Joseph II (right) with his brother Peter Leopold, then Grand Duke of Tuscany, later Emperor Leopold II Painting by Pompeo Batoni, 1769, Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum
Cantata on the death of Emperor Joseph II WoO87 for soloists, choir and orchestra (1790, Beethoven aged 19)
Dedication Emperor Joseph II
Background and Critical Reception
Emperor Joseph II reformed Vienna in his decade in power, but in that time between 1780 and 1790 Bonn was very much under his dominion. Beethoven had visited Vienna briefly, but had to return to Bonn early due to his mother’s fatal illness. However because Joseph II’s brother was Maximilian Franz, Elector of Cologne, Beethoven was closer than many through his musical links.
On the Emperor’s death Beethoven was commissioned to set a text by Severin Anton Averdonk in commemoration, yet the resulting cantata was never to be performed in his lifetime. A planned performance in 1791 did not take place, seemingly due to the complexity of the music and the time (two and a half weeks) available to write and rehearse it. That Beethoven finished it was impressive enough, but once the moment had passed it would have been difficult to secure further performances.
The works remained unknown until the 1880s – when we have, as Lockwood describes, ‘an astonished letter of praise from Brahms, who said of the Joseph cantata, “It is Beethoven through and through”. He was later impressed by its “noble pathos…its feeling and imagination, the intensity, perhaps violent in its expression”.
Jan Swafford suggests Beethoven would not have been too disappointed at this, and points to several unusual qualities about the piece. It is a funeral cantata that ‘does not mention God until the third number, and then only in passing; only toward the end does it give lip service to paradise and immortality. In this cantata death is nothing but tragic, and Joseph’s main immortality is his legacy on earth, not his bliss in heaven.
Beethoven writers are united in their view of the Cantata’s important. Lewis Lockwood sees both this cantata and its successor, the Cantata for the Accession of Leopold II, as ‘the capstones of the Bonn years’. Swafford notes how Beethoven pulls out all the stops in his efforts to impress. ‘If he pulled too many, that is a sign of his youth, but already the expression is powerful, the handling of the orchestra effective and expressive the voice unmistakably his own. As a sign of that dynamism, he mined ideas from this cantata again and again in later years’.
The Joseph cantata anticipates important elements in Leonore of 1805, the first version of Beethoven’s opera Fidelio. While discussing this, Swafford praises how ‘he could also resurrect a beautifully sculpted melody that perfectly fitted both cantata and opera’.
This is a very different Beethoven. His response to setting the solemn text proclaiming Joseph’s death is so profound it is tempting to assume he is channeling his own experiences of bereavement into the score.
We hear Beethoven’s first orchestral ventures in the very solemn opening pages, a hushed introduction that calls to mind the desolation of Haydn’s representation of chaos from his oratorio The Creation. The chorus gives an equally weighty account of grief, reacting as it is to the text proclaiming and repeating ‘Joseph the great is dead’. In response to this sombre beginning Beethoven writes music of impressive heft for the soprano, then the bass voice sings triumphantly of Joseph’s triumph in ‘defeating the monster’. The orchestra gets caught up in the excitement, while the pacing of solo vocal flourishes (recitatives) and general momentum feels slightly in thrall to Handel.
The soprano brings warmth with an aria Da stiegen die Menschen an’s Licht (Then mankind climbed into the light), which is a thoughtful and ultimately radiant aria with choral backing. Another soprano aria, Hier schlummert seinen stillen Frieden (Here slumbers in his quiet peace the great sufferer), feels like the emotional centre of the piece, a really substantial slow movement that leads up to a restatement of the opening choral passages. Here the tragedy of death takes root once again, the desolation complete – and all in Beethoven’s now-familiar ‘tragic’ key of C minor.
The Cantata on the death of Emperor Joseph II feels like the most substantial Beethoven piece to date by some distance, and the most openly emotional too. With it Beethoven joins his idols Haydn and Mozart in the ability to write for large forces without ever appearing daunted by the prospect. Ultimately it feels like a fitting memorial to his mother, whether that was intended or not.
Charlotte Margiono (soprano), Veronica Verebely (soprano), William Shimell (bass), Ulrike Helzel (contralto), Clemens Bieber (tenor), Chorus and Orchester der Deutschen Oper Berlin / Christian Thielemann (DG)
Janice Watson (soprano), Jean Rigby (contralto), John Mark Ainsley (tenor), José Van Dam (bass), Corydon Singers and Orchestra / Matthew Best (Hyperion)
Juha Kotilainen (bass), Reetta Haavisto (soprano), Chorus Cathedralis Aboensis, Turku Philharmonic Orchestra / Leif Segerstam (Naxos)
Recordings of the cantata were thin on the ground until 1996, when Matthew Best and the Corydon Singers and Orchestra made a landmark release for Hyperion. Best’s use of a harpsichord in the ‘continuo’ role dates the piece, heightening its progression from the music of Gluck, Haydn and Mozart. He does much to inhabit the drama and is helped by excellent soloists, soprano Janice Watson hitting superlative heights and José van Dam giving a sonorous contribution as bass. The chorus are also excellent.
Christian Thielemann followed soon after for DG’s complete Beethoven edition of 1997, and his account is used on their big box this year. It is superbly paced and appropriately weighty, a little sleek in places but really getting to the tragic nub of the work. He achieves a hushed intensity from the start, and never lets up – with Charlotte Margiono imperious as soprano soloist.
A recent version from Leif Segerstram for Naxos offers stiff competition, a dramatic interpretation with excellent soloists in Reetta Haavisto and Juha Kotilainen.
You can chart the Arcana Beethoven playlist as it grows, with one recommended version of each piece we listen to. Catch up here!
Also written in 1789 Haydn String Quartets Op.64 nos.1-3
Next up Elegie auf den Tod eines Pudels (Elegy on the death of a poodle)