Monday, July 29, 2013

Beethoven as a Song Composer

For a hundred years after Beethoven died, composers were terrified at the thought of trying to live up to his example in the genres of the symphony, string quartet and piano sonata. Brahms wrote and destroyed several examples of each before he finally allowed his Symphony No. 1 to be performed. Feeling keenly the weight of expectations created by Beethoven's symphonies, Brahms worked on his First Symphony from 1855 until it was finally completed and performed in 1876. Of course the conductor Hans von Bülow immediately dubbed it "Beethoven's Tenth" which captures the relationship pretty well.

But no opera composer lost a single night's sleep worrying about Beethoven's Fidelio.

Now why is that?

Beethoven's powers as a composer are undisputed, but his greatest accomplishments are in the field of instrumental music. He was able to make the instruments speak to us powerfully, expressively and intimately in a way no composer previously had done. But his accomplishments in the area of vocal music are on a different level. True, he did write the first song-cycle in 1816, his An die ferne Geliebte, which is a charming enough work. But Franz Schubert, at age seventeen, had already written "Der Erlkönig" and "Gretchen am Spinnrade" a couple of years earlier on texts by Goethe. Though it has an interesting tonal structure and was the first to link all the songs together, Beethoven's song-cycle is not nearly as significant an achievement as those of Schubert. To Beethoven, this song cycle was a single, extraneous work, probably inspired by biographical events, and of no more significance in his output as a whole than his chamber music for winds. Schubert, on the other hand, was a hugely gifted lieder composer who wrote some six hundred songs and inspired a century of great lieder by Schumann, Wolfe and others.

You could not ask for a finer lieder singer than Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. Here he is performing An die ferne Geliebte:

That is pleasant and enjoyable music, but hardly on a level with any Beethoven string quartet or piano sonata. You might not want to put it much above lieder by popular composers of the day such as Heinrich Marschner:

This post comes out of my examination of Beethoven's Symphony No. 9. I am about to do a post on the last movement which poses a number of aesthetic problems because of the presence of vocal soloists and a choir.

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