Lyrics by Alois Jeittles 1816
• 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
2020 was supposed to be a significant year for the German composer, Ludwig Van Beethoven (1770-1827), with the celebration of his 250th birthday. Beethoven is one of the most significant figures in all of music, if not world, history. Born in Bonn in 1770 to an alcoholic, Beethoven’s life is considered the stuff of legend. Hearing loss, lifelong bachelordom and a powerful sense of subjectivity remain important to his reception as a hero standing in the face of adversity. Yet there remain works by the composer that elude the popularity that the symphonies have garnered. An die ferne Geliebte (On the Distant Beloved), Beethoven’s only song cycle, is a work that encapsulates the composer as both a Romantic and Revolutionary.
An die ferne Geliebte is considered to be the oldest “song cycle” in the repertory. Prior attempts at the genre of “Lieder” were done in a way that imitated folk songs and could be easily played at home with or without a piano accompaniment (which was mostly there to supply harmonic support.) As Richard Taruskin points out, “Beethoven succeeded, while maintaining the unaffected ‘natural’ tone without which lieder are not lieder, in reweighting the scales on the side of art” (p. 132.) In the cycle, the piano gains independence as the work continues, connecting each song to the next (there are no pauses in An die ferne Geliebte resulting in a performance time of approximately 15 minutes.) The vocal line, however, is still largely restrained and can be easily sung by amateur singers, a certain appeal to the commodification of the “Hausmusik” genre.
The relation of art to the artist always presents problems, especially in Beethoven’s case where musicologists have debated for centuries over whether his music is an expression of his self or just a marketable commodity. Barry Cooper, the editor of the new Bärenreiter edition of the cycle, believes that An die ferne Geliebte is quite personal, especially given its non-commissioned status. Indeed, there are several connections to be made with Beethoven’s personal life, most notably his letter to the unknown “Immortal Beloved” of 1812. The title “geliebte,” as opposed to others that were proposed, suggests that the object of the narrator’s affection has been a part of their life (similar to Beethoven’s case.) Yet, there is no mention in the cycle of a reunification, simply a resignation to always being apart, a key possibility posed in Beethoven’s letter. Musically, this is suggested in the cycle by the return of the original theme in the last song. Perhaps this longing is something that the narrator will suffer for perpetuity without true resolution. Other possibilities arise, however, for biographical interpretation. Beethoven dedicated the piece to Franz Joseph Lobkowitz, a long-time supporter. The dedication is an interesting choice as his wife had died in January of 1816, just months before Beethoven composed the cycle. Perhaps, she is the Distant Beloved. Lobkowitz would never receive a copy of the cycle as he died before publication.
Beethoven follows Romantic convention in many ways. All of the songs are strophic, which follows from the simple folk style that Lieder were originally intended to encapsulate. Cooper suggests that An die ferne Geliebte works as a cycle within a cycle (p. III.) The first and last songs frame the inner songs in a way that establishes the narrator’s purpose for singing: to relate his inner pain and loneliness to the distant beloved who, as we learn at the end, is receiving these songs. Songs two through five all revolve around nature using “rustic imagery” that Taruskin points out as being essential to Romanticism. This is typical of the Romantic disposition where encounters with the “sublime” could cause people to realize the awesomeness and perpetuity of nature. The second song describes the mountains and valleys where the narrator longs to be while the third talks of the clouds and birds in the sky which the narrator asks to greet the beloved. The fourth song is perhaps the most personal of the inner cycle which describes how nature will interact with his beloved in a way that would suggest that it will instantly recognize their beauty. The fifth song describes the return of spring. However, the season will not reunite the two as he exclaims “Nur unserer Liebe kein Frühling erschient,/Und Tränen sind all ihr Gewinnen.” Throughout, there are hints of the piano replicating the natural elements described by the narrator. This can be heard most prominently in the third song where light triplets represent the “cloudlets” and trills represent the bird songs. The piano also repeats material from the singer in various moments, suggesting that it may be a personification of the voice of the Distant Beloved singing the songs as instructed by the narrator. In this way, the piano becomes an active participant in the storytelling process.
One might think of Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer above a Sea of Fog (1818) when they encounter Beethoven’s cycle. Indeed, the imagery of mountains, clouds and loneliness are essential elements of the text. Both are examples of conventional Romanticism where the listener and viewer becomes empathetic with the subject by engaging with it.
Yet it can also be easy to forget how revolutionary Beethoven’s music is. The role the piano plays in storytelling would have profound effects on composers such as Schubert, Schumann and Liszt as they continued to push the genre to its more dramatic limits. Therefore, this work serves as a reminder of Beethoven’s innovative position in music as well as his romantic disposition.
Zack Dickerson, October 2020
Cooper, Barry. Introduction in Ludwig Van Beethoven: An Die Ferne Geliebte. Kassel: Bärenreiter, 2020.
Taruskin, Richard. "Volkstumlichkeit." Music in the Nineteenth Century. The Oxford History of Music. Oxford : Oxford University Press , 2010.
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