Listening to Beethoven #32 – Primo amore

Beethoven and Jeannette d’Honrath (Bonn 1785: the young Beethoven at the house of Hofrätin Helene von Breuning; first love for Jeannette d’Honrath, later Greth by marriage).
Woodcut, 1865, after drawing by Wilhelm Lindenschmit (1829-1895).

Scena ed aria ‘Primo amore’ for soprano voice and orchestra (1790-2, Beethoven aged 21)

Dedication not known
Text Anonymous
Duration 15′

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Background and Critical Reception

Primo amore is a passionate aria for soprano and orchestra, a single unbroken scene of a quarter of an hour. It was not published until 1888 – and initially it was thought to have been written in Vienna while Beethoven was studying with Salieri. However more recent, forensic analysis of the autograph score dates it to 1790-92, late on in his time at Bonn.

The aria sets an anonymous text on the subject of early love, and given its emotion surprisingly little is written about it by scholars of the composer. The focus is thought to have been soprano Magdalena Willmann, a daughter of Beethoven’s neighbour in Bonn, who had an unusually low range – or even Jeanette d’Honrath, described by the Bonn physician Franz Gerhard Wegeler as ‘a beautiful, vivacious blonde, of good upbringing and friendly character’.

Writing about the aria in the booklet notes for her recent disc of Beethoven vocal music, soprano Chen Reiss describes how Primo amore ‘displays a startlingly mature way of looking at love’s complexities, with its disjointed structure, inner turmoil and restlessness. The music – both instrumental and vocal – is strange, almost brutal in comparison with that of his contemporaries’.

Thoughts

The text for Primo amore is matched by Beethoven’s lovelorn music. ‘Primo amore, piacer del ciel! Penetrasti il mio cor’ (‘First love, joy of heaven, you penetrated my heart’). The soprano sings with long notes, often well above the accompaniment of a smallish orchestra. As the aria progresses so the mood becomes more fraught, the orchestra less controlled – and the lasting impact of this first love is laid bare.

Beethoven asks his soprano to cover a lot of ground, with lower notes in the opening pages but much greater heights later on. The writing feels very instinctive, the composer responding keenly to the text with music of broad phrases and great feeling. In the process he echoes some of the soprano writing in the Cantata on the death of Joseph II. Here, as in that piece, the singer is almost completely dominant – and the piece leaves a lasting impression.

Recordings used

Chen Reiss (soprano), Academy of Ancient Music / Richard Egarr (Onyx Classics)
Reetta Haavisto (soprano), Turku Philharmonic Orchestra / Leif Segerstam (Naxos)

Chen Reiss is a fervent devotee of Beethoven’s music for voice and it shows as she completely inhabits the loss and sorrow of the writing. Her beautiful tone soars effortlessly above the well-matched phrasing of the Academy of Ancient Music, who bustle along into the aria’s second section.

Reetta Haavisto, in another new recording for Naxos, sings in a much broader view of Primo amore, complete with expansive introduction from the Turku Philharmonic Orchestra under Leif Segerstam. Her voice has a creamy tone and is beautifully controlled.

Both sopranos hit the highest notes of the aria with some aplomb and manage the demanding range of Beethoven’s vocal writing impressively.

Spotify links

Reetta Haavisto, Turku Philharmonic Orchestra / Leif Segerstam

Chen Reiss, Academy of Ancient Music / Richard Egarr

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 1792 Cimarosa – Il Matrimonio Segreto

Next up Trinklied

Listening to Beethoven #27 – Mit Mädeln sich vertragen


Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Ludwig van Beethoven, walking in Teplitz / Teplice, Czech Republic. Painted by Adolf Karpellus

Mit Mädeln sich vertragen WoO 90 for bass voice and orchestra (1790-2, Beethoven aged 21)

Dedication Joseph Lux
Text Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Duration 5′

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Background and Critical Reception

“With girls we get along, with men we brawl about”. So runs the first line of Goethe’s Mit Mädeln sich vertragen (With girls we get along), the first of his works to be utilised by Beethoven for musical gain. It is the second of two arias written for the Bonn-based bass (!) Joseph Lux.

Neither of the arias is mentioned much by Beethoven biographers, beyond the date of composition which is thought to be 1791-92. It is not thought the works were performed in Bonn.

In his booklet notes for a new Naxos recording of the aria by Kevin Greenlaw, Keith Anderson writes of how the aria is in fact a setting of a song text from Goethe’s Claudine von Villa Bella, described as ein Schauspiel mit Gesang (‘A play with songs’), and later set by Schubert.

Beethoven revised it in 1795-96, and Anderson talks of how the songs ‘are highly typical of the genre, if not necessarily of Beethoven.’

Thoughts

Beethoven’s melodic inspiration is evident throughout this entertaining piece of music for the stage. It brings out his playful side, which we have now seen on a couple of occasions – and is certainly more lighthearted than you might anticipate for a setting of a Goethe text.

Yet this is a song for men to sing, potentially in a raucous fashion – so it helps that there is a distinctive melody that the strings latch on to, and a refrain that sticks in the head too.

Recordings used

Kevin Greenlaw, Turku Philharmonic Orchestra / Leif Segerstam (Naxos)

Thomas Hampson, Concentus Musicus Wien / Nikolaus Harnoncourt (Warner Classics)

Kevin Greenlaw is ideally suited to this aria, slightly playful and jousting with the strings of the Turku Philharmonic Orchestra, who enjoy their echo of his refrain. Thomas Hampson’s version is a little broader, with Nikolaus Harnoncourt allowing the horns to rasp in the introduction, giving an edge to the music. Hampson is terrific in the refrains, hurling out the words.

A quickfire version for voice and piano also exists, in the capable hands of the masterly Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Jörg Demus.

Spotify links

Kevin Greenlaw, Turku Philharmonic Orchestra / Leif Segerstam

Thomas Hampson, Concentus Musicus Wien / Nikolaus Harnoncourt

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Jörg Demus

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 1792 Haydn – Symphony no.98 in B flat major

Next up Violin Concerto in C major

Listening to Beethoven #26 – Prüfung des Küssens


An image of Beethoven’s mother, Maria Magdalena Keverich

Prüfung des Küssens (“Meine weise Mutter spricht”) WoO 89 for bass voice and orchestra (1790-2, Beethoven aged 21)

Dedication Joseph Lux
Text Giorgio Federico Ghedini
Duration 5’30”

Listen

Background and Critical Reception

Beethoven wrote two arias for the bass Joseph Lux, a popular singer in Bonn known for his comic sensibilities. Little is known of the exact composition date beyond the years 1791-92, and it is also thought the works were not performed in Bonn.

A vocal part from the first aria, Prüfung des Küssens, survives from Beethoven’s time in Vienna, which suggests it was to be published – but again there is no evidence of performance. Ernst Herttrich, writing in the booklet notes for DG’s complete edition, notes that Beethoven offered both arias to a publisher in 1822, evidence that he still held them in high regard.

Thoughts

A lightly playful, slightly syncopated introduction brings in our bass singer – with what could easily be an excerpt from a much larger stage work. Beethoven’s writing is impish, slightly cheeky, and although the words are relatively nonsensical the character of Joseph Lux comes through.

The singer dominates, with occasional probing from the orchestra – and the vocal line encourages the character to take liberties with the tempo, to bring humour to the text and to stamp their personality on the aria. The orchestral writing offers plenty of room for this, and the false ending – the aria finishing but then restarting – only adds to the comic potential.

Recordings used

Kevin Greenlaw, Turku Philharmonic Orchestra / Leif Segerstam (Naxos)

Thomas Hampson, Concentus Musicus Wien / Nikolaus Harnoncourt (Warner Classics)

Thomas Hampson is more convincing as a comic baritone in his account, taking a few more liberties with Beethoven’s tempo than Kevin Greenlaw – who is nonetheless a fine performer himself. The newer Naxos recording is more sympathetic in its sound.

Spotify links

Kevin Greenlaw, Turku Philharmonic Orchestra / Leif Segerstam

Thomas Hampson, Concentus Musicus Wien / Nikolaus Harnoncourt

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 1792 Cimarosa – Il Matrimonio Segreto

Next up Mit Mädeln sich vertragen