2020 marks the 250th anniversary of the birth of Ludwig van Beethoven, the single most influential figure in the history of Western music. His intense focus on individual expression and musical innovation made life more difficult, yet arguably more rewarding, for every musician afterward. We’re his children. He touched us all, from Chuck Berry to Max Richter and everyone before, between, and beyond.
Every two weeks in this space, I’ll survey a genre in which Beethoven left his mark. In some genres, he made a bigger splash—symphonies, string quartets, piano sonatas—so those categories will occupy multiple discussion spaces. Multiples also recommend themselves because over the years he changed his own style so markedly. Why lump together his Haydnesque early quartets with his late quartets, so radically different from them (and from each other)?
We’ll pair up each Beethoven selection with a work or works in the same genre from a 20th- or 21st-century composer. The lines of influence may be obvious and significant. Or they may be missing entirely. It took some people (but not everyone) a long time to get over Beethoven.
Today we’ll do Beethoven songs. He was not a great song composer. As Julian Haylock reminds us in notes to Beethoven Songs (Hyperion), “Beethoven saw music as a world of infinite possibilities largely unencumbered by textual concerns.” He was happiest when he could work with emotions that emanated from internal (that is, instrumental) musical drama, which allowed him to speak directly to the listener. Haylock cites the opening movement of the “Moonlight” Sonata as a prime example of Beethoven’s ability to articulate the pain of unrequited love better without a text than he ever did with one.
And yet. Let’s open our survey of Beethoven’s eighty-odd songs with an acknowledged masterpiece, his 1796-ish setting of Matthison’s poem “Adelaide,” sung by Fritz Wunderlich. (Suggestion: open these text translations and just keep them open.)
This is as good as it gets. Beethoven creates and maintains a lyrical melodic line, floating above a sensitive but restrained piano accompaniment. It’s not exactly strophic (successive stanzas sung to the same tune), nor does it seem through-composed in an operatically jumbled way. Yet 18th-century critics faulted the third-verse piano accompaniment and Allegro molto finale precisely for their lack of tasteful, unifying restraint.
Even more theatrical in character was “An die Hoffnung,” an 1815 setting that recalls Schubert’s similar efforts that year, e.g., “Gretchen am Spinnrade” and “Erlkönig.” Those songs owe their overtly narrative style to the Balladen tradition associated with Schubert and his younger colleague Carl Loewe. “An die Hoffnung” opens with an operatic recitativo:
We’re using this Hyperion Beethoven collection partly because it presents his songs in all their diversity, both the missteps and the solid hits. Here’s one takeaway: the composer did better with painful emotions than with joy. The first two stanzas of “Klage” show how effectively he could deepen feelings by a simple turn to the minor mode:
Conversely, in “Busslied,” Beethoven’s initial sensitivity to human guilt is nearly undone in the last three stanzas by his shallow treatment of the text’s turn toward hope. (Our clip begins at “Herr, handle nicht mit mir.”)
The collection does offer unabashed pleasures, ranging from a brief but atmospheric meditation on death, “Vom Tode,” to the gleefully sardonic “Song of the Flea” (below, with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Gerald Moore). Hyperion’s Stephan Genz and Roger Vignoles deliver impeccable renditions throughout, ending with Beethoven’s one true song cycle, An die ferne Geliebte. Teije Van Geest’s engineering has held up well.
And now to our “Plus One,” Czech composer Leoš Janáček (1854–1928). You might well ask, why Janáček? What did he have in common with Beethoven? Short answer: not much.
In his songs, Beethoven often reflexively called upon the operatic devices of his time. Besides the examples cited above, there’s the hearty ending of “Busslied” (LvB didn’t always know how to make happiness interesting). Likewise the awkward, quasi-triumphant conclusion to “Nimm sie hin denn, diese Lieder” in An die ferne Geliebte.
As we’ll see, Janáček instead felt called to innovate: he sought nothing less than to create a body of music in sync with Czech folk idioms and the Czech language. Rather than shape his songs to existing vocal tropes, he discovered ways to fit his visionary folk-based style, first developed for opera, to the more intimate medium of solo song.
And why was that style so important to Janáček? Because of another crucial difference between him and Beethoven: the latter had been raised in an aristocratic court and depended on aristocratic patronage all his life. Beethoven internalized not only the art of that circle but also its values, with one crucial, revolutionary distinction—one might become a “natural” nobleman, blessed by genius instead of bloodline.
Janáček was raised among peasants in various poor Moravian villages where his father and grandfather had served as teachers. There and later he encountered the cultural products of the “folk” largely without mediation. One is reminded of Robert Frost’s words:
There are two types of realists: the one who offers a good deal of dirt with his potato to show that it is a real one, and the one who is satisfied with the potato brushed clean. I'm inclined to be the second kind. To me, the thing that art does for life is to clean it, to strip it to form.
Janáček might have disagreed; to “clean” an artifact does far more than “strip it to form.” Some background: after his smashing success in 1904 with Jenůfa, Janáček considered himself primarily an opera composer. But his whole life had been bound up in singing. His family’s straitened circumstances forced him to leave home at age 11 to join a monastery choir in Brno. At age 18 he took over that choir; a year later he was made conductor of a working-men’s choral society, for which he wrote his first folk-song settings.
The perennially impoverished Janáček somehow managed to study in Prague (where he got to know Dvořák), Leipzig, and Vienna. Always he led choral groups, even managing to mount Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis in Brno in 1879. Later he founded the Brno Organ School and became its first director. In 1888 he began collecting folksongs; like Bartók and Komitas, he was helping invent ethnomusicology. When his research brought him back to northern Moravia for the first time since childhood, he was astonished by its music.
That revelatory trip coincided with disappointments over his first opera, Šárka. He had set the libretto without permission; now its author forbade performance. Worse yet, having encountered folk realism, Janáček found himself embarrassed by Šárka’s jejune romantic style. Nevertheless his ethnographic work bore positive fruit: a flood of folksong editions and music based on folk materials. And he got to know Gabriela Preissová, author of the play upon which Jenůfa would be based. Janáček’s attitudes toward dramatic music and toward the Czech language continued to undergo profound changes, decisively enriching his personal idiom with the folk styles he had embraced.
Which brings us to the extraordinary music in a new Janáček collection from Hyperion. It includes some of Janáček’s earliest efforts, published in the 1890s as Moravian Folk Poetry in Songs. (Click here for texts and translations of what follows; keep the window open.) The poetry is filled with remarkably complex emotional transactions, which the music complements. Here are two examples, “Pennyroyal” (tr 31) and “Rosemary” (tr 37)
Similar bittersweet realisms survive in a much later work, The Diary of One Who Disappeared. This was the earliest music inspired by Janáček’s 1917 encounter with Kamila Stösslova, a young woman who became the 63-year-old composer’s reluctant muse. Although he met her in a Moravian spa town, in his imagination she embodied Zefka, the gypsy girl in The Diary who lures a young plowman into an illicit relationship. (The story had originated in a series of folk poems published in a Brno newspaper.)
These poems shared the psychological complexity of Janáček’s Moravian Folk Poetry settings, but the composer now brought a deepened understanding of his task to every line. The Diary’s 22 movements depict the course of a passionate, life-changing love affair, including a piano interlude tracing its physical consummation. It is scored primarily for tenor and piano, although female voices emerge at times to provide dialog and atmosphere. The plowman careens between desire and guilt. He cannot resist the woman who may forever separate him from his family, his community, and his way of life. Perhaps two movements, “Twilight glow-worms” and “Already swallows are twittering,” (tr 3 & 4) will impart some sense of the cycle’s overwhelming effect:
Superbly performed by tenor Nicky Drake, pianist Julius Drake, and the supporting musicians. Engineer Ben Connellan captures the music’s tenderness and violence in equal measure. Nigel Simeone contributes invaluable booklet notes.
Earlier I mentioned Komitas (1869–1935), legendary scholar of Armenian folk music. Here’s why: Janáček’s Diary concerns a simple plowman and his un-simple emotional journey. Plowing songs were also a staple of Armenian folk music; Komitas collected dozens of them in his short life. Those songs are likewise—and famously—not simple. Wherever you go, you are likely to encounter plowing songs, and they are likely to disclose complexities. The best will offer a good deal of dirt with the potato.