Peanuts comic strip, drawn by Charles M. Schulz (c)PNTS
Der Wachtelslag WoO 129 for voice and piano (1803, Beethoven aged 32)
Dedication not known
Text Samuel Friedrich Sauter
Background and Critical Reception
The guide to this song on the website of the Beethoven-Haus Bonn lists it as a ‘box office hit’. Certainly Beethoven was aware of the popularity of Der Wachtelschlag (The Call of the Quail), informing the publisher Breitkopf & Härtel in Leipzig, “I am offering you the following works for 300 gulden: A quail song, the text of which you may know. It consists of three verses, but my setting is entirely durchkomponiert (through-composed)”
For some reason the publishers did not take the song and it was released the following year by Kunst- und Industrie-Comptoir in Vienna. The autograph score hints at another dedication to Count Browne, but this did not carry over to the original.
For Susan Youens, writing booklet notes for Signum Classics, the song “belongs to the antique tradition of bird calls in music…a bird whose calls invoke God”. She compares Beethoven’s setting with a later one from Schubert. “Both men inevitably devised the same dotted rhythmic figure for the quail’s calls”. Beethoven, however, “takes the poem far more seriously and from the perspective of the human being who listens to these worshipful injunctions. Ranging farther afield tonally than his younger contemporary, Beethoven’s storms are more tempestuous (the low bass rumble of thunder is a particularly wonderful detail), his acclamations of God’s praise grander, and his pleas for God’s aid more plangent.”
This is surely one of Beethoven’s most descriptive and dramatic songs – and is an indication of his development into a song composer of greater experimentation. The form of the song is quite unusual, being through-composed and taking an operatic air at times. Beethoven also brings the piano and voice close together in a shared depiction of the source material.
As Youens notes above, the rumble of the piano, low in the left hand, is a brilliant dramatic touch, while the ‘recitative’ nature of some of his vocal writing brings Handel to mind (to this ear at least!). Around the time of this song Beethoven had been working on a large, dramatic score (Christus am Ölberge, to be covered shortly) and this may be a fruitful result of the inspiration from that stage work.
It certainly makes a strong impact!
Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (baritone), Jörg Demus (piano) (Deutsche Grammophon)
Peter Schreier (tenor), András Schiff (piano) (Decca)
Barbara Hendricks (soprano), Love Derwinger (piano) (Arte Verum)
Christopher Maltman (baritone), Iain Burnside (piano) (Signum Classics)
Hermann Prey (baritone), Leonard Hokanson (Capriccio)
Dietrich Fisher-Dieskau is the ideal singer for this song, forcefully bringing it to life with the equally fervent tones of Jörg Demus. Yet his is not the only way to express Beethoven’s thoughts – Peter Schreier and András Schiff may be higher up the register (F major rather than D), and they glower less, but they still invest plenty of feeling in the text. The other versions listed are also very fine – including soprano Barbara Hendricks and Love Derwinger, at the same higher pitch but with a sharper tone from the singer. Christopher Maltman and Hermann Prey complete a formidable discography.
Also written in 1803 Krommer Symphony no.2 in D major Op.40
Next up Christus am Ölberge (Christ on the Mount of Olives), Op.85