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Hyperion Records

CDA66880 - Beethoven: Early Cantatas
The Coronation of Leopold II (1747-1793) at Bratislava (1790).
Austrian School, 18th century, Mestske Galerie, Bratislava / Bridgeman Art Library, London

Recording details: Various dates
Blackheath Concert Halls, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Mark Brown
Engineered by Antony Howell & Julian Millard
Release date: February 1997
Total duration: 79 minutes 34 seconds


'A great joy … a fervour of sustained inspiration. A disc which, given the chance, is likely to prove itself the quarter's best investment' (Gramophone)

'There are some lovely performances here, especially from Corydon Singers themselves … this is a fascinating disc' (BBC Record Review)

'Arguably Beethoven's first major masterpiece … superb performance, at once fresh and incisive and deeply moving' (The Penguin Guide to Compact Discs)

'It's always wonderful to come across some unfamiliar piece and relish unsuspected, undiscovered beauties … Hyperion's enterprising disc of two early cantatas is thoroughly to be recommended. A marvellous disc' (The Daily Telegraph)

'Corydon Singers and the Corydon Orchestra and five soloists all cover themselves with glory and the recording is fine' (Daily Mail)

'This issue matches its venturesome contents with well-balanced sound and fine performances' (Hi-Fi News)

'A revelatory issue, strongly recommended' (RTÉ)

'A unique disc which Beethoven lovers will find magnetic' (Soundscapes, Australia)

Early Cantatas

This second disc of Beethoven choral works from the Corydon Singers and Matthew Best features two rarely performed and fascinating early works, the Cantatas written around 1790 to mark the death of Joseph II and the accession of his brother Leopold II. Both pieces are full of dramatic action and forthright representation of mood, and the ‘Joseph’ Cantata can quite legitimately be counted one of the composer’s most important early works, displaying remarkable maturity for a nineteen-year-old composer.

Also included are the composer’s homage to Goethe, Meeresstille und Glückliche Fahrt, and the famous Opferlied, here performed beautifully by Jean Rigby in the version for soprano, choir and orchestra.

Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
The death of the Empress Maria Theresia in 1780 and the succession of her son as Joseph II opened a decade of far-reaching enlightened reform in Vienna and the dominions of the Holy Roman Empire. In fact the pace of reform was eventually to prove unsustainable, since Joseph’s reforming zeal was inimical to many sections of the nobility and the higher clergy; the later part of his rule was marked by a certain retrenchment, and on his death in 1790 many of his reforms were reversed. Nonetheless, the Josephinian decade was one of the most brilliant in the history of the Imperial capital, and to music historians it stands out with all the more lustre for its being broadly coextensive with Mozart’s own Viennese decade, from his arrival there in 1781 until his death in 1791.

Beethoven was not to arrive in Vienna until 1792, although he had made a largely abortive visit there in 1787. Bonn, where he was born and received his earliest musical training, was under Viennese dominion, however, and ties to that city were made all the closer when in 1784 Maximilian Franz, brother of Joseph II (and of the future Leopold II), succeeded to the Bonn-based position of Elector of Cologne. Joseph’s Enlightenment principles and policies thus acquired official status at the electoral court. Beethoven was both acquainted and in tune with Enlightenment ideals; the extent of his contact with leading intellectual society in Bonn may be measured by the fact that his teacher Neefe and friends and patrons such as Ries, Simrock and Count Waldstein were all members of the Lesegesellschaft (Reading Society), founded in 1787 as a successor to the recently dissolved Order of Illuminati. And it was the Lesegesellschaft that commissioned Beethoven to set to music a text by Severin Anton Averdonk commemorating Joseph’s death on 20 February 1790 (the news reached Bonn four days later).

Cantata on the death of Emperor Joseph II WoO87
The cantata that Beethoven wrote in response to this commission was in fact never to be performed in his lifetime. The reasons for the cancellation of its intended inaugural performance are unknown, but a planned performance at Mergentheim in 1791 was evidently called off due to the difficulty of the score. Nor was it or its companion piece, the Cantata on the accession of Emperor Leopold II (to a text probably also by Averdonk) published until almost a century after its composition, in a supplementary volume to the first complete edition of Beethoven’s works: there would naturally have been no real market that Beethoven himself could exploit for such ephemeral works. Yet the ‘Joseph’ Cantata emerges in retrospect as one of his most important early works, displaying remarkable maturity in a nineteen-year-old composer.

The opening chorus immediately sets the tone, and with a kind of music that is especially prophetic of the later Beethoven. It is set in the quintessentially Beethovenian key of C minor, later to be used for the ‘Pathétique’ Sonata, the Fifth Symphony, and two works specifically associated with death: the Funeral March in the ‘Eroica’ Symphony, and the ‘Coriolan’ Overture. Although drawing on conventional musical gestures associated with grief and mourning (compare, for example, the brooding choruses in Gluck’s Alceste), this chorus displays a characteristic intensity of expression that, far from sublimating the personal into the universal, does exactly the reverse. The highly charged chromaticism of the melodic lines and the harmony, the use of dynamic reinforcement to drive home the effect of syncopation, and the controlled handling of a wide-ranging tonal structure all combine to suggest an intensely personal response to what is, after all, a fairly banal piece of glorificatory text. In the following bass recitative and aria, too, Beethoven is already writing that remorselessly energetic, forwardly driven music that is most immediately associated with the public, celebratory scores of his middle period.

Typically Beethovenian, too, is the handling of long-range structure. Although the Cantata is arranged as a series of discrete ‘numbers’, the tonal connections between them are carefully arranged; and in two cases—between ‘Da kam Joseph’ and ‘Da stiegen die Menschen an’s Licht’, and ‘Hier schlummert’ and the final chorus—there are attacca directions to enhance the sense of continuity. The two main arias are each in ABA'B' binary form, whereby the entire text is set twice, with the second B section being a harmonically reorientated version of the first; and Beethoven skilfully adopted this plan as a means of finding a satisfactory shape for the entire work. That is, the final chorus is a repetition of the opening one, although with its second section recomposed so as to end in the tonic (C minor) rather than the relative major (E flat major). Such replication of a particular feature at different structural ‘levels’ is, again, highly characteristic of Beethoven’s later and better-known music.

To trace in early works the seeds of later greatness is of course a common critical strategy, and one that might sometimes seem to excuse the critic from saying anything directly about the quality of the early work itself. In the case of the ‘Joseph’ Cantata, however, Beethoven himself (who was often dismissive of his early works) indicated his own positive assessment of the music when he reworked the aria and chorus ‘Da stiegen die Menschen an’s Licht’ for ‘O Gott! Welch’ ein Augenblick’ in Leonore and its successor, Fidelio. Not only the music itself but the Enlightenment sentiment of the text that had originally called it forth made it an obvious choice for that particular moment in the opera. Little wonder that Brahms, having studied the rediscovered score of the Cantata in 1884, wrote to Eduard Hanslick, saying: ‘Even if there were no name on the title page, none other could be conjectured—it is Beethoven through and through!’

Cantata on the accession of Emperor Leopold II WoO88
Leopold was elected Holy Roman Emperor on 30 September 1790 and crowned at Frankfurt on 9 October, with the Elector Maximilian Franz in attendance; thus the ‘Leopold’ Cantata must date from this period. Like its companion, it was never performed in Beethoven’s lifetime; but the aria ‘Fliesse, Wonnezähre, fliesse!’, with its obbligato flute and cello parts and its virtuoso vocal line, was clearly written with specific performers in mind. Throughout the 1780s in Bonn Beethoven had the opportunity to hear a wide range of opera, and this aria—by far the most substantial number in the cantata—is evidently his interpretation of the full-dress heroic opera seria coloratura aria, complete with large-scale orchestral ritornelli. It was presumably also his operatic experience that led him, in this Cantata, to include an ensemble number for the three soloists.

The subject matter of the ‘Leopold’ Cantata necessarily dictated a different overall plan to that of the ‘Joseph’ work; in particular, the structural prop of a framing chorus of mourning was not an option here. The ‘Leopold’ Cantata opens with a recitative narrating the death of Joseph and the emergence of Leopold as his successor. Although harmonically wide ranging, this recitative moves from A flat to C major and thus relates directly to the overall key (C minor) of the ‘Joseph’ Cantata. In fact one might argue plausibly for a tonal ‘narrative’ progression (C minor to C major) equating to the textual narrative that links the two works; such a reading inevitably calls again to mind the Fifth Symphony, with its identical tonal progression from C minor to major. The relatively underplayed opening to the Cantata—it begins as it were in medias res—allowed for considerable weight to accrue to the final chorus of praise. Here Beethoven chose the traditionally bright, celebratory key of D for a multisectional finale (Un poco allegro e maestoso – Allegro vivace – Allegro non tanto) that begins and ends in the relatively uncommon 12/8 metre. Not only in its multisectional nature, its key, and its role as the culminating point in a psychological progression from doubt and sorrow to hope and joy, but also in its attempt to find musical expression for universal rejoicing (note particularly the ungrateful setting—twice!—of ‘Erschallet Jubelchöre, dass laut die Welt es höre!’ to a repeated soprano high A), this finale seems prophetic of that of the Ninth Symphony. And in setting there Schiller’s words ‘Ihr stürzt nieder, Millionen?’ would not Beethoven, by that time unquestionably the greatest living composer, have remembered putting music to ‘Stürzet nieder, Millionen, an dem rauchenden Altar!’ an artistic lifetime ago in Bonn?

Opferlied Op 121b
Although C minor may justifiably be regarded as a key that Beethoven made peculiarly his own, that of E major also seems to have had particular connotations for him. Instrumental movements such as the slow movement of the second ‘Razumovsky’ Quartet and the variation theme in the Piano Sonata, Op 109, may be placed alongside songs such as Sehnsucht, WoO146, and Abendlied unterm gestirnten Himmel, WoO150, to suggest that Beethoven turned to E major when he wished to conjure a partly religious, contemplative mood tinged with an element of melancholy or nostalgia. Thus it is not surprising to find him choosing this key for his setting of Matthisson’s Opferlied. Beethoven was evidently fascinated by this poem: in addition to the version dating from 1824 that is recorded here, there exists an 1822 version for soprano, alto and tenor soloists, chorus, and clarinets, horn, and strings, as well as an earlier independent setting for voice and piano (WoO126, composed 1794/5 but revised in 1801/2); furthermore, two canons of 1823 and 1825 set the closing words, ‘Das Schöne zu dem Guten!’. The evocation of a religious mood is obvious in the hymnic setting, and the intensity of expression required is emphasized by the performance direction ‘Langsam mit innigster Andacht’, one of many from Beethoven’s late period that face ‘inward’. But many listeners may be immediately struck by a more external reference, to yet another work in E major: Fiordiligi’s great rondo ‘Per pietà’ in Mozart’s Così fan tutte, to the opening of which Beethoven seems to make a very direct allusion at the outset. Whether or not this was intentional is impossible to say.

Meeresstille und Glückliche Fahrt Op 112
If the closing chorus of the ‘Leopold’ Cantata hints at the finale of the Ninth, all the more so does the second part (‘Glückliche Fahrt’) of Beethoven’s 1814/5 setting of a pair of poems by Goethe. (Mendelssohn’s more famous overture shares the same literary source, as does Schubert’s solo setting of ‘Meeresstille’, D216, composed in June 1815 and published as part of his Op 3.) First performed at a benefit concert in December 1815, Meeresstille und Glückliche Fahrt was published in 1822 and dedicated to Goethe. Beethoven had a very high regard for Goethe, whom he had met as early as 1812. In 1823 he tried to enlist Goethe’s help in raising subscriptions for the Missa solemnis, and in a letter to the poet he mentioned that ‘by reason of their contrasting moods these two poems seemed to me very suitable for the expression of this contrast in music. It would afford me much pleasure to know whether I had united my harmony with yours in appropriate fashion’. Since Goethe is known to have had rather severe views on the setting of poetry to music it is unlikely that he would have responded favourably to certain aspects of Beethoven’s setting: for example, the excessive amount of word repetition (above all of ‘Geschwinde’) in ‘Glückliche Fahrt’. But he could not have failed to mark the musical contrast, bordering almost on exaggeration, to which Beethoven referred. The frenetic 6/8 setting of ‘Glückliche Fahrt’ is in total contrast to the opening of the work, where by dint of idiosyncratic scoring and slow-moving chorale-like harmonies Beethoven achieves, in D major, an extraordinary sense of rapt stillness whose true counterpart is not to be found outside some of the slow movements of the last piano sonatas and quartets. Typical, too, of the sort of extreme gesture that marks much of the late instrumental music is the setting of the line ‘In der ungeheuern Weite’, where the hitherto close spacing of the vocal parts is shattered by sudden ‘excessive’ contrary motion in soprano and bass as the key word ‘Weite’ is reached. The equally unprepared full orchestral scoring at this point extends the strongly dissonant harmony over a five-octave span; this and the equally ‘excessive’ duration of the chord are the means whereby Beethoven’s music catches the intimations of 'das Erhabene', the Sublime, in Goethe’s text.

Nicholas Marston © 1997

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