Listening to Beethoven #41 – 8 Lieder Op.52


Peanuts comic strip, drawn by Charles M. Schulz (c)PNTS

8 Lieder Op.52 for voice and piano (1790-92, Beethoven aged 21)

Urians Reise um die Welt (poet: Matthias Claudius)
Feuerfarb’ (Sophie Moreau)
Das Liedchen von der Ruhe (Hermann Wilhelm Franz Ueltzen)
Mailied (Johann Wolfgang von Goethe)
Mollys Abschied (Gottfried August Bürger)
Lied (Gotthold Ephraim Lessing)
Marmotte (Johann Wolfgang von Goethe)
Das Blümchen Wunderhold. (Gottfried August Bürger)

Dedication not known
Text as above
Duration 15’30”

Listen

Background and Critical Reception

Beethoven’s Op.52 is effectively an anthology of eight songs thought to have been written before he left Bonn for Vienna, with no exact dates of composition. They set six poets in all, and in publication at least are arranged in a logical sequence. That they are rarely performed in that sequence, or in a complete state, says much for the chequered reputation Beethoven’s songs continue to receive.

It has always been the case. To say these songs divided opinion early in their existence is to put it mildly – and as the (uncredited) booklet note for the complete songs as released by Capriccio notes, ‘the echo they met with in the musical criticism of the time is typical of the way the majority of Beethoven’s songs have been received critically up to the present day’. The example quoted is the Popular Music Newspaper in Leipzig, whose verdict in 1805 ran…’these eight songs. Is that possible? Comprehend it who can, that such thoroughly common, impoverished, dull and in parts even risible works can not only be produced by such a man, but also be presented to the public! Only the first of these songs (Urian’s Journey), as a result of the touch of the comic, and the seventh (Marmotte) as a result of a national element, which however, can be learned from any young marmot, are tolerable’.

In reality it is very unlikely the eight songs would be performed together from start to finish – performers would tend to take a song or two as part of a section of the concert dedicated to Beethoven songs. The songs vary greatly in character however. Urians Reise has 14 stanzas for its journey around the world, concluding in its various sufferings, and with a wry smile, that people are the same everywhere.

Mailied and Marmotte represent Beethoven’s first settings of a certain Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the former complemented by Susan Dunn as ‘wonderful, a variation on the antique genret of the spring song’. Mollys Abschied and Das Blümchen Wunderhold set the verses of Gottfried August Bürger, the first a ballade on the tragic death of the poet’s sister-in-law, who died in childbirth a year after they were married, and the second ‘the epitome of the folk-like Lied’.

Feuerfarb’ is an unconventional poem from Sophie Moreau, while Das Liedchen von der Ruhe speaks of a forced parting which for Dunn ‘elicited a gently lovely song’ from the composer. Lied, from the pen of Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, would surely have chimed with Beethoven’s desire for a wife.

Thoughts

Once again, listening to Beethoven’s songs is a revealing exercise, and there is much in this set to note. Urians Reise is a long tale with a comedic twist – po-faced but also alternating between minor and major key in a rather more blatant manner than Schubert would eventually write. The many verses are dressed with a stentorian refrain. “There’s a thing! Well done, old chum, Er, what’s yer name, go on go on…”

Feuerfarb’ is softer, with flowing piano and a more sensitive line, and here a major-minor clash appears briefly but tellingly in the piano line. Das Liedchen von der Ruhe (A Reflection on Peace) depicts a tired, suffering man searching for the kind of rest he cannot have – with Elise – but still it looks anyway, dwelling on the thought of eternal rest and crossing into paradise.

Mailied, the first setting of Goethe, tells a first-hand account of an affair. It is bright, springlike and quite wordy, with a piano part chirping like the birds. Mollys Abschied also has a brighter tone but is a pained song, given as a farewell to ‘my man of joy and pain’. The piano is quite florid between verses – and there is definitely a sense that the piano is starting to contribute more to Beethoven’s songs, acting not just as an accompaniment but offering more comments on the text. This song is short but rather touching – and La Marmotte (Goethe again) is a quick and pictorial tale. Finally Das Blümchen Wunderhold is a song about the Wondrouswort flower, ‘more valuable than any jewel’ and with powers ‘no elixir on earth can match’. The music doesn’t perhaps reach those heights but still tells the story.

Recordings used

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (baritone), Jörg Demus (piano) (Deutsche Grammophon)
Hermann Prey (baritone), Leonard Hokanson (piano) (Capriccio)

Fischer-Dieskau is imperious in these songs, commanding in Urians Reise and larger than life in La Marmotte, which is cut to a tiny version but really nicely weighted in Die Liebe. Hermann Prey and Leonard Hokanson, meanwhile, employ a unison choir to sing the choruses in the lengthier Urians Reise, an effective tactic especially when alternating between men’s and women’s voices.

Spotify links

A playlist of three different versions of the 8 Songs can be found here:

Also written in 1792 Haydn Symphony no.97 in C major

Next up 12 Variations on ‘Se vuol ballare’ Woo40

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.