Listening to Beethoven #197 – Polyphonic Italian Songs WoO 99

Portrait of Antonio Salieri by Joseph Willibrord Mähler, 1815 Polyphonic Italian Songs for largely unaccompanied voices (1801-1803, Beethoven aged 32) 1. Bei labbri che amore (duet) 2. Ma tu tremi, o mio tesoro (trio) 3. E pur fra le tempeste (solo) 4. Sei mio ben (duet) 5. Giura il nocchier: trio (5a), quartet (5b), quartet (5c) 6. Ah rammenta (duet) 7. Chi mai di questo core (trio) 8. Scrivo in te (duet) 9. Per te d’amico aprile (trio) 10. Nei campi e nelle selve: quartet (10a), quartet (10b) 11. Fra tutte le pene: duet (11a), trio (11b), quartet (11c) 12. Salvo tu vuoi lo sposo: solo (12a), duet (12b) 13. Quella cetra ah pur tu sei: trio (13a), quartet (13b), quartet (13c) 14. Già la notte s’avvicina: trio (14a), quartet (14b) 15. Silvio amante disperato (quartet) Dedication not known Duration most songs between 1′ and 1’30” Listen Background and Critical Reception This collection of Italian songs provides us with a fascinating insight into Beethoven’s studies with Antonio Salieri, while also closing this particular chapter in his career. All the settings are of texts by Pietro Metastasio, whose poetry Beethoven was already familiar with. Keith Anderson writes for Naxos that the exercises provide a substantial collection of songs in varied form, in many cases offering Beethoven’s original version, followed by Salieri’s corrected version. They have been brought together under the number WoO 99, with a series of numbering from Beethoven compiler Willy Hess for each item. These settings offer varied insights into Salieri’s teaching methods and Beethoven’s achievements in these years. The unaccompanied Italian settings were written during Beethoven’s early days in Vienna, generally between 1793 and 1797 and those with accompaniment up to 1802. The listings and earlier complete recordings are discussed in full by Mark S. Zimmer in The Unheard Beethoven. Jan Swafford gives valuable insight into Beethoven’s manner as a student. “As with his counterpoint masters, in his dealings with Salieri Beethoven was a wilful student even as he dutifully set his assigned old-fashioned Italian texts in a suitable style. One day Beethoven ran into Salieri in the street after the teacher had thrashed one of rhose efforts. Salieri complained that he hadn’t been able to get the tune out of his head. “Then, Herr von Salieri,” Beethoven grinned, “it can’t have been so utterly bad.” Thoughts These songs give fascinating insights into Beethoven’s development as a composer. The music feels much ‘older’, with the overriding impression that the pupil is diligently aiming for a style coveted by his teacher, rather than breaking particularly new ground – bolstering his abilities and covering perceived weaknesses. The first of these settings, Bei labbri, che amore, is a chaste two-parter for male and female voice in close harmony. Ma tu tremi is initially similar but there is a slightly more awkward top line in the middle section. E pur fra le tempest is a short setting of just under a minute, for solo voice and flowing piano, moving to an unaccompanied and quite serene Sei mio ben for three voices. It is interesting to hear three versions of Giura il nocchier, the second of which is much fuller in texture than the first, while the third shifts the pitch down a tone. The four-part Chi mai di questo core is the fullest song here, and features a nice dialogue between the voices, if still polite and functional. Some of the arrangements are written for full, choral textures, such as the second and third short arrangements of Giura il nocchier. There are no fewer than six versions of Fra tutte le pene availble, each of the three originals with revisions by Salieri to make the part movements a little more logical. Other songs include the pure C major of Scrivo in te, a minute-long setting in three parts, and the fuller choral songs Per te d’amico aprile and Nei campi e nelle selve, in two versions – the second of which has a mournful edge. Also in two versions are Salvo tu vuoi lo sposo, and Gia la notte savvicina, which has a feather light choral setting for its alternative. Meanwhile the choral Quella cetra ah pur ti sei has three – and sounds rather like Haydn in the first. Spotify playlist and Recordings used Soloists, Ensemble Tamanial, Cantus Novus Wien / Thomas Holmes (Naxos)
The Naxos recordings are very well delivered, with the caveat that it is difficult to convey emotion in songs that are so short. The solo items have the necessary intimacy, while the choral numbers have a nice space surrounding the textures in the recording picture. Occasionally the top edges of the soprano lines feel like a bit of a strain, but that could be as much due to the composer’s writing as anything else! 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 1803 Boieldieu Clarinet Concerto no.1 in E flat major Op.36 Next up Bei labbri, che Amore WoO 99/1

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