The Essential Hyperion 2
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Movement 1: Todt, stöhnt es durch die öde Nacht!
Janice Watson (soprano), Jean Rigby (contralto), John Mark Ainsley (tenor), José Van Dam (bass), Corydon Singers, Corydon Orchestra, Matthew Best (conductor)
Movement 2: Ein Ungeheuer, sein Name Fanatismus
Movement 3: Da kam Joseph, mit Gottes Stärke
Movement 4: Da stiegen die Menschen an's Licht
Movement 5: Er schläft von den Sorgen seiner Welten entladen
Movement 6: Hier schlummert seinen stillen Frieden
Movement 7: Todt, stöhnt es durch die öde Nacht!
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 an 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!’
from notes by Nicholas Marston © 1997