Academic journal article The Beethoven Newsletter

Separated Lovers and Separate Motives: The Musical Message of an Die Ferne Geliebte

Academic journal article The Beethoven Newsletter

Separated Lovers and Separate Motives: The Musical Message of an Die Ferne Geliebte

Article excerpt

By the time Beethoven composed An die ferne Geliebte (To the Distant Beloved) in April 1816, he had written eight symphonies, all of his concertos, and all but his last fortepiano sonatas and string quartets. The triumphs of his so-called "Heroic Decade" gave way to years of extreme personal hardship. His affair with the "Immortal Beloved" evidently collapsed in 1812, many of his patrons either died or left Vienna, and his virtually total deafness put an end to his public performances on the fortepiano. To most outside observers, his career must have seemed at an end. In the months immediately preceding the composition of An die ferne Geliebte, personal events continued to outweigh musical ones. After his brother Caspar Carl died in midNovember 1815, Beethoven began his lengthy legal campaign to win custody of his nephew Karl.

Against this backdrop of declining productivity and personal drama (if not to say, melodrama), Beethoven composed his celebrated Liederkreis, making uncharacteristically rapid progress. His setting of six poems by Alois Jeitteles is commonly recognized as the first lieder cycle. In the nineteenth century the cycle was highly esteemed, even revered. Schumann and Brahms thought enough of it to quote An die ferne Geliebte prominently in works of their own. In our own century it has enjoyed a reputation as a pivotal work in Beethoven's career, a "quiet herald" in Joseph Kerman's apt phrase,1 of Beethoven's late-period fondness for integrated and introspective compositions.

Music and poetry combine in unusual and unsuspected ways in the cycle. It isn't so much that Beethoven depicts specific images in his music (though birds can be heard in songs 4 and 5), but that the whole story of Jeitteles' poems provided Beethoven with a poetic idea to work out musically. The text describes the feelings of separation and longing for a distant beloved (song 1); after measuring the distance in terms of the mountains, valleys, and woods which separate them (song 2), the lover at first tells the birds, the wind, and the stream to convey his image and his tears to his beloved (song 3); then he entreats the various elements of nature to carry him to her, to caress her (song 4); the month of May comes to unite lovers everywhere, even the birds build nests together - only he is denied such happiness (song 5); finally, the lover sends his beloved these songs for her to sing ("Nimm sie hin denn, diese Lieder"; "Take them then, these songs"), as a means of overcoming the time and distance that keep them painfully apart (song 6).

Beethoven builds his Liederkreis on cyclic elements inherent in the poetry. Table I presents some of the symmetrical aspects of music and poetry.2 The circular key scheme (e-flat, g, a-flat, a-flat, c, and e-flat) and the poetic meter both begin and end the same way, and the interior songs pair off as well. Furthermore, the force of this circularity is enhanced by two innovative features: transitional passages for the fortepiano lead from one song to the next without a break, and there is a musical and poetic link between songs 1 and 6. The final two verses of the final stanzas, both music and text, repeat: "Und ein liebend Herz erreichtet/ Was ein liebend Herz geweiht!" ("And a loving heart is reached by what a loving heart has hallowed!").

Indeed, as Joseph Kerman argued, the last stanza of song 1 "was almost certainly an addition by the composer."3 Thus Beethoven apparently added a new concluding stanza to song 1 in order to justify the literal repeat of music at the end of the cycle. But as we shall see, this is not the only musical reason Beethoven would have had for contributing this extra stanza.

In his musical setting Beethoven relies principally on variation techniques for continuity as much as diversity. Figurai variations in the accompaniment provide diversity within the songs while the voice typically repeats each stanza to the same strophic melody. Yet beyond stringing together individual strophic variations, Beethoven remarkably, yet surrepititiously, depends on motivic transformations to derive songs 2 through 6 from individual phrases of song 1. …

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