusually there are two settings of the text An die Hoffnung (To hope) by Christoph August Tiedge. The first version, which was published as op. 32, is a strophic song. Beethoven then composed a new, substantially different arrangement which was published as op. 94. He lengthened the text by adding an introductory stanza which creates a religious framework for the other stanzas and takes the poem from the realm of individual to universal experience. In the later version the musical shape is infinitely richer and more complicated, and the rhythmic structure is considerably more complex. Both settings contain moments of great beauty, although the through-composed later version is surely the more significant.
Beethoven's Goethe settings are among his most popular songs. The poetry of the Mailied (May song) has delighted generations of singers, and the flea song Aus Goethes Faust op. 75, No. 3 is a characteristically effective concert piece and a popular encore. The op. 83 set consisting of three songs includes one of the pearls in Beethoven's Lied oeuvre: Wonne der Wehmut (Delight in melancholy). This work, a potent combination of fervour and expressive depth, is to be performed with great calmness. It is simply arranged despite the embellishments in the piano and the descending scales, which symbolise the flood of tears, in the accompaniment. Neue Liebe, neues Leben (New love, new life), of which there are two versions, thrills us with its stormy agitato opening "Herz, mein Herz, was soll das geben? Was bedränget dich so sehr?", which Beethoven underlines with rushing quavers, and with its drive which continues right up to the climax just before the end.
There is an interesting story behind the composition of the arietta In questa tomba oscura. A melody was improvised by Countess Rzewuska at a musical gathering for which Giuseppe Carpani immediately created a text. Many composers were then invited to set the words to music, giving rise to sixty-three compositions. Beethoven's contribution was received last and therefore appeared last, just before the appendices, much to the maestro's annoyance. When Anton Diabelli later asked him to take part in a similar project, he flatly refused, having learnt from experience, and instead used Diabelli's short waltz for a major work of his own, his tremendous Piano Variations op. 120.
One gem which is regrettably performed far too infrequently is Resignation WoO 149. Here Beethoven succeeds in creating the greatest impact with the sparest means. The text is sung with declamatory clarity, every pause speaks meaningfully, and the extinguishing of the light could not be more evocative than at the song's climax at the end of the middle section. Beethoven worked on the text for a long time; one illustration of the care he lavished on the composition can be seen in the performance marking, which is unusually precise for such a short piece: "Mit Empfindung, jedoch entschlossen, wohl akzentuiert und sprechend vorgetragen" (With feeling, yet resolutely, well accented, and sung as though spoken).
Some of the greatest Lied singers including Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Hermann Prey and Peter Schreier have made substantial recordings of Beethoven Lieder in the past and championed the rehabilitation of this group of works. Now this CD presents the composer's Lieder and songs in hitherto unparalleled completeness. It is based on the Henle complete edition of Beethoven's works: "Songs with Piano Accompaniment" edited by Helga Lühning. Except for the Cantata campestre WoO 103 and the sketches and fragments, it contains all the compositions in all versions and with all verses including Beethoven's own piano reduction for Klärchen's "Freudvoll und leidvoll" (Joyful and sorrowful) from the incidental music to Goethe's tragedy Egmont op. 84, the Bundeslied (Federal song) op. 122 (originally for soloists, chorus and wind instruments) and the Opferlied (Song of sacrifice) op. 121b (originally for soprano, chorus and orchestra). This enables listeners to gain revealing insights into Beethoven's musical development and creative process by comparing different settings of the same texts. Beethoven's folksong settings are however not included here. – This recording also follows the sequence of the complete edition, presenting firstly the compositions published during Beethoven's lifetime followed by the posthumous works and finally the authentic piano reductions.
Jochen Köhler is Professor of Piano and Methodology at the Institute of Music at Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg. He performs as a soloist, a Lied accompanist and a chamber musician.
English translation: Debbie Hogg