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.
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 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
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
Meeresstille und Glückliche Fahrt Op 112
Nicholas Marston © 1997