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  • Writer's pictureScott M Williamson

Distant Immortal Beloved

Below are the notes on the recital I'll be sharing via WLU's Livestream, Saturday Nov 7 at 8 pm (ET).

I hope you can tune in to this program which juxtaposes Beethoven's only song cycle, "To the Distant Beloved" with music of six different women composers, along with epic songs on mythological subjects by Schubert and Wolf.

Introduction: Beethoven in 2020

The past is valid only in relation to whether the present recognizes it.

(Beethoven was 1/16th Black, Nadine Gordimer)

The past splits open. God invents curious torture for his favorites.

(Beethoven Variations, Ruth Padel)

Recommend virtue to your children: for virtue alone, not money, can grant us happiness; I speak from experience. It was virtue that raised me up even in my misery; it is owing to virtue, and to my art, that I did not end my life by suicide. Farewell and love each other!

(Beethoven’s “Heiligenstadt Testament,” an unsent letter to his brothers, 1802.

Unless otherwise indicated quotes below are from Beethoven’s letters and journals.)

You take the hardships as signposts.

Daedalus, when confined to the labyrinth invented the wings which lifted him upwards…

Oh I too shall find them, these wings.

It’s 2020, Beethoven is 250. This quintessential “hero” of classical music will always have something to say. But what voices of Beethoven’s might we have missed, down-played or dismissed along the way? Life and work are entwined here with the modern world of political revolution, the Age of Enlightenment, Industrial Revolution and Romantic era which marked the “long 19th century.”

Beethoven’s biography intersects with complexes of race, gender, sexuality, economics, family and faith. His life documents challenges with mental health and disease. His work informs our understanding of rapidly advancing technologies. His letters and dealings with publishers, patrons and colleagues illumine the modern music industry’s landscape at its dawning. Beethoven remains one of Western culture’s most recognizable superstars. And he comes with star-studded baggage.

Alex Ross is among current scholarly voices rightly claiming the life of the so-called “genius” as a thing-onto-itself. So how do we read Beethoven’s life? The defiant “revolutionary” and “tortured” romantic artist chronicled his own struggles with depression and suicide. He suffered from hearing loss for his final 30 years, along with gout and chronic intestinal illnesses. DNA sampling of his hair determined the cause of the latter to be lead poisoning. Over a dozen examples survive of his coveted locks and are housed in Beethoven archives around the world.

Never overtly show men the contempt which they deserve,

for one can never know when one may need them.

Hot blood is my fault…wildly surging emotions may betray my heart. But my heart is good…

His “hot blood” and extraordinary resilience inform both life and creative cycles. Across a dramatic career he fulfilled his early promise to “seize Fate by the throat” and “live for art.” Beethoven’s quintessential tone for much of his reception history has been his “heroic” one. This music is characterized by its forward motion, it’s “thrust” and “overcoming” of obstacles and oppositions. Its relentless drive accomplishes the technical and affective goals of classical sonata form while extending them. Princeton scholar Scott Burnham’s study, Beethoven Hero (1995) interprets this style “as an expression of the conditions of selfhood.” Burnham cites a “deeply engaging psychological process not unlike the archetypal process in mythological accounts of the hero’s journey.”

The hero’s archetypal journey is common to mythologies from across the ancient Mediterranean to West Africa, from India to First Nation cosmogonies. Like Goethe, Beethoven read widely and was particularly interested in the “orientalist” writings of the Middle East and India. Goethe famously started to learn Arabic at age 60, and Beethoven’s surviving Tagebuch (his journals, with entries from 1812-1818) is full of Hindu and other Eastern references.

I am that which is. 

I am everything that is, that was, that will be. No mortal man has lifted my veil

(from an ancient Egyptian inscription common to Freemasonry rituals, on Beethoven’s desk).

Beethoven is a singular creative figure, and like Whitman’s poetic voice, he contains multitudes. He is classical music’s “trickster” hero as much as its “Generalissimo” (a title he used to sign certain letters). To borrow the subtitle of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Frankenstein (1817), Beethoven is a “modern Prometheus.” He is the defiant rebel, a free-thinker who demands recognition while eschewing conventional categorization. We can read Adrienne Rich’s feminist poem The 9th Symphony of Beethoven Understood at Last as a Sexual Message (1973) as both graphic critique and empathetic portrait of a suffering, illness-plagued artist as the tortured Titan.

In the most common version of the Prometheus myth, “the fire-bringer” is punished by Zeus for enlightening humanity through the gifts of fire and industry. For this crime of ambition he is chained to a peak in the Caucasus mountains and his liver devoured by an eagle. Said innards are miraculously regenerated daily, thus the torture symbolizes the “eternal return,” the cyclical wheel of samsara (fate), in addition to its many mythological and allegorical readings.

You are Prometheus / the benefactor, stealing flame / to give to humans. A Shiva ray

creating and destroying. You are defiance… (“Human Fire,” Ruth Padel)

His defiance of the established hierarchy has endeared Prometheus to artists from Aeschylus to Byron and Goethe, Liszt and Luigi Nono. In another version, the one inspiring Beethoven’s ballet, The Creatures of Prometheus, the Titan delights on Mount Olympus in creative freedom with Apollo and the Muses, Bacchus and Orpheus. Beethoven was also considered a modern Orpheus. One of the famous portraits of the composer shows his modern wig-less haircut, an Orphic lyre foregrounded in one hand with New England “Liberty Trees” in the background.

Music is a higher revelation than all wisdom and philosophy; it is the wine of a new procreation and I am Bacchus who presses out his glorious wine for men and makes them drunk with the spirit.

Notes on the music

Our spirited opening to this eclectic survey of Beethoven in 2020 comes from West Coast based composer Brooke deRosa (WLU, 2001). Her setting of The Mad Hatter, adapted especially for tonight’s performance, is a bright pastiche of styles itself, echoing vaudeville, classic Hollywood, Cabaret-infused octaves, tremolos, cascades and slides with panache.

Franz Schubert’s setting of Goethe’s poem (from an unfinished drama) is a striking scena of a song. Prometheus stands out even among the vast repertory of 600 + Lieder (songs) its composer is most known for; it is Schubert paying direct tribute to his “hero.” Pianist-scholar Graham Johnson notes the concluding “elemental” section of Schubert’s song recalls Beethoven, “the most obviously Promethean of all artists, and one who might be forgiven for turning on his Creator.” Indeed, the piano gestures of the conclusion echo Beethoven’s Hammerklavier Sonata, which had been published in the fall of 1819, just before Schubert began his 5’ miniature epic.

Like Schubert, Hugo Wolf likely suffered from manic-depressive illness, died from syphilis, and is best known as a brilliant composer of German lieder. Wolf famously refused to set poems when he found previous versions sufficient to the task of musical versification. The number of his Goethe settings which overlap with Schubert’s is all the more intriguing. Schubert’s setting of Ganymed is a through-composed pastoral portrait, suffused with sensual evocations of nature paralleling the homoerotic sexual awakening of its subject, a newly chosen servant and companion of Zeus. Wolf’s fluid harmonies unspool a sinuous line shared between the voice and piano, creating a sound world as distinct from Schubert’s as it is his from contemporary Gustav Mahler. Challenging the queer patriarch of German song, Wolf out-Schubert’s Schubert with a rhapsodic ending to one of his finest accomplishments as a song-writer composer.

With the Immortal Beloved (Unsterbliche Geliebte), the academics get hung up on whether it was Joesphine or Giulietta, Terese or “Tina” (Bettina von Armin, herself a composer and friend of Goethe). We know July 6-7, 1812 Beethoven wrote an un-addressed, unsent letter:

My angel, my all, my very self… Love demands all, and with every right. Thus it is for me with you, and for you with me… Today I cannot tell you the thoughts I have been thinking about my life… If our hearts were always close together, I probably wouldn’t have such thoughts… As for the rest, the gods must send what must and shall be our lot.

Four years later, Beethoven’s “first-gen” song-cycle appears, An die ferne Geliebte, an under-sung poem-in-parts, a 6-track playlist to the Immortal Beloved, signed “your faithful Ludwig…”

“To the Distant Beloved” is indeed a ground-breaking song-cycle in western music, setting the Brno-born Jewish poet Alois Jeitteles (1794-1858). Like the “Mulatto” violinist George Bridgetower, Jeitteles enriches an ever vibrant landscape in Beethoven studies. Bigotry and hagiography are awkward bedfellows; it’s easier to brush such things under the rug. The composer’s anti-semitic comments are excused in footnotes, and the unanswered questions of his relationship with the African Bridgetower are dismissed. That BIPOC superstar virtuoso was the original dedicatee of Beethoven’s famous “Kreutzer Sonata,” itself inspiration for Tolstoy’s story and Janácek’s string quartet. For the curious, Bridgetower plays the principal role in Rita Dove’s brilliant book of poems, Sonata Mulattica (2009). Ruth Padel’s new book of poems, Beethoven Variations (2020, and quoted above) resonates where biography and unanswerable questions meet reconstructed histories and creative imagination: What remains is an echo, an afterglow…

Beethoven’s only vocal chamber work on a scale with his large instrumental works has novel features in from and content. In an innovation foreshadowing Robert Schumann, the unbroken string of six songs is unified by a synthesizing coda: the opening song’s memorably rising-falling, aspiring-sighing theme returns at the conclusion of the 6th song. Besides framing the chain of love-songs with innovative musical architecture, Beethoven challenges notions of time, place and voice in this song cycle.

Romantic tropes of nature infuse and inform the musical language. Listen for the voicing in the middle of the 2nd song, when the singer intones the poem monotone, allowing the piano to voice theme and harmony, as if the poet must be quiet before the sublime. Self-consciousness reminds our subject of his “inner pain” in the cycle’s first moment of minor-key dissonance. The middle two songs are Schubertian with bucolic dialogues between poet and nature. Echoes of the bird-calls of his Pastoral (6th) Symphony denote the 5th song, which privileges the union of Spring’s renewal, even if no such thing appears for its solitary lover. Tears dried, the “inner cycle” (songs 2-5) complete, the poet addresses his beloved directly. In his essay from the collection Beethoven and His World (2000), Nicholas Marston writes: Having hit on the idea of music…as the means of bridging the distance that separates them, the lover looks forward in the final song to that time when his beloved will herself sing the songs that he has sung.

Clara Wieck’s (1819 - 1896) and Robert Schumann’s relationship is documented by the music they wrote together and for one another. They embodied the Romantic era’s ideal of the Individual and the “meeting of equals.” Clara was the more gifted pianist and was admired by Goethe and the Mendelssohns, Chopin and Liszt. Their 1840 wedding, following an extended legal battle from the reactionary Wieck patriarch, saw both composers write rapturous love songs for the other. Three of Clara’s songs were included in the Twelve Poems from Rückert’s Spring of Love (Liebesfrühling).

Liebst du um Schönheit is most famous in Gustav Mahler’s setting (a wedding present for his wife and fellow composer, Alma). Clara’s setting is in a modified strophic form, with each of the four short quatrain-length verses displaying subtle variations while unified by common melodic and accompaniment figures. The song’s conclusion is notable for its wistful resemblance to one of Robert’s trademarks, a brief piano postlude, a song without words, a coded message. He would do the same for Clara, and in one instance references An die ferne Geliebte.

Gustav Mahler’s (1860-1911) Five Rückert Songs are among the most beloved of orchestral songs, exquisitely crafted vocal tone poems from an important impresario and opera conductor who composed solely during summer vacation. Mahler notoriously forbade his younger wife from composing upon their union, then recanted after allegedly “discovering” one of her songs on the piano. “Ten years of wasted development cannot be made up,” Alma later wrote. “It was a galvanized corpse he tried to resurrect.” By the time Mahler visited Freud it was too late for that artist couple: Alma Schindler Mahler (1879 - 1964) was hooking up with the Bauhaus architect Walter Gropius, her husband-to-be following Gustav’s death a year later.

When Alma met the superstar Jewish conductor Gustav Mahler at the turn of the millennium, she was a student (and lover) of Zemlinsky, another expressionist voice connecting to Schoenberg & the 2nd Viennese School, to Klimt and the Secessionist painters. These generations of artists also intersect with the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918: Klimt, Schiele, Apollinaire, Griffes and Parry were among the artists, writers and composers who died from the disease.

Alma’s Fünf Lieder (Five Songs) from 1910 were published with Gustav’s backing, and at his urging, per above. They demonstrate her literacy with contemporary poetry. Dehmel and Rilke match her expressionist palette and her Heine setting confirms her place among noted composers of German Lieder. Gustav Falke’s lyric poem is constellated by Alma’s wildly colorful imagination. Her nocturne conjures a music-hall cabaret and romantic-expressionist miniature. With a wink and nod to the love-potion music of Tristan and Isolde, Alma’s musical language is its own ear-tickling pastiche, and sounds like no one else’s voice.

Amy Scurria’s song, Impromptu (1996) voices Jonathan Pearl’s impressionist lyric - a literal “octave” of 8 musical lines - with dream-like elusiveness. Her harmonies needn’t be Wagnerian to conjure the in-between worlds of “sleep and dreams,” Nocturnes being among the universally beloved forms of creatives in painting, poetry, music, drama and film. Amy weaves in and out of tonalities like consciousness upon pre-dawn stirring. The deceptively simple (Beethovenian?) touch at “Oh why should this unreally seem,” marked “sweetly” in the score, displays this composer’s formal gifts for return and closure, her voice’s balanced invention, its elusive beauty.

Though not a popular success in New York or London, the Jeanine Tesori - Tony Kushner musical, Caroline, or Change has been an award-winning critical and cult favorite for its genuine voicing of a culturally charged moment in 1963 Louisiana, where race, class and faith collide. Their poetic and historically grounded world animates a washing machine, dryer and the Moon to sing with Caroline and the other “help.” Moon Change connects a thread via Sondheim and “new music theatre” to Bernstein and the “golden age” of Jewish theater music.

Jennifer Rosenfeld’s visionary new musical tells the dramatic resistance history of Sophie Scholl and The White Rose anti-fascist movement in Munich during the rise of Nazism. Hans sings his activist artist-of-conscious statement, “So Can I” as if he were a “Beethoven Hero.” His journey is embodied and lived across this dynamic “discovery song.” We travel with him on a thrilling musical-theater ride towards self-realization in this character-defining solo.

They say that a revolution was about to break out – but I believe that as long as the Austrians have their brown beer and sausages, they’ll never revolt… One must not talk too loudly, or the Police give him lodgings for the night. (Beethoven in 1794)

We close with a parody from the brilliant and popular new-music-theater hip-hop history, Hamilton. Here, King George III voices the “old guard” of W&L, becoming “King George” Washington, founding father and awkward burden. Maybe Beethoven can teach us something about “hero worship” and updating curricula in his sesquicentennial?

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