Beethoven Lieder: A Voice from the Soul

Venue: Theatre, Hong Kong City Hall
Date: 13 February, 2015 (Friday) 8PM

Beethoven Lieder: A Voice from the Soul

When it comes to Beethoven’s lieder, the towering giant of symphonies, piano sonatas and chamber music suddenly became diminished into a distant figure on the horizon: barely visible afloat the sea of the art songs by Schubert, Schumann, Liszt, and Richard Strauss; easily falling into obscurity save for his first, and in fact, the first ever published song cycle in the history of the German Lied, An die ferne Geliebte (To the distant beloved).

Poor Beethoven occupies an awkward position among composers of the Lied indeed, and such an awkward impression is often reinforced by his own outspoken reservations regarding song writing. The composer’s remark has been quoted to the point of becoming an overstatement. Beethoven was believed to have once said, “When sounds stir within me, I always hear the full orchestra; I know what to expect of instrumentalists, who are capable of almost everything, but with vocal compositions I must always be asking myself: can this be sung?” The self-imposed doubt is unfortunately reinforced both by Goethe’s expressed preference of other’s composer’s setting of Kennst du Das Land? over Beethoven’s, as well as lukewarm reviews of the latter’s songs in the German musical magazines.

However, listening to the magnificent and timeless Ode to Joy from the Ninth Symphony, Missa Solemnis, Fidelio, not to mention the many “cantabile” slow movements from Beethoven’s oeuvre, the composer’s talent in writing for the voice is far from mediocre. One cannot help but wonder – was the reticence circumstantial, or, a matter of will or temperament?

If Beethoven was indeed shying away from the voice, the considerable number of over 80 songs, in addition to the 150 arrangements of Scottish folk songs, would serve as a telling refutation. According to biographer Maynard Solomon, Beethoven started composing songs when he was a student of Christian Gottlob Neefe and his first song dated back to 1783, when he was a mere thirteen year-old. Most of the extant songs were written between the years of 1792 and 1817. It is perhaps worth noting that the majority of Beethoven’s songs which are still to be heard in performance today were written between the years of 1796 and 1811, the year of Schubert’s first extant song. Beethoven’s venture in the vocal genre was almost minimal as his hearing deteriorates and the “voice” grew faint after he had retired from the public concert scene in 1815. In hindsight, An die ferne Geliebte was almost a valedictory effort, a miraculous rebound before the last song was penned in 1823, four years before the composer’s death.

Viewing Beethoven’s Lieder alongside with those by his compatriots and successors, it is not difficult to see the reason of dismissal: Beethoven’s songs lacked the varnish of extra-musical suggestions. Unlike the songs of Schubert and Schumann, unrequited love was not clothed in velvety metaphors in Beethoven’s hands; while there might be occasional reference to eroticism and yearning, the ideas were not as transparently or extravagantly expressed as Schubert, Liszt, or even Richard Strauss would have done. In fact, Beethoven’s song lacked the biographical references which feed to the imagination of the listeners, which was evident to varying degrees in the songs of other Romantic composers. The six Gellert songs were completed the same year as the ominous Heiligenstadt Testament of 1802. However, the subject of death was only depicted as a passing thought in the collection. The single and yet largely conjectural example of a self-portrait was to be found in An die ferne Geliebte, produced four years after Beethoven’s enigmatic reference to the “Immortal Beloved” in his letter from 1812.

Whatever was lacking in his Lieder, Beethoven compensated by proving himself to be a bold and versatile pioneer, as he had done in other genres. While the majority of Beethoven’s songs were intended for private performances of the drawing room, he also wrote public songs for the state of Vienna. The scope of his songs covers a diversity of topics and styles, ranging from religious to erotic; from farcically comic to somberly philosophical. As Julian Haylock has pointed out, “although many of Beethoven’s own settings are essentially strophic in nature, his songs mark the first moves towards the ‘through-composed’ (durchkomponiert) 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.” Hence, Beethoven was well aware of the conventional expectations of his time. Susan Youen explains that Beethoven contributed to both the Lieder, “a category designated the stylistically simpler, shorter, often strophic song” and the Gesänge, which refers to the “longer, richer, more complex songs in forms other than strophic and often with airs and graces borrowed from the operatic realm.”

Perhaps the deprecating remark by the composer himself was not to be taken literally. Beethoven had ample vocabulary and genius to channel his creativity into songs, yet he would rather choose his words with great care and always striving for the perfect equilibrium between text, voice and piano. Seen in this light, Beethoven’s Lieder give us a rare glimpse into the soul of the composer. They represent, indeed, the unique voice of a laconic soul.


6 Gesänge (Six Songs), op. 48 (Gellert)
1. Bitten (Supplication)
2. Die Liebe des Nachsten (Love Thy Neighbour)
3. Vom Tode (On Death)
4. Die Ehre Gottes aus der Natur (The Glory of God in Nature)
5. Gottes Macht (God is my Song)
6. Busslied (Penitence)
Alan Tsang, baritone
Jaclyn Chiu, piano

Sometime before March 1802, Beethoven turned to the Geistliche Oden und Lieder (Spiritual Odes and Songs) published in 1757 by Christian Fürchtegott Gellert, Professor of Poetry and Rhetoric in Leipzig. These poems combining religiosity with Enlightenment rationalism were enormously popular with late eighteenth century composers. So remarkable was its impact at the time that it was set in its entirety by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach the following year. Nevertheless, Beethoven was perhaps less concerned with the piousness of the church than with personal declaration of belief in his choice of these miniature sermon-songs. In fact, the songs were probably Beethoven attempt to find spiritual peace in face of his loss of hearing, which had led the composer to produce the “Heiligenstadt Testament” in October later that year.

The six songs were first published in August 1803. Recent research reveals Beethoven had experimented various ordering prior to publishing these songs, and the current sequence of text and tonal relationships suggest that the composer had intended these songs to be performed as a whole. In fact, such considerations seem to hint at the idea of creating a coherent song-cycle on a common theme, almost a decade ahead of the unprecedented An die ferne Geliebt, op. 98.

Bitten is a modest prayer. The syllabic setting evokes a sense of piety and solemnity. The acclamation of God as “my fortress, my rock, my treasure” and the plea “to hear my supplication” is set as a single persistent, pleading pitch. The distance between God and the entreating supplicant is suggested by a gradual descending bass line in the piano part.

Die Liebe des Nächsten is a sermon on the importance of being earnest. The recitative introduction warns and mocks hypocricy. The mention that ‘Gott ist die Lieb’ (God is love) is supported by a gently flowing counterpoint that becomes a recurring feature in piano interlude and postlude.

The foreboding text of Vom Tode is a reminder of mortality. The song is laced with chromaticism and dissonance not found in the other Gellert songs. This hollow sonority and a tolling death-knell in the low bass at the end would make anyone think death-haunted thoughts.

Die Ehre Gottes aus der Natur begins on a triumphal note in C major, which befits the panegyric nature of the text. The hushed rapture and pulsing, repeated chromatic chords marks a miraculous moment when the numberless stars of the cosmos are invoked.

Gottes Macht is the briefest and most emotionally straightforward among the six songs. It begins as a fiery proclamation of God’s strength. Although the musical strophe lasts only 18 measure, there are fifteen verses of text to which we can hear it repeated, or from which performers can select.

Beethoven concludes the set with Busslied, a prayer which mirrors the first song of the set. This is the only through-composed number of the set with six stanzas. The first three verses are sincere pleading of the penitent, expressed in lyrical phrases, the last three stanzas marks a shift in tone. Here the penitent envisions being embraced by God. The change is invoked not only by a change in tempo (from poco adagio to allegro ma non troppo), but also a shift of key and an obbligato figure which increases in strength towards the end. In this sense, the six Gellert songs pays homage to the sacred vocal works of J.S. Bach and Mozart. At the same time, they foreshadow the magnificent solo recitative and aria found in the finale of the Ninth Symphony.

6 Gesänge (Six Songs), op. 75
1. Kennst du das Land (Do you know the country)
2. Neue Liebe, neues Leben (New love, new life)
3. Aus Goethes Faust (Flea Song)
4. Gretels Warnung (Gretel’s warning)
5. An den fernen Geliebte (To the distant beloved)
6. Der Zufriedene (The contented man)
Yuki Ip, soprano
Natalia Tokar, piano

The six songs of op. 75 were published in 1810, but Beethoven has started composing them as early as 1792.

Kennst du das Land is taken from Goethe’s novel Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre (Wilhelm Meister’s Years of Apprenticeship). Mignon is kidnapped from her native Italy in her childhood. She is later rescued from her harsh life in an acrobatic troupe by the title character Wilhelm Meister and falls in love with him. At the beginning of Book 3 of Goethe’s novel, Mignon sings Kennst du das Land with “a certain solemn grandeur, as if . . . she were imparting something of importance.” Each verse begins in a stately duple metre, as Mignon recalls scenes from her native Italy. At the end of each stanza, as Mignon appeal to her “Beloved, Protector, Father” (i.e. Wilhelm)
to bring her back home, Beethoven sets the refrain “Dahin, dahin!” in fast 6/8 meter, thus emphasizing the surge of sudden passion that animates each of Mignon’s appeals to Wilhelm. While Goethe expressed his preference of Zelter’s setting over Beethoven’s, the latter had come to inspire Schubert, Schumann, Liszt and Hugo Wolf.

The words of Neue Liebe, neues Leben were born of Goethe’s brief betrothal for some months in 1775 to Anne Elisabeth Schönemann (1758-1817). Goethe’s poem describes a man in whom new life has been awakened by new love. Beethoven sketched it in 1792, completed it in 1799, and printed it in 1808. He later revised it for publication as part of Op. 75.

Perhaps the most overtly playful of all Beethoven’s songs, “Song of the Flea,” (Aus Goethes Faust) originates from the scene in Auerbach’s tavern in the second part of Faust, sung by Mephistopheles. The insect’s darting movements are brilliantly suggested by the registral hopping of the piano part, and the grace-notes vividly evoke the ticking and itching of the poor victims. The last verse winds up the mounting hysteria with a series of excited scratches, culminating in the squashing of the flea right at the end.

Gretels Warnung is a strophic song set to a poem by Gustav Adolph von Halem. It belongs to a sub-category of eighteenth and nineteenth century poetry, in which a young woman who has been seduced and abandoned, warns the reader against a similar fate. Goethe’s “Die Spinnerin”, set to music by Schubert, is another poignant example.

The words for An den fernen Geliebten came from the first edition in 1809 of Christian Ludwig Reissig’s anthology. Distant beloveds were a sad obsession of the composer. The incessant repetitions in this tiny strophic song convey something essential about the nature of grief, whose sufferers can think of nothing else but mourn their fate over and over again.

The concluding song, Der Zufriedene, also by Reissig, dismisses all sense of gloom. It tells the contentment of a carefree living, in the company of good friends, women and wine. The text was also set by Schubert in 1815.

An die ferne Geliebte, op. 98
1. Auf dem Hugel sitz ich, spahend (I sit alone in the hills)
2. Wo die Berge so blau (Where the mountains so blue)
3. Leichte Segler in den (Light clouds drifting on high)
4. Diese Wolken in den Hohen (These clouds in the heights)
5. Es kehret der Maien, es bluhet die Au (May returns, the meadow blooms)
6. Nimm sie hin denn, diese Lieder (Take these songs)
Isaac Droscha, baritone
Natalia Tokar, piano

The theme of an unattainable love affair looms large in Beethoven’s Lieder long before An die ferne Geliebte (To the Distant Beloved), his first and only song cycle. A number of the composer’s earlier songs also deal with the theme of separation and the desire for reunion. The most iconic of all would be song cycle, An die ferne Geliebte. The first published edition refers to it as a “Liederkreis” (song cycle). For the second edition, the words ‘set to music with accompaniment by pianoforte’ on the title page were replaced by ‘for voice and piano’, suggesting the unusual degree of parity between the two musical forces.

While the title hints at association with Beethoven’s unidentified “Immortal Beloved”, the identity of this woman was never established with certainty. Nevertheless, the most likely candidate is Antonie Brentano, who was living with her husband in Frankfurt, at the time of the song cycle’s genesis. The text is based on poems by Alois Jeitteles, who was a doctor by profession, not a poet.

All six poems convey the feelings of unrequited love through nature, and each is connected to the subsequent song without a break. The strophic setting of the first song depicts the lover sitting alone among the hills, missing his beloved and becoming increasingly agitated as he pines for her. His gaze then trails to the mountains in the second song. The change of key creates a lulling, pensive atmosphere at first. However, the music becomes more intense as the lover expresses his ardent wish to be by the side of his beloved. In the next two songs, the lover fervently begs the clouds, the brook and the breeze to convey his longing to her. Turning his eyes once again to the clouds, the lover recalls the breeze gently caressing his beloved’s cheeks and breasts. All the fond remembrances and wishful thinking builds up to the dream of reunion, only to be shattered at the end of the fifth song. The lover finally resigned to reunite with his beloved through the song they both knew and shared.

An die ferne Geliebte is genuinely cyclical, with the melody of the first song returning in the same key in the last and the final phrase before the closing chord identical to the opening one. The songs blend into one another seamlessly, both melodically and rhythmically, through transitional passages on piano, or in the case of the third and fourth songs in the elided vocal line. Beethoven’s innovative cycle achieves an unparalleled through-composed unity which had an enormous influence on the next generation of art song composers, particularly Schumann.

Der Kuss, op. 128
Isaac Droscha, baritone
Natalia Tokar, piano

Der Kuss (The Kiss) is a little through-composed pastoral-erotic scene sketched in 1798 It was published toward the end of Beethoven’s life along with some lighter piano pieces. The text comes from Christian Felix Weisse’s Scherzhaften Liedern (Jesting Songs) of 1758, reprinted as Kleine lyrische Gedichte (Little Lyrical Poems) in 1772.

Here, the eponymous Chloe seems to resist the persona’s advances by threatening to scream. Nevertheless, the exaggerated repetitions of “lange, lange” at the end reveal much more than a kiss was won from Chloe.

Sehnsucht, WoO 134
Sehnsucht op. 83 no.2
Was zieht mir dasHerz so? (Who tugs at my heartstring?)
Melody Sze, mezzo-soprano
Natalia Tokar, piano

Sehnsucht, (Yearning) is one of the most famous poems in world literature from Goethe’s Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre. It appears at the end of Book 4. The text, consisting of two stanzas, has since appealed to Schubert, Schumann, Hugo Wolf and Tchaikovsky

In the four settings of WoO134, the vocal lines are equally simple, within the range of a tenth. Nevertheless, each conveys a slightly different nuance. Beethoven was experimenting with different tempi and meters for Goethe’s rhythmically complex words. Perhaps instead of viewing the four settings as separate works, it is also possible to see it fashioned after a solo sonata in four movements: the change of keys in the third version and the departure from strophic setting in the concluding version reveal a sense of progression and recapitulation at the same time. While tied together by the same text, the idea of yearning undergoes a subtle discourse in Beethoven’s hands.

Yet, Goethe had written more than one poem with the same title. The eponymous poem, otherwise known as Was zieht mir das Herz (What pulls my heartstrings), consist of five stanzas. It became the second of the three songs of Op. 83, which were also Beethoven’s last foray into Goethe songs. The songs were published in 1811 with a dedication to Antonie Brentano. The opening phrase of this setting, drawn upwards by ever-increasing melodic leaps, figuratively suggests the anguish caused by yearning. Here, in the first four verses, the sense of restlessness and melancholy are transformed into elation in the last, in which the lovers are finally united. The text was later also set by Schubert and Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel.

Ich liebe dich so wie du mich (I love you as you love me), WoO. 123
Melody Sze, mezzo-soprano
Natalia Tokar, piano

Zärtliche Liebe (Tender Love), or more commonly known as Ich liebe dich (I Love You) was written in 1795 and first published in 1803. It was set to a poem by Karl Friedrich Wilhelm Herrosee (1754–1821), a German pastor and writer. Despite its brevity of a mere forty bars , it exemplifies Beethoven’s gift in creating music with unaffected simplicity and sincerity. The setting also anticipates the most lyrical songs of Schubert.

Elegie aufden Tod eines Pudels (Elegy on the Death of a Poodle), WoO. 110
Melody Sze, mezzo-soprano
Natalia Tokar, piano

Elegie auf den Tod eines Pudels (Elegy for the dead Poodle) is a tongue-in-cheek number from Beethoven’s Bonn-era songs (c. 1787). The first two verses are through-composed, which in itself is unusual because most of Beethoven’s songs before 1800 were strophic. As the narrator reflects on the death of his pet, and on death’s destruction of all earthly pleasures, the tempo remains slow, the piano accompaniment is pensive, and the atmosphere is tainted with minor harmonies. An abrupt change in mood leads into the second half of the song, the narrator relates that his dog’s death “will not sadden [him] too much,” for he realizes that “no earthly joy remains unwept for long.” Furthermore, the dog lives on in the master’s heart and brings him happy memories.

Adelaide, op. 46
Chen Yong, Tenor
Jaclyn Chiu, piano

Adelaide is a poem in by Friedrich Matthisson, first published in 1790. Beethoven set the text in 1795-1796, and it has remained one of the composer’s best loved songs. Prior to creating Adelaide, Beethoven had set three other poems by Matthisson.

The young composer was certainly a humble admirer of the poet. It was not until four years after the song had been written and three years after it had been published that Beethoven wrote to Matthison a very modest letter. Pray regard this dedication as a token of the pleasure which your Adelaide conferred on me, as well as of the appreciation and intense delight your poetry always has inspired, and always will inspire in me.” Beethoven was apparently very pleased with this song. Indeed, he made his last public appearance as a pianist accompanying it at a concert in 1815.

In Adelaide, the beloved’s name forms a refrain at the end of each of the four stanzas. Beethoven treated the text almost like an instrumental sonata with an exposition (first two stanzas); a more animated and harmonically wandering development (third stanza); and an expansive, almost operatic recapitulation and coda in a faster tempo.

An die Hoffnung, op. 94
Chen Yong, Tenor
Jaclyn Chiu, piano

Beethoven’s first musical version of the song An die Hoffnung (To Hope) op. 32 was written around March 1805. He used a text from Urania by Christoph August Tiedge a lyric and didactic poem taken from the second reviewed edition from 1803. It was believed to be a token of love for the Countess Josephine von Brunsvik. However, by summer that year, the Countess had rebuffed Beethoven as a suitor and the composer removed her name from the dedication.

When Tiedge produced a new edition of the anthology in 1808, the poet had appended five additional lines to An die Hoffnung. Beethoven thus created a second, thoroughly reconceived setting of the text and published it as opus 94 in April 1816. Beethoven asks Tobias Haslinger, an employee at the publishers S. A. Steiner, to immediately organize the dedication copy of op. 94 for Princess Maria Charlotte Kinsky.

In comparison, Op 94 is more sophisticated, with a structure which resembles an operatic recitative and aria. The introduction is wrought with dissonance, as searching vainly for the answer to the opening questions “Is there a God? Will he ever fulfill the longing expressed in tears?” After recitative like resolution to banish all doubts and remain hopeful, the music proceeds to the aria proper. The music constantly changes to adapt to the meaning and imagery of the text in the subsequent stanzas. After a climatic outburst of optimism in the fourth stanza, the second stanza is sung again softly, the final whispering of the word of hope serves as a reassurance and parting reminder at the same time.

Mailied, op.52 no.4
Marmotte, op.52, no.7
Carol Lin, mezzo-soprano
Alexander Wong, piano

The Eight Songs, op. 52, composed in 1795, are strophic settings of texts by various poets. Both Mailied and Marmotte are set to the text of Goethe.

Mailied (May Song) was inspired by Goethe’s love for Friederike Brion, a pastor’s daughter in the Alsatian village of Sesenheim. He met her in October 1770 and wrote some of his most memorable love poetry during the first ten months of the affair. The poem is a variation on the antique genre of the spring song in order to celebrate the blooming of Nature and love. With its playful piano interludes between verses, it sounds like a precursor to the more light-hearted moments in Schubert’s Die schöne Müllerin.

Marmotte (The Marmot) comes from Goethe’s 1773 comic play Das JahrmarktsFest zu Plundersweilern (Fufair to Plundersweilern), which he later revised in 1778. Here, a young beggar-lad sings a simple song about his “marmotte”, a ground squirrel that sometimes accompanied hurdy-gurdy players and other such itinerant musicians. The modal melody clearly evokes the archaic images of the minstrel and his company.

Four Ariettas and a Duet, op. 82
1. Dimmi, ben mio, che m’ami (A lover’s wish)
2. T’intendo si, mio cor (A lover’s sigh)
3. L’amante impaziente (The impatient lover: comic version)
4. L’amunte impaziente (The impatient over: serious version)
5. Duet: Odi l’aura che dolce sospira (Love’s sweetness and pain)
Carol Lin, mezzo-soprano
Alexander Wong, piano

The Four Ariettas and a Duet, op.82 were first published in London and Leipzig in 1811. Three of the texts, with the exception of “Dimmi, ben mio, che m’ami” come from the works of the revered librettist Pietro Metastasio (the pseudonym of Pietro Antonio Domenico Trapassi), whose texts were set to music by Handel, Mozart, and a host of other composers. Both Beethoven and Schubert would study composition for a time with Antonio Salieri, and both would set Metastasio to music under his tutelage.

“Dimmi, ben mio, che m’ami” is this lover’s ardent plea for proof of love. The reference to the beloved’s smile is highlighted with florid writing for both the voice and the piano. The short aria harkens back to unmistakable influence of Mozart.

“T’intendo, sì, mio cor” comes from Metastasio’s cantata, Amor timido, set to music by Antonio Vivaldi. Beethoven devises a stylized figure in the piano that is evocative of the palpitating heart, which the singer is trying to conceal and suppress in vain.

The third and fourth songs are actually settings of the same text by Metastasio, “L’amante impaziente” from act 2, scene 6 of his dramma per musica, Adriano in Siria. The two versions portray an amusing vignette of two lovers, each waiting impatiently to hear from the other. The comic version vividly depicts the impatient lover pacing back and forth as he waits for his beloved, The serious version alternates between slow and fast tempi, as if to poke fun of the lover torn between feelings of doubts and irritation..

The set ends with the duet, “Odi l’aura che dolce sospira” from the azione teatrale, La pace fra la virtù e la bellezza (theatrical action: The Peace brtween Virtue and Beauty) of 1738. Here, Beethoven exquisitely depicts the rustling breezes and roaring waves in the piano. Against this backdrop, the singers echo one another of the delight and sorrow brought by love.

Programme notes provided by Jennifer To.


Programme Note

Please refer to the notes embedded in “Programme”.