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.