Listening to Beethoven #57 – Opferlied


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

Opferlied WoO 126 for voice and piano (1795, Beethoven aged 24)

Dedication not known
Text Friedrich von Matthisson
Duration 3′

Listen

Background and Critical Reception

Beethoven set the text to Freidrich von Matthisson‘s Opferlied on no fewer than four occasions, and there are signs that he became somewhat obsessed with its text. The ChoralWiki entry for the piece – which was eventually set in a choral version – details how Beethoven included the statement Das Schöne zu dem Guten! (“The beautiful to the good”), in his late manuscripts.

The entry goes on to describe how ‘Matthisson’s text depicts a young man in a oak grove offering a sacrifice to Zeus. The man asks Zeus to be the protector of liberty, and to give him, both now and in his old age, beautiful things, because he is good’.

This first version remained unpublished – but by the time of the fourth version Beethoven was writing for a four-part chorus and orchestra, indicating perhaps how the importance of the text had amplified.

Thoughts

The Opferlied is an invitation to the baritone to sound forth, Beethoven assigning his singer a strong melody which is doubled by the piano almost throughout.

The song is a passionate one, with long notes for the singer that make it sound rather like a hymn – and the the piano responds in reverential kind.

Recordings used

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (baritone), Jörg Demus (piano) (Deutsche Grammophon)
Hermann Prey (baritone), Leonard Hokanson (piano) (Capriccio)
Peter Schreier (tenor), Walter Obertz (piano) (Brilliant Classics)

The two baritone versions are very fine indeed, though Fischer-Dieskau’s tones are perhaps a little more luxurious. The tenor version from Peter Schreier takes the key up into F major (the baritone versions are in D) and his ringing tone is suitably dramatic.

Spotify links

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Jörg Demus

Hermann Prey, Leonard Hokanson

Peter Schreier, Walter Obertz

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 Viotti –  Violin Concerto no.24 in B minor

Next up Trio for 2 oboes and cor anglais in C major Op.87

Listening to Beethoven #53 – Der freie Mann


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

Der freie Mann WoO 117 for voice and piano (1792-94, Beethoven aged 23)

Dedication not known
Text Gottlieb Conrad Pfeffel
Duration 1’30”

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Background and Critical Reception

“Who is a free man? He on whom only his own will and no despot’s whim can impose laws; that man is free!”

So runs the translation of this very short setting of Pfeffel. Very little is written about this setting, but the text obviously appealed to the composer as he wrote an earlier version before settling on this in 1794. The entry for this piece on the Unheard Beethoven website writes, “One may even say it expresses one of his basic beliefs: the right of individuals to be free, and take destiny in their own hands”.

The notes for DG’s Complete Beethoven edition class this song as a ‘Gesellscaftslieder’ – joining the two drinking songs we heard recently. This is a sober, political alternative.

Thoughts

This may be a short song but it has a bracing blast from the ensemble at the outset, followed by a wholesome melody from solo singer in response.

For the listener it is good fun – completely lacking in subtlety but all the better for it!

Recordings used

Hermann Prey (baritone), Heinrich Schütz Kreis Berlin, Leonard Hokanson (piano) (Capriccio)
Peter Schreier (tenor), Walter Obertz (piano) (Brilliant Classics)

Hermann Prey and the Heinrich Schütz Kreis, Berlin throw their all into this with impressive heft, supported by the fullbodied piano of Leonard Hokanson. As though to stress the text they repeat it too. Peter Schreier gives a really strong account also, and in the tenor register the song acquires greater upward reach.

Spotify links

Hermann Prey, Heinrich Schütz Kreis Berlin, Leonard Hokanson

Peter Schreier, Walter Obertz

Also written in 1794 Hummel 3 Fugues Op.7

Next up Giura il nocchier

Listening to Beethoven #48 – Que le temps me dure (2nd version)


Beethoven stamp, issued by Guernsey Post – part of a series of four
Design: The Potting Shed

Que le temps me dure WoO116b for voice and piano (1793, Beethoven aged 22)

Dedication not known
Text Jean-Jacques Rousseau
Duration 3′

Listen

Background and Critical Reception

Beethoven’s second setting of this text is for soprano and piano, as though setting the same thoughts of loss from a woman’s point of view as opposed to the man in his first account.

Interestingly the key is different this time around, the composer opting for E flat major – closely related to the C minor of the first setting. A lot of Beethoven’s musical thinking around this time was in E flat, with the Piano Trio no.1 and Octet sharing this key.

Thoughts

This second setting is more expansive in style than the first, Beethoven giving the soprano a melody of long notes and phrases. The steady piano part means the song stays in what feels like a static form of contemplation, reminiscent of Gounod‘s elaboration on J.S. Bach‘s Ave Maria.

Recordings used

Ulrike Helzel (soprano), Hans Hilsdorf (piano) (Deutsche Grammophon)

Ulrike Helzel has a full and quite luxurious tone for this song, with a nicely shaped accompaniment from Hans Hilsdorf. She also has a fulsome vibrato to her sound.

Spotify links

Ulrike Helzel, Hans Hilsdorf

Also written in 1793 Kozeluch 3 Piano Sonatas, Op.38

Next up Rondo for piano and orchestra in B flat major WoO 6

Listening to Beethoven #47 – Ein Selbstgespräch


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

Ein Selbstgespräch WoO 114 for voice and piano (1793, Beethoven aged 22)

Dedication not known
Text Johann Wilhelm Ludwig Gleim
Duration 3’45”

Listen

Background and Critical Reception

Writing in the booklet notes to a fine disc of Beethoven Lieder issued by Signum Classics, Susan Youens documents how the composer revisited some of his early songs in 1822 with a view to finally getting them published. One of them was Ein Selbstgespräch (A Soliloquy), his only setting of the poetry of Johann Wilhelm Ludwig Gleim.

The song was not published before his death, but Youens refers to it as ‘an idyll in the groves of Eros, its Anacreontic persona someone who formerly scorned love – but now, to his great surprise, finds himself in love with Doris. In fact, he is so stunned by this novel experience that he repeats his musical bemusement over and over again to deliciously comic effect.’

Thoughts

This is a restless song, thanks to the ever-moving piano part that moves around like a quickstep on high heels, portraying the ‘wayward mind’ of the singer. It seems intent on moving the text on to the next word as soon as possible, creating a good deal of nervous energy as it does so.

The singer’s mind and senses race, but ultimately he is happy – and the comic pause before he declares, ‘Ich glaubte gar, daß ich sie liebe’ (‘I do believe I love her’) offers a knowing look to the audience.

Recordings used

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (baritone), Hartmut Höll (piano) (Warner Classics)
John Mark Ainsley (tenor), Iain Burnside (piano) (Signum Classics)
Peter Schreier (tenor), Walter Obertz (piano) (Brilliant Classics)

Fischer-Dieskau is once again larger than life in this song, but John Mark Ainsley and Iain Burnside are superb, Ainsley’s tenor range better-suited to the character. Theirs is a partnership of equals, with Burnside leaning tastefully on the leading notes in the piano part to stress where the ever-changing harmony is going.

Spotify links

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Hartmut Höll

John Mark Ainsley, Iain Burnside

Peter Schreier, Walter Obertz

Also written in 1793 Wranitzky Flute Concerto in D major Op.24

Next up Que le temps me dure (2nd version)

Listening to Beethoven #46 – Que le temps me dure (1st version)


Beethoven stamp, issued by Guernsey Post – part of a series of four
Design: The Potting Shed

Que le temps me dure WoO116a for voice and piano (1793, Beethoven aged 22)

Dedication not known
Text Jean-Jacques Rousseau
Duration 3’30”

Listen

Background and Critical Reception

“How slowly time passes, when I spend it far from you!”

So runs the English translation of the first line of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s short poem, which Beethoven appears to have set soon after arrival in Vienna. An interesting choice of words, which might suggest a concentrated bout of homesickness. Unfortunately nothing could be found in writing about this setting, which suggests it was kept hidden and maybe only performed in private.

The text evidently meant something to Beethoven, for he made two settings. The first of these, for high voice and piano, is in the key of C minor – a key in which he was spending a good deal of time, with the third piano trio of his forthcoming Op.1 sharing this ‘home’.

Thoughts

This setting is a short one, but it is quite poignant. A sombre if elegant introduction from the piano brings in the singer, with a simple and largely stepwise melody (one note per syllable). There are two verses which are more or less identical, before the music moves into the major key (in Hermann Prey’s version but not Peter Schreier’s).

Schreier’s finishes with a piano postlude that keeps the downcast mood of the song.

Recordings used

Peter Schreier (tenor), Walter Olbertz (piano) (Brilliant Classics)
Hermann Prey (baritone), Leonard Hokanson (piano) (Capriccio)

Hermann Prey’s version is almost twice as long as Peter Schreier – and rather more sorrowful, given its much slower pace. This offers greater meaning when the music moves into the major key. By comparison the tenor Schreier feels more matter of fact in his reflections, especially without the coda that Prey uses.

Spotify links

Peter Schreier (tenor), Walter Olbertz (piano)

Hermann Prey (baritone), Leonard Hokanson (piano) (Capriccio)

Also written in 1793 Beauvarlet-Charpentier Variations on La Marseillaise

Next up Ein Selbstgespräch WoO114