Listening to Beethoven #62 – Adelaide Op.46

Friedrich von Matthisson (1794) Portrait by Ferdinand Hartmann

Adelaide Op.46 for voice and piano (1794-5, Beethoven aged 24)

Dedication Friedrich von Matthisson
Text Friedrich von Matthisson
Duration 5’30”


Background and Critical Reception

This substantial setting of a text by Friedrich von Matthisson proved Beethoven’s most adventurous song to date. Commentators see Adelaide (pronounced A-del-eeder) as something of a watershed in his output, both in the prominence of the piano and its unusual, ‘through-composed’ structure.

By ‘through composed’ we mean a song that does not repeat itself in a recognisable way, though the four verses do each end with the beloved’s name. In this way the structure operates in the way a Baroque cantata might. Perhaps Beethoven was mindful of Handel’s vocal works when using this form.

Jan Swafford writes, ‘Beethoven obviously loved the sentimental verses of poet Friedrich von Matthisson. He labored on the setting of Adelaide for more than two years. Matthisson received the dedication and, in 1800, a copy of the song with an admiring and pleading letter from Beethoven: My most ardent wish will be fulfilled if my musical setting of your heavenly Adelaide does not altogether displease you and if, as a result, you should be prompted to write another similar poem…I will then strive to compose a setting of your beautiful poetry’.

Unfortunately the song confused some of his audience, including the poet himself, who found the song insensitive. Julian Haylock, writing in the Hyperion booklet for Stephan Ganz and Roger Vignoles’ recording, says ‘the solo-sonata style Beethoven adopts for the third verse in particular was perceived as overbalancing the text’, and that ‘the dramatic outpourings of the same verse, with its sudden changes of dynamic…were considered more suited to the opera house than the drawing room.’

Swafford speculates that ‘Adelaide might, in fact, have been written as part of Beethoven’s courting of Magdalena Willmann, a beautiful and talented contralto whom he had known in the Bonn Kapelle and who had come to Vienna to sing.’

The exact dates for the completion of the song are unknown, but it was published in 1797.


Something feels different and new about this song, right from the expansive piano introduction, which gives notice of a much bigger structure.

The song itself is a beauty, the most immediate we have yet heard from Beethoven as a songwriter. The dappled piano part flows in thrall to the vocal line, which is by turns lovelorn and optimistic.

For the third verse Beethoven shifts to a new key and outlook, reflecting the evening breezes through the piano and a slight shiver to the vocal line, which takes on a yearning quality as Adelaide’s name reappears.

The last of the four verses makes a decisive shift to the major key, a positive future on the cards as the singer declares Einst, o Wunder! entblüht auf meinem Grabe Eine Blume der Asche meines Herzens (One day, O miracle! there shall bloom on my grave A flower from the ashes of my heart).

Recordings used

Christian Gerhaher (baritone), Gerold Huber (piano) (Sony Classical)
Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (baritone), Jörg Demus (piano) (Deutsche Grammophon)
Stephan Ganz (baritone), Roger Vignoles (piano) (Hyperion)
Matthias Goerne (baritone), Jan Lisiecki (piano) (Deutsche Grammophon)
Fritz Wunderlich (tenor), Hubert Giesen (piano) (Deutsche Grammophon)
Anne Sofie von Otter (mezzo-soprano), Melvyn Tan (fortepiano) (Archiv)

Gerold Huber’s introduction for Christian Gerhaher is of the sort that makes the listener stop and pay attention; it sets the scene of the ‘magical sweet light that shimmers through the swaying boughs’ perfectly. Gerhaher himself is ideal. Similar praise can be directed to Stephan Ganz and Roger Vignoles, beautifully balanced and poised.

There is a recording from tenor Martyn Hill and Christopher Hogwood on the fortepiano that is unfortunately only available as part of a massive L’Oiseau-Lyre box set; happily the fortepiano of Melvyn Tan can be heard prompting Anne Sofie von Otter’s relatively urgent account.

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau is an ardent singer of this particular song, as is Fritz Wunderlich, moving up a few tones to sing in the tenor range.

Spotify links

The following playlist brings together six different versions of Adelaide, from Fritz Wunderlich to Matthias Goerne:

Meanwhile you can listen to a clip from the Stephan Genz & Roger Vignoles version at the Hyperion website

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 1795 Reicha –  Concerto Concertant Op.3

Next up O care selve (first version)

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