Listening to Beethoven #74 – Seufzer eines Ungeliebten und Gegenliebe


Gottfried August Bürger

Seufzer eines Ungeliebten und Gegenliebe WoO 118 for voice and piano (1794-5, Beethoven aged 24)

Dedication not known
Text Gottfried August Bürger
Duration 6’30”

Listen

Background and Critical Reception

This is one of Beethoven’s biggest solo vocal works to date, setting a pair of poems by Gottfried August Bürger. The first, Seufzer eines Ungeliebten (Plaint of a Loveless Man), is set out as an operatic recitative, while the second, Gegenliebe (Requited Love) is more of an aria with a broad, flowing profile. Commentators immediately noted the similarity of the melody in the second poem not just to the Choral Fantasy Op.80 but to the Ode to Joy from the Choral Symphony.

Susan Youens, writing for the recording made by Roderick Williams and Iain Burnside for Signum Classics, notes that ‘if the prosody leaves something to be desired, it is nonetheless fascinating that this melodic idea was brewing in Beethoven’s brain literally for decades and that the song’s impulse gave rise to the mighty symphony’.

Amanda Glauert, in The Cambridge Companion to Beethoven, draws a strong parallel with the forthcoming concert aria Ah, Perfido! For her Beethoven ‘chose to adopt an exaggeratedly operatic idiom for his setting of the first poem’, concluding that ‘the gracious triple-meter melodies in E flat into which both song and aria resolve are so similar in contour that one can sense how Beethoven must have borrowed the style from his teacher (Salieri) or other Italianate models. In Gegenliebe, ‘the awkward text setting…when heard in context…becomes the natural consequence of the voice being pushed forwards by the piano’s rhythmic intensity.’

Meanwhile in The Beethoven Companion, Leslie Orrey finds the piano writing ‘suggests a transcription of an orchestral score.’

Thoughts

Just as his studies with Albrechtsberger have been blooming, so Beethoven’s education with Salieri appears to be bearing bigger and greater fruit. The songs we are hearing now are more substantial and adventurous, and this two-parter is one borne of the stage rather than the recital room.

From the first notes it is clear this is substantial and meaningful vocal work for Beethoven. There is an immediate sense of drama, maybe exaggerated a bit but ideally suited to the male singer. Tension surrounds the music from the off, but is resolved beautifully into the Requited Love, where we first hear the memorable theme. Its similarity to the Ode To Joy is uncanny, and as Susan Youens says it must have meant a lot to the composer, a melody whose profile stayed at the front of his thoughts for decades.

Once heard it is the tune that dominates, and the aria finishes in a resilient and triumphant mood.

Recordings used

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

Peter Schreier (tenor), Walter Olbertz (piano)

Anne Sofie von Otter (mezzo-soprano), Melvyn Tan (fortepiano) (Archiv)

An imperious performance from the great baritone Fischer-Dieskau, with a dramatic introduction and ideal phrasing on the big tune. Hermann Prey and Leonard Hokanson are even more expansive, clocking in at nearly seven minutes. Peter Schreier moves the music up in pitch (in C minor rather than B flat minor) but his version also carries a sense of occasion. Anne Sofie von Otter does too, though not quite as full bodied in tone. Melvyn Tan’s fortepiano provides ideal support.

Spotify links

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Jörg Demus

Hermann Prey, Leonard Hokanson

Peter Schreier & Werner Olbertz

Anne Sofie von Otter, Melvyn Tan

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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