Listening to Beethoven #19 – Klage (Lament)


Schroder and his toy piano, drawn by Charles M. Schulz (c)PNTS

Klage WoO 113 (Lament) for voice and piano (1790, Beethoven aged 19)

Dedication not known
Text Ludwig Hölty
Duration 2’40”

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Background and Critical Reception

This setting of poetry by Ludwig Hölty continues Beethoven’s current preoccupation with downcast songs, having recently set the Elegy for a dead poodleKlage (translated as Lament) starts in a more positive light, describing the silver light of the moon, but soon talks of how ‘no peace smiles on me’, and ‘soon your silver light will shine on the tombstone that hides my ashes’.

Writing his programme notes for a collection of Beethoven songs on the Hyperion label, Julian Haylock describes this song as ‘an early setting that, despite its deceptively simple outlines and such delightfully naive effects as the doubling of right hand and voice in the first verse, touches an emotional nerve in the young composer’s psyche that was to be amongst his most enduring expressive traits – an exemplary handling of the minor mode.’

He also notes the stark closing postlude for piano, and its anticipation of similar instances in songs by Schumann.

Thoughts

If you listened to this song without a clue who the composer was, it would be hard to place. Although Beethoven does indeed use some of the ‘naive’ tactics described by Julian Haylock, his musical language is definitely looking forward to the likes of Mendelssohn and Schumann rather than backwards.

Again the topic is a relatively sorrowful one, suggesting that Beethoven’s downcast mood has lingered for a while since the death of his mother. The telling moment comes at the end of the first verse, when the silver light of the moon fades and the song turns to the minor key. Darkness falls, and tragedy with it, with little hope at the end. The bare chords from the piano offer little consolation as a closing statement.

Recordings used

Stephan Genz (baritone) & Roger Vignoles (piano) (Hyperion)

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

Matthias Goerne (baritone), Jan Lisiecki (piano) (DG)

Peter Schreier (tenor) & Walter Obertz (piano) (Brilliant Classics)

The version for tenor and piano, beautifully sung by Peter Schreier with Walter Obertz, is set in E major / minor, while the version with baritone and piano is a third lower, beginning in C. For his version with Jan Lisiecki, Matthias Goerne has an ideally measured tone, with Lisiecki’s final chords completely bare. Stephan Genz and Roger Vignoles are the ideal match, while Hermann Prey operates at a much slower tempo with Leonard Hokanson, giving an even darker impression.

Spotify links

Hermann Prey (baritone) & Leonard Hokanson (piano)

Matthias Goerne (baritone), Jan Lisiecki (piano) (DG)

Peter Schreier (tenor) & Walter Obertz (piano)

Also written in 1790 Hummel Piano Quartet in D major

Next up Piano Trio in E flat major WoO38

Listening to Beethoven #17 – Elegie auf den Tod eines Pudels


Schroder and Snoopy, drawn by Charles M. Schulz (c)PNTS

Elegie auf den Tod eines Pudels WoO 110 (Elegy on the death of a poodle) for voice and piano (1790, Beethoven aged 19)

Dedication not known
Text unknown author
Duration 3’20”

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Background and Critical Reception

While flexing his compositional muscles with ever more ambitious pieces such as the Cantatas for Emperor Joseph II and Leopold II, Beethoven was continuing to get to grips with the German Lied. This latest example was certainly his darkest effort to date, described by Lewis Lockwood as ‘marginally more ambitious’ than his first attempts at writing Lied.

The dead poodle in question is not known – and nor is the author of the text – but in the little that is written about this song there is general agreement that it is one of Beethoven’s most original early works. By coincidence it appears around the same time that Mozart wrote a lament for his dead starling.

Thoughts

It is not thought Beethoven ever owned a dog…but this tribute to the passing of a poodle suggests he would know of the sadness the death of a pet can bring! It is set in F minor, which was to become a significant key for the composer later in life.

There are clouds for the first few verses but then the mood picks up unexpectedly and a ray of light shifts the music into F major.

Recordings used

Hermann Prey & Leonard Hokanson (Capriccio)

Peter Schreier & Walter Obertz (Brilliant Classics)

Schreier’s account does not use any repeats so is half the length of the version from Hermann Prey and Leonard Hokanson. Prey’s bass, an octave lower than Schreier’s tenor, gives the song a more sorrowful air, as does his use of a slower tempo. Schreier and Obertz speed up considerably for the final stanza.

Spotify links

Hermann Prey & Leonard Hokanson:

Vincent Lièvre-Picard and Jean-Pierre Armengaud:

Peter Schreier & Walter Obertz

Also written in 1790 Kozeluch Clarinet Concerto no.1 in E flat major

Next up Cantata on the Accession of Emperor Leopold II

Listening to Beethoven #8 – An einen Säugling


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

An einen Säugling WoO 108 (“Noch weisst du nicht, wes Kind du bist”) for voice and piano (1783, Beethoven aged 12)

Dedication not known
Text Johann von Dohring
Duration 3’20”

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Background and Critical Reception

There are very few words written on Beethoven’s second song, a duet for two upper range female voices. It comprises four verses by Johann von Doring, with a piano introduction and postlude.

For Lewis Lockwood, the three-minute song ‘shows a slight touch of originality in its brief major-minor mixture, but reflects the pretty, homely sentimentality of the contemporary German ‘lied’ (song).’

Thoughts

An airy piano introduction leads to some rather beautiful harmonies in this song. Both singers are close together in pitch, occasionally uniting in unison but rarely further than a third apart.

The harmonic language is very straightforward – this is a song ‘to an infant’ so that is not a surprise! – but the elaboration of the piano part in between verses is attractive.

Recordings used

There are only two versions immediately available on Spotify. The Heinrich Schütz Kreis, Berlin deliver a chaste reading of the song with pianist Leonard Hokanson, but get to the right level of innocence with pure harmonies.

That said, the version on the DG complete edition, from single voices Karen Wierzba and Natalie Pérez, is really nicely done. The pair have more vibrato, but their unison and harmony singing is ideal, the roomy recording works nicely and pianist Jean-Pierre Armengaud adds some sensitive touches.

Spotify links

Heinrich Schütz Kreis & Leonard Hokanson:

Karen Wierzba, Natalie Pérez and Jean-Pierre Armengaud:

Also written in 1783 Dittersdorf Six Symphonies after Ovid’s Metamorphoses

Next up Rondo in C major

Listening to Beethoven #2 – Schilderung eines Mädchens


This Peanuts strip was first published on December 16, 1977, drawn by Charles M. Schulz (c)PNTS

Schilderung eines Mädchens WoO 107 (“Schildern, willst du Freund, soll ich dir Elisen?”) for voice and piano (1783, Beethoven aged 12)

Dedication not known
Text Unattributed
Duration 0’35

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Background and Critical Reception

In his landmark biography of Beethoven, Alexander Thayer tells of how, by the age of 12, he was the ‘cembalist in the orchestra’. This was an important position within the Bonn Court orchestra for keyboard – presumably harpsichord rather than fortepiano – from which Beethoven would conduct the orchestra in rehearsals, filling a gap while the Electoral Kapellmeister was absent on a journey ‘of several months’.

The suggestion is that in this position lies the root of Beethoven’s powerful music, where he had to play up in volume to make himself heard. It gave him little time for composition, however, until the Kapellmeister returned – whereupon this short song was written and printed.

Thoughts

The first of many brief forays into song for Beethoven, Schilderung eines Mädchens (loosely translated as Portrayal of a Maiden) is almost over before it begins. It has a relatively high line, and a bold and bright melody. The young composer may be just getting a feel for how the voice behaves, but his instincts already appear to be sound.

Recordings used

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (baritone) and Jörg Demus (piano)
Peter Schreier (tenor) and Walter Olbertz (piano)
Hermann Prey (baritone) and Leonard Hokanson (piano)

All three recordings are in a different key. Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau is full-bodied in E major, but tenor Peter Schreier raises the tonality up to G with a brightly voiced account. Hermann Prey‘s account is very much slower (almost twice as long!). Luxurious in tone, it is beautifully sung but really stretches the words out. Leonard Hokanson shadows his every move.

Spotify links

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Jörg Demus:

Peter Schreier and Walter Olbertz:

Hermann Prey and Leonard Hokanson:

 

Also written in 1783 Mozart Duos for violin and viola, K423 & K424

Next up Fugue in D major