Portrait of Niccolo Bentini, artist unknown
“Tremate, empi tremate”, Op.116 for soprano, tenor, baritone and orchestra (1803-4, published 1814. Beethoven aged 33 at time of composition)
Dedication Not known
Text Niccolo Bentini
by Ben Hogwood
Background and Critical Reception
A dramatic trio for three vocal soloists and orchestra, Tremate, empi, tremate has its origins in Beethoven’s lessons with Salieri. It is thought Beethoven drafted the work early on in 1802, but it did not receive a first performance for quite some time. It was scheduled for April 1803, but that concert became full of new works such as the first two symphonies, the Piano Concerto no.3 and Christ on the Mount of Olives. The première of the trio finally occurred several years later during a similarly large concert on 27 February 1814, alongside the Seventh and Eighth Symphonies and Wellington’s Victory. Nicholas Marston’s note for Hyperion tells us that the vocal parts were sung by the star soprano Anna Milder-Hauptmann (Beethoven’s first Leonore), Giuseppe Siboni and Carl Weinmüller, who created the role of Rocco in Fidelio.
Salieri is likely to have suggested the text – Tremate, empi, tremate translating as Tremble, guilty ones, tremble – and which tells a turbulent love story. Soprano Chen Reiss, interviewed for Arcana, talked about the piece. “It reminded me a little of the trio in Fidelio with the Father and the two lovers. Marzelline is thinking that Fidelio is a man, and she’s in love with him, and the father basically gives his blessing. It is of course a different story altogether, but the ending is very dramatic. I think it’s a very good piece to perform as an encore in a concert, don’t you agree?”
Given the way the voices combine, and the dramatic third part, she has a strong point. “Yes. I think it is very well conducted, with the middle part which has these beautiful long lines. I think it is an early piece, and of course Beethoven has these dramatic parts, which come later, but he also has a very good sense of lyricism and melodic beauty, a pureness which reminds me very much of Mozart and Haydn. You see it in these early works that he was more classical, and then he became much more dramatic.”
Tremate certainly is a dramatic piece of music, and Beethoven wastes no time in making a bid for his audience with a call to arms from the bass. The soprano and tenor – now a couple – respond but the baritone declares “I want them both restrained”. He is the poisoned onlooker, the other two declaring their innocence.
As the dramatic scene unfolds so too does Beethoven’s vocal writing, with the voices dominating and very little chance for breath between their thoughts, certainly in the breathless opening. The second section gives the soprano and tenor more room to declare their love, finishing each others musical sentences to ‘classical’ accompaniment from the small orchestra. The bass is never far from their side, however, still lamenting his lot.
After a tender clinch we return to the stormy music of the opening, with rolling timpani and braying horns as the three soloists face off. Translated, the text reads, “Cruel stars, I have tolerated for long enough this violent cruelty” – which would still seem to mean a dreadful outcome for the bass and togetherness for the other two.
It is another example of Beethoven’s dramatic vocal writing, though does give the impression to start with that it is trying all the tricks to impress his teacher. There is never a dull moment, that’s for sure!
Spotify playlist and Recordings used
Diana Tomsche (soprano), Joshua Whitener (tenor), Kai Preußker (baritone), Heidelberg Symphony Orchestra / Timo Jouko Herrmann (Hänssler)
Reetta Haavisto (soprano), Dan Karlström (tenor), Kevin Greenlaw (baritone), Turku Philharmonic Orchestra / Leif Segerstam (Naxos)
Janice Watson (soprano), John Mark Ainsley (tenor), Gwynne Howell (bass), Corydon Orchestra / Matthew Best (Hyperion)
Chen Reiss (soprano), Jan Petryka (tenor), Paul Armin Edelmann (baritone), Beethoven Philharmonie / Thomas Rosner (Odradek)
Four fine recordings – but by a whisker the finest is the newest, headed by Chen Reiss. The playlist below collects five versions together, while a clip from the sixth – with Janice Watson and company – can be heard on the Hyperion website
The below playlist collects all three recordings referred to above:
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 1804 Ferdinando Paer Leonora
Next up Bagatelle in C major, WoO 56