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”

Listen

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