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.
from notes by Nicholas Marston © 1997