While Beethoven remains the single most influential figure in the history of Western music, his songs have always been somewhat sidelined. He saw music as a world of infinite possibilities, largely unencumbered by textual concerns, but when issues about which he felt strongly enough to express them through a sung text did occur the results were remarkable. At the large end of the scale we have the Ninth Symphony finale, Fidelio, and the Missa Solemnis. And then there are some eighty fascinating Lieder.
This charming recital of many rarely-performed songs includes the monumental An die ferne Geliebte cycle, and the six Gellert settings.
Although many of Beethoven's own settings are essentially strophic in nature, his songs mark the first moves towards the 'through-composed' form later perfected by Schubert—the inherent simplicity of the strophic model was far too limited in scope for someone of Beethoven's profound musical intelligence. The supreme effort of producing these songs seems to have come from an elemental desire to express his innermost feelings—there is little surviving evidence of any formal performances of Beethoven's songs during his own lifetime.
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Ludwig van Beethoven was the single most influential figure in the history of Western music. No other composer has ever accelerated the rate of stylistic change and development in quite the same way as the revered Bonn master. With the great works of Mozart and Haydn as his prime musical inheritance, within thirty years he had attained a rarefied level of expression that no composer of the subsequent generation could emulate. It was in the standard forms of instrumental music that Beethoven established himself as supreme: the symphony, concerto, string quartet and piano sonata. He always felt happiest working with expressive non-specifics, wherein the emotion generated arose out of the internal musical drama. He ultimately preferred to speak directly to the individual in absolute terms without being tied to a particular text, no matter how semantically ambivalent it might be.
Beethoven saw music as a world of infinite possibilities largely unencumbered by textual concerns. Yet there were issues about which he felt so strongly that he occasionally chose to express them unambiguously through a sung text. The ideals of a brotherhood of man (Ninth Symphony finale), freedom from tyranny and redemption through love (Fidelio), and God as a benevolent protector (Missa Solemnis) resonate throughout his music. Most pertinent to his own experience was the pain of unrequited or unfulfilled love. Paradoxically, although it was through the ‘art song’ that Beethoven chose to express these feelings textually, it was only in his instrumental music (the famous opening movement of the ‘Moonlight’ Sonata being a prime example) that they realized their full musical potential.
Beethoven was never particularly comfortable working with sung texts. He was reportedly a dreadful singer himself, and was instinctively drawn towards musical ideas and themes of symphonic potential rather than melodies ideal for lyrical expansion. In this vital regard he was the very opposite of Franz Schubert, who often found himself having to tame his natural melodic grace and fecundity, qualities essentially alien to the rigours of sonata form. As Beethoven himself once put it: ‘Whenever I hear music in my inner ear, it is always the full orchestra that I hear. When writing vocal music, I invariably have to ask myself: Can it be sung?’
Yet despite the difficulties involved, Beethoven composed around eighty original lieder, mostly (as is the case in this recital) using German texts, and composed before Schubert had begun to stamp his authority on the medium. In the realm of the lied Beethoven had very little to go on – indeed the idea of whole recitals being dedicated to such material was quite unheard-of in his day. The songs of such worthies as Johann Schulz (1747–1800) and Johann Hiller (1728–1804) were predominantly strophic – that is to say the same music would come round again and again, regardless of the words being sung. The notes provided a lyrical framework upon which to hang the words, rather than a detailed response to the poem’s exact content. It was up to the singer involved to use his or her artistry to inflect the music according to the sung text.
Although many of Beethoven’s own settings are also essentially strophic in nature, the form’s inherent expressive simplicity was far too limited in scope for someone of his profound musical intelligence. He therefore occasionally utilized a ‘through-composed’ form whereby the music would change with the text, sometimes encompassing a variety of styles within the same song. The attempt cost him dear as his sketchbooks clearly show. Even some of his simplest settings cover many pages, causing him the sort of trouble rarely encountered in his other work. In order to help focus his creative imagination, the sketches show that he had to keep writing the text in just to remind himself of the words he was supposed to be setting.
The supreme effort of producing these songs seems to have come from an elemental desire to express his innermost feelings, as there is little surviving evidence of any formal performances of Beethoven’s songs during his own lifetime. This becomes all the more poignant when one considers the baffling unevenness of his efforts when compared to his virtual impregnability in other fields.
Julian Haylock © 1999