Beethoven: An die ferne Geliebte, op. 98

performed by Peter Schreier and Andras Schiff, or below with Schreier and Walter Olbertz as pianist

Here we are, jumping ahead to the latest of Beethoven’s works on the blog so far, after seven piano trios, eleven string quartets, ten violin sonatas, eight symphonies, 27 piano sonatas, and all five piano concertos. We clearly still have a long way to go with Beethoven, but while it was one of his own latest works, it was (at least one of) the first of something else.

Wikipedia says that Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte (To the distant beloved) is “considered to be the first example of a song cycle by a major composer.” What minor composers wrote song cycles before him? I’m sure there were some.

It’s actually Beethoven’s only song cycle, and written specifically for male voice and piano. You’ll see in some cases that there’s no real specification for who or what (soprano, tenor, baritone?) should be singing what parts, but sometimes there is. The score of the work bears a dedication to Fürst Joseph Franz von Lobkowitz. You might recognize this name, because to him Beethoven also dedicated the six op. 18 string quartets, the third symphony (premiere given in his palace, actually), the triple concerto, the fifth and sixth symphonies, and the op. 74 quartet. Lucky guy.

The text for the work was selected (or actually possibly requested) from a young physician, of all people, then-22-year-old Alois Isidor Jeitteles. He wrote small poems and published them in Viennese magazines, and it apparently gained him some fame, aside from his medical duties, where Wikipedia says he worked tirelessly and selflessly for his patients during a cholera outbreak. Interesting guy, it seems.

Beethoven had actually written a single song, Adelaidethat deals with similar themes of loneliness and love, but the composer was much younger, had just finished his studies with Haydn, and was likely still influenced by that composer from whom he claims to have learned nothing.

This work, on the other hand, is a mature one, and the ‘cycle’ in ‘song cycle’ here deals not with telling a story or developing a narrative, as we’ll later see from Schubert’s massive work, but a ‘ring’ of themes. Wikipedia says:

Beethoven himself called it Liederkreis an die ferne Geliebte, i.e. a circle or ring of song, and it is so written that the theme of the first song reappears as the conclusion of the last, forming a ‘circle’ (Liederkreis) – a ring in the figurative sense of a finger-ring as a love-token – rather than a ‘cycle’ (Liederzyklus) in the sense of a programme or drama.

The work is made up of six songs, titled thusly:

  1. Auf dem Hügel sitz ich spähend
  2. Wo die Berge so blau
  3. Leichte Segler in den Höhen
  4. Diese Wolken in den Höhen
  5. Es kehret der Maien, es blühet die Au
  6. Nimm sie hin denn, diese Lieder

I think you will (hopefully) find that some of this work, although in German (wonderful translations here), is actually quite easily accessible, not just from the expression of the text, but how the feel of the music aids in expressing those sentiments, or the other way around.

In the first song, ‘sitting on a hill, peering’, our poet views his ‘dearly beloved’ from afar, pondering on the distance between them. It doesn’t sound mournful, but nostalgic, tender, and in the central (third) verse, gets slightly blustery with the sighs that blow away and the utterance of the word ‘eilt‘, meaning hurries or rushes. The pain in the poet’s words is not on the word Pein in the fourth verse, but on the question ‘will nothing else be able to reach you?’ This first song builds to excitement at mention of the poet’s love, but ends quietly.

In Wo die Berge so blau, ‘where the mountains so blue’, the poet’s thoughts turn elsewhere, wishing he were there. There is mention of perhaps some shelter in ‘the rock’, but ultimately there is resolve in the poet’s determination to persist in his love.

The third song, Liechte Segler in den Höhen, is certainly the ‘lightest’ so far, the quick, bouncy energy of the music and the narration, bucolic, with mention of heaven, clouds, a brook, but some change of mood in the third verse, with the arrival of autumn and his suffering. It ends with a request for the wind to whisper in the beloved’s ear of the poet’s suffering.

This leads directly into the fourth song, continuing the buoyancy of the previous song, maybe the most optimistic, hopeful so far, and the shortest of the cycle. There’s more mention of nature, and the chirping and sunlight continues to the fifth song.

It speaks of a happy couple, the return of May, and a flowery meadow, and after such a romantic description about blossoming love and a happy young couple comes the main point: Nur unserer Liebe kein Frühling erscheint; only, for our love no spring appears…

The final song is perhaps the most plaintive. Take them, these songs… as if asking the beloved, the object of the poet’s affection, to acknowledge not only his love for her, but also what separates them:

Dann vor diesen Liedern weichet
Was geschieden uns so weit,
Und ein liebend Herz erreichet
Was ein liebend Herz geweiht.

What’s so tender about this small cycle, and the individual artistic word painting of each verse, where we hear a flutter of energy or a tinge of pain, in Beethoven’s wonderful piano writing, is that the speaker seems, despite discouragement, or the apparent futility of his love, is that he never loses hope. He’s never bitter, there’s no anger, only tenderness, hope, and undying adoration for his dearly beloved.

Follow the text, if you have the time. Listen to the music, follow the German and read the English. It’s literal poetry, but there is word painting, a shade of a certain harmony or expression to add color to a word or phrase, and the piano carries a lot of expressive weight in this little cycle, in fact getting the last word in this cycle.

Perhaps this small(er), approachable little collection of songs, likely containing sentiments with which many people could identify, whets your appetite for a beauty that is really very easy to appreciate. I won’t fault you, as a native English speaker (or maybe non-German speaker) for having never considered taking the time to enjoy German poetry set to German music, but  if you’ve got just a bit of time, just a bit of interest, it’s really very beautiful.

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