Listening to Beethoven #16 – Cantata on the death of Emperor Joseph II WoO87

Joseph II (right) with his brother Peter Leopold, then Grand Duke of Tuscany, later Emperor Leopold II Painting by Pompeo Batoni, 1769, Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum

Cantata on the death of Emperor Joseph II WoO87 for soloists, choir and orchestra (1790, Beethoven aged 19)

Dedication Emperor Joseph II
Duration 41′

Background and Critical Reception

Emperor Joseph II reformed Vienna in his decade in power, but in that time between 1780 and 1790 Bonn was very much under his dominion. Beethoven had visited Vienna briefly, but had to return to Bonn early due to his mother’s fatal illness. However because Joseph II’s brother was Maximilian Franz, Elector of Cologne, Beethoven was closer than many through his musical links.

On the Emperor’s death Beethoven was commissioned to set a text by Severin Anton Averdonk in commemoration, yet the resulting cantata was never to be performed in his lifetime. A planned performance in 1791 did not take place, seemingly due to the complexity of the music and the time (two and a half weeks) available to write and rehearse it. That Beethoven finished it was impressive enough, but once the moment had passed it would have been difficult to secure further performances.

The works remained unknown until the 1880s – when we have, as Lockwood describes, ‘an astonished letter of praise from Brahms, who said of the Joseph cantata, “It is Beethoven through and through”. He was later impressed by its “noble pathos…its feeling and imagination, the intensity, perhaps violent in its expression”.

Jan Swafford suggests Beethoven would not have been too disappointed at this, and points to several unusual qualities about the piece. It is a funeral cantata that ‘does not mention God until the third number, and then only in passing; only toward the end does it give lip service to paradise and immortality. In this cantata death is nothing but tragic, and Joseph’s main immortality is his legacy on earth, not his bliss in heaven.

Beethoven writers are united in their view of the Cantata’s important. Lewis Lockwood sees both this cantata and its successor, the Cantata for the Accession of Leopold II, as ‘the capstones of the Bonn years’. Swafford notes how Beethoven pulls out all the stops in his efforts to impress. ‘If he pulled too many, that is a sign of his youth, but already the expression is powerful, the handling of the orchestra effective and expressive the voice unmistakably his own. As a sign of that dynamism, he mined ideas from this cantata again and again in later years’.

The Joseph cantata anticipates important elements in Leonore of 1805, the first version of Beethoven’s opera Fidelio. While discussing this, Swafford praises how ‘he could also resurrect a beautifully sculpted melody that perfectly fitted both cantata and opera’.


This is a very different Beethoven. His response to setting the solemn text proclaiming Joseph’s death is so profound it is tempting to assume he is channeling his own experiences of bereavement into the score.

We hear Beethoven’s first orchestral ventures in the very solemn opening pages, a hushed introduction that calls to mind the desolation of Haydn’s representation of chaos from his oratorio The Creation. The chorus gives an equally weighty account of grief, reacting as it is to the text proclaiming and repeating ‘Joseph the great is dead’. In response to this sombre beginning Beethoven writes music of impressive heft for the soprano, then the bass voice sings triumphantly of Joseph’s triumph in ‘defeating the monster’. The orchestra gets caught up in the excitement, while the pacing of solo vocal flourishes (recitatives) and general momentum feels slightly in thrall to Handel.

The soprano brings warmth with an aria Da stiegen die Menschen an’s Licht (Then mankind climbed into the light), which is a thoughtful and ultimately radiant aria with choral backing. Another soprano aria, Hier schlummert seinen stillen Frieden (Here slumbers in his quiet peace the great sufferer), feels like the emotional centre of the piece, a really substantial slow movement that leads up to a restatement of the opening choral passages. Here the tragedy of death takes root once again, the desolation complete – and all in Beethoven’s now-familiar ‘tragic’ key of C minor.

The Cantata on the death of Emperor Joseph II feels like the most substantial Beethoven piece to date by some distance, and the most openly emotional too. With it Beethoven joins his idols Haydn and Mozart in the ability to write for large forces without ever appearing daunted by the prospect. Ultimately it feels like a fitting memorial to his mother, whether that was intended or not.


Charlotte Margiono (soprano), Veronica Verebely (soprano), William Shimell (bass), Ulrike Helzel (contralto), Clemens Bieber (tenor), Chorus and Orchester der Deutschen Oper Berlin / Christian Thielemann (DG)
Janice Watson (soprano), Jean Rigby (contralto), John Mark Ainsley (tenor), José Van Dam (bass), Corydon Singers and Orchestra / Matthew Best (Hyperion)
Juha Kotilainen (bass), Reetta Haavisto (soprano), Chorus Cathedralis Aboensis, Turku Philharmonic Orchestra / Leif Segerstam (Naxos)

Recordings of the cantata were thin on the ground until 1996, when Matthew Best and the Corydon Singers and Orchestra made a landmark release for Hyperion. Best’s use of a harpsichord in the ‘continuo’ role dates the piece, heightening its progression from the music of Gluck, Haydn and Mozart. He does much to inhabit the drama and is helped by excellent soloists, soprano Janice Watson hitting superlative heights and José van Dam giving a sonorous contribution as bass. The chorus are also excellent.

Christian Thielemann followed soon after for DG’s complete Beethoven edition of 1997, and his account is used on their big box this year. It is superbly paced and appropriately weighty, a little sleek in places but really getting to the tragic nub of the work. He achieves a hushed intensity from the start, and never lets up – with Charlotte Margiono imperious as soprano soloist.

A recent version from Leif Segerstram for Naxos offers stiff competition, a dramatic interpretation with excellent soloists in Reetta Haavisto and Juha Kotilainen.

Spotify links

Christian Thielemann

Leif Segerstam

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 1789 Haydn String Quartets Op.64 nos.1-3

Next up Elegie auf den Tod eines Pudels (Elegy on the death of a poodle)

Listening to Beethoven #13 – Piano Quartet in D major WoO 36/2

Bonn around the year 1790. Artist unknown

Piano Quartet in D major WoO 36/2 for piano, violin, viola and cello (1785, Beethoven aged 14)

Dedication Thought to be Elector Maximilian Friedrich
Duration 20′


Background and Critical Reception

Having heard a deeply passionate work in the Piano Quartet in E flat major, we move on to distinctly sunnier climes with the Piano Quartet in D major, a slightly shorter work.

When talking about the Piano Quartets, Lewis Lockwood is convinced they are Beethoven’s first sign of greatness. ‘Despite the limitations of these works’, he says, ‘remarkable features crop up everywhere, above all in melodic inventiveness and in the larger layout of individual movements. As a major step forward from the little piano sonatas of 1783, these ensemble works show signs of maturity in the making.’

There are some weaknesses, however, ‘largely in the string writing and in his inability to integrate piano and strings effectively and idiomatically. They stand up not despite their direct indebtedness to Mozart – above all certain Mozart violin sonatas – but precisely because of it. They possess the voice of a beginner of genius who is steeping himself in Mozart’s ways and is trying to imitate them. For Lockwood, ‘they mark the beginning of a relationship to Mozart that remained a steady anchor for Beethoven over the next ten years as he moved into his first artistic maturity.

The D major work was the second of the three quartets when published – but we are sticking with Beethoven’s ordering, in which it appears third.


As with the Electoral Sonata in the same key, Beethoven’s use of D major allows him to create a work with a fully positive outlook – and it has the sort of unison beginning which we will certainly hear with greater conviction in his later output. There is lively interplay between the piano and strings, while the second theme is warm hearted and more legato (smoother). Even here though Beethoven strains at the leash on occasion, threatening to break off into distant keys before arriving at the more ‘accepted’ ones.

The slow movement is attractive but feels a bit long, clocking in at just under 10 minutes when performers used the composer’s prescribed repeats. There is however an intriguing bit near the end, as though Beethoven is considering breaking the rules – and the strings use pizzicato (plucking) for a short while, which changes the colour considerably. The end itself is surprisingly sombre. This only makes the return to D major a sunnier occasion, with a bracing tune to send the audience out on a high. Again this is a Rondo, Beethoven’s chosen vehicle for a finale nicely wrought again.

Recordings used and Spotify links

Christoph Eschenbach (piano), Members of the Amadeus Quartet (Deutsche Grammophon) – tracks 4 to 6:

Anthony Goldstone (piano), Cummings String Trio (Meridian) – tracks 6 to 8:

New Zealand Piano Quartet (Naxos) – tracks 7 to 9:

All three versions of this work are strong, but it is Christoph Eschenbach and the Amadeus Quartet members who bring the greatest energy and drive. Anthony Goldstone and the Cummings String Trio enjoy the sunny disposition of the piece. Good though the New Zealand Piano Quartet version is, the use of repeat and a slower tempo mean the middle movement feels that bit too long.

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 1785 Mozart Piano Quartet no.1 in G minor K478

Next up Trio for flute, bassoon and piano in G major WoO 37

Listening to Beethoven #12 – Piano Quartet in E flat major WoO 36/1

Painting with a hillside view of Bonn around the year 1790. Artist unknown

Piano Quartet in E flat major WoO 36/1 for piano, violin, viola and cello (1785, Beethoven aged 14)

Dedication Thought to be Elector Maximilian Friedrich
Duration 23′


Background and Critical Reception

It is curious to note that this group of three works from 1785 mark Beethoven’s only encounter with the form of the Piano Quartet – piano, violin, viola and cello – and that he would not write any more original works for the combination in his career.

Yet, as we outlined in the C major work heard yesterday, they are important works in the young composer’s development. The E flat major work is the most adventurous, and the one to which Beethoven biographer Jan Swafford devotes most time. “In the massive Adagio assai that begins the Piano Quartet in E flat major, listeners then and later could only be stunned at the subtlety and depth of feeling, call it a certain wistful pathos, coming from a composer of age fourteen”, he writes. “This does not sound like learned rhetoric, like everything he had written before; it sounds like music from the heart. What had he experienced to arrive at such an outpouring? All that can be certain is that he had experienced his model, Mozart’s Violin Sonata in G major, K379 (which you can compare below)

Swafford writes of how “the gestures and the low, close harmonies are Mozart’s, and so is the Mozart tone: languid, seemingly suspended between conflicting emotions, peculiarly shadowed for the major mode.” He then notes how Beethoven ‘pushes every envelope’ – with directions for volume that are fortissimo rather than forte, with harmonic writing that moves to the outlandish key of E flat minor, unheard of in his day, and piano writing notable for its difficulty.


This is indeed remarkably profound music for a fourteen-year old to be writing. To start with a slow movement of such depth of feeling is striking to the listener with its hushed, reverent string chords and expansive rhetoric from the piano. The strings grow into the movement, making some rather beautiful harmonies together.

The second movement is even more remarkable. Not only does Beethoven use a key which was never heard in public – E flat minor – he does so with grit and determination, under the marking Allegro con spirito. The piano drives forward relentlessly, and the strings hang onto its coat tails, as though the composer wants to get somewhere quickly. The obdurate nature of the music continues the whole way through, barely letting up.

After such strife, the third movement eases off the Sturm and drang a little, for a dance-inflected tune that stays lightly on its feet. Even this turns out to be a little deceptive, however, as it is a theme and six variations that bring the strings in from the cold. Beethoven gives the second variation to a sweet triple-time variation led by the violin, while the third is unusually handed to the viola – Beethoven’s ‘second’ instrument. The fifth plunges into the minor key, with stormy reminiscences of the second movement, but then the violin takes control of a march-like finale before the piece ends rather suddenly.

Recordings used and Spotify links

Christoph Eschenbach (piano), Members of the Amadeus Quartet (Deutsche Grammophon) – tracks 1 to 3:

Anthony Goldstone (piano), Cummings String Trio (Meridian) – tracks 4 to 6:

New Zealand Piano Quartet (Naxos) – tracks 4 to 6:

The Amadeus Quartet and Christoph Eschenbach bring all the drama to the second movement, which is driven and just the right side of aggressive. Their variations might be a bit too sweetly flavoured for some, but they never lack in character.

Both the other versions are very good, too – Anthony Goldstone and the Cummings String Trio not quite as darkly shaded but still giving a passionate account, while the New Zealand Piano Quartet are particularly good in the theme and variations, with which they spend more time.

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 1785 Haydn Symphonies: nos. 83 in G minor ‘La poule’ & no.85 in B flat major ‘La Reine’

Next up Piano Quartet in D major WoO 36/2

Listening to Beethoven #10 – Piano Concerto in E flat major

Beethoven, aged 13. This portrait in oils is said to be the earliest authenticated likeness of Beethoven – but Beethoven-Haus Bonn disputes this description, claiming it to be an unknown youth painted in the early 19th century.

Piano Concerto in E flat major WoO 4(1783-4, Beethoven aged 13)

Dedication not known
Duration 24′


Background and Critical Reception

Daniel Heartz tells the story of Beethoven’s first foray into the world of the concerto. Barely a teenager, ‘it was appropriate to the young composer’s status as a virtuoso of the keyboard that he should try his hand at writing a piano concerto.’

The work was incomplete however, with the orchestral part left unfinished beyond its two-piano reduction. The trip to Holland mentioned in the previous article on the Rondo in C major looks to have been the driving force behind this composition, for Heartz says that ‘Beethoven may have performed it in a concert at The Hague for which he was paid a large sum as a pianist, and at which Carl Stamitz also appeared as a viola soloist.’

As Jan Swafford notes, the work begins with a ‘flavour of hunting call-cum-march’, an ‘abiding topic in his future concerto first movements’. He calls it a ‘lively and eclectic piece that showed off his virtuosity’, while in his booklet notes to the DG complete Beethoven edition Barry Cooper notes its proximity in style to J.C. Bach rather than Mozart.


In Ronald Brautigam’s recording – where he made the orchestral arrangement – the horns are prominent in the opening salvo, which is reasonable to expect given the key of E flat major which will suit them. Then the piano takes over with an upbeat theme and some florid passagework. The music is fluently written, and follows the rules relatively closely in moving to the keys expected in the course of its development – B flat major, G minor, closely ‘related’ to the home key. The music is both charming and virtuosic.

For the slow movement Beethoven revisits a Larghetto direction (slow but not as slow as the ‘adagio’ tempo marking’) and writes music of an appealing delicacy and charm – undemanding but giving the soloist room to spread their wings a little.

For the finale Beethoven uses a Rondo form (presenting three themes in the sequence A – B – A – C – A – B – A) – a form he used for the last movement of each of his five published piano concertos. Despite the rigorous structure it again sounds very natural and the ‘A’ theme – which you hear from the start – is lightly playful, suggesting a less formal dance. The grace and charm of the third movement has a nice complement in the shape of a rustic ‘C’ theme where we briefly flirt with the minor key and the melody becomes more decorative. Only the ending is a bit strange, with a sudden cut-off point.

Recordings used

Ronald Brautigam (piano), Norrköpping Symphony Orchestra / Andrew Parrott (BIS)
Orchestra of Opera North / Howard Shelley (piano) (Chandos)

Ronald Brautigam gives a fine performance of the concerto, with attentive accompaniment from Andrew Parrott and the Norrköpping Symphony Orchestra. Howard Shelley’s version has a softer orchestration for the first theme of the piece which works really nicely. His playing follows suit, proving particularly effective in the second movement where his affection for Beethoven’s early work is clear.

Spotify links

Ronald Brautigam, Norrköping Symphony Orchestra / Andrew Parrott (tracks 1-3 of the link below)

Orchestra of Opera North / Howard Shelley (piano) (the fourth disc of an album containing all the Beethoven works for piano and orchestra)

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 1783 Abel 6 Symphonies Op.17

Next up Piano Concerto in E flat major WoO 4

Listening to Beethoven #7 – Piano Sonata in D major (‘Electoral’ no.3)

Portrait of Maximilian Friedrich von Königsegg-Rothenfels, Archbishop-Elector of Cologne. Portrait by Georg Oswald May

Piano Sonata in D major WoO 47/3 ‘Electoral’ for piano (1783, Beethoven aged 12)

Dedication Maximilian Friedrich, Elector of Cologne
Duration 14’00


Background and Critical Reception

The third of the Electoral sonatas is, for Jan Swafford, the strongest of the set. For him, it ‘suggests Haydn at his most vivacious. Its jolly outer movements frame the most striking formal idea of the sonatas, a minuet followed by six variations…’ and it finds Beethoven in D major, ‘bright and ebullient’.

Pondering the forms further, he says, ‘It is hard to tell whether his departures from standard forms are imaginative or naive. Only in the D major does he begin to grapple with the sophisticated discipline of sustaining an idea’.

At this point it is worth restating that this is music written by a 12-year old, one of his first public statements – and certainly one of the first opportunities for teacher Christian Kneefe to show off the work of his pupil.


As Swafford says, the brightness of this music is striking, right from the airy, genial first theme. This is music you would listen to in order to feel right with the world, to take the weight off a difficult day. With rippling textures in the left hand, Beethoven writes a fluid first movement.

The Menuett and variations is the star though, an attractive triple-time dance supported by the left hand which is clearly the ‘feet’ of the operation. The variations include a glittering right hand (4) then some gentle syncopation (5) before an attractive couplet in thirds (6).

The third movement is similarly bright, more closely related to the fourth variation of the Menuett in its rapid movement for the right hand – which helps keep the music on its natural high level. Beethoven will give us more of these natural highs in D major – this is simply the first!

Recordings used

Jörg Demus, as used on the DG complete edition, is given a very roomy backdrop in Vienna to work with. As a result his recording, made in 1969, does show its age in spite of some lovely playing. In part because of that the preference is for Jenő Jandó on Naxos, who also gives the music a nice amount of room. Beethoven’s work is closely aligned to Haydn in his hands. Ronald Brautigam, meanwhile, adds all repeats in an account that lasts 17 minutes, bringing forward Beethoven’s potential for the longer form. His virtuosity and musicality really bring these pieces to life.

Spotify links

The playlist below is for all three Electoral Sonatas, and includes the recordings discussed 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 1783 Michael Haydn Symphony in E-flat major .

Next up An einen Säugling