Listening to Beethoven #88 – Zärtliche Liebe WoO 123

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

Zärtliche Liebe WoO 123 for voice and piano (1795, Beethoven aged 24)

Dedication not known
Text Karl Friedrich Herrosee
Duration 2’20”


Background and Critical Reception

The seemingly uncredited booklet-writer for Beethoven’s complete songs as released on the Capriccio label is unequivocal in their praise for this song for higher voice and piano. They describe it in the company of two others as “masterpieces in the restrained use of musical means, a particular feature applicable to more than merely a few of Beethoven’s songs for voice and piano. This characteristic is not easily incorporated in the prevalent image of Beethoven, but it is nonetheless indispensable if the full scope of Beethoven’s art is to be appreciated.”

Leslie Orrey, writing in The Beethoven Companion, sits firmly on the other side of the fence. “There could hardly be…a much less ardent protestation of love than Ich liebe dich…” which he describes with a number of other songs as “looking over their shoulders to another age, to the artificial Arcadian poetry of nymphs and shepherdesses”.


Less is indeed more where this song is concerned. The singer has the first note, an upbeat to a graceful song that proceeds smoothly and largely without incident. There is room to accommodate both the views above, though my thoughts fall with the ‘restraint saying more’ than the Orrey view that Beethoven’s version of love is completely removed.

The gently undulating piano as the singer grows more ardent helps the restrained approach, but does enhance the emphasis on the words and stepwise melody.

Recordings used and Spotify links

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Jörg Demus (Warner Classics)

Ian Bostridge, Julius Drake (Warner Classics)

Fritz Wunderlich, Hubert Giesen (Deutsche Grammophon)

Fritz Wunderlich is the tenderest of the three male singers chosen here, his smooth line beautifully phrased. Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau sings down a tone and with characteristic strength of feeling. Ian Bostridge has a leaner tone but shapes the phrasing affectionately. All three are convincing advocates of a song dividing opinion.

Also written in 1795 Salieri Palmira

Next up La Partenza (Der Abschied)

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