A Beethoven a day: She can’t hear you, Ludwig

Welcome to the fifth work in the Slipped Disc/Idagio Beethoven Edition

5 An die ferne Geliebte (to the distant beloved), opus 98

Beethoven’s emotional life was unfulfilled. Although he became infatuated with women, they were generally out of his class or otherwise committed and he was left nursing his frustration. His emotions burst forth in this song cycle, dated 1816, which provides the template for the future love cycles of Schubert, Schumann and Wolf. By dint of human failure, Beethoven yet again invented an entirely new musical genre.

It is not known how he came by the texts. The author was a Jewish medical student from Brno, Alois Isidor Jeitteles. He was about half Beethoven’s age and received a nice letter of thanks, which he took home to Brno where he founded a medical practice and edited a Jewish newspaper. Jeitteles made no further musical contribution, other than an ode on Beethoven’s funeral.
The texts are simple, unadorned by romantic agony. Beethoven gave them melodies of equivalent directness, intended for a trained tenor voice but singable by amateurs and, indeed, women. Four tenors dominate the recorded field – Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Fritz Wunderlich, Peter Schreier and Hermann Prey. Among four Fischer-Dieskau sets, I prefer the first, with Gerald Moore at the piano.

Wunderlich, a life cut short in strange circumstances at 35, is partnered in 1963 by Heinrich Schmidt. He takes the songs more slowly than others, without undue emphasis, as if wondering to himself what went so wrong with his love life. Emotionally, he seems closest to the source.

Other interpreters include Thomas Hampson, Ben Heppner, the excellent Christian Gerhaher and Julien Prégardien. For curiosity value, listen to Lotte Lehmann, idiomatic yey anachronistic.

Would you believe there are academics out there who want to get rid of Beethoven?

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  • Domingo sings baritone roles nowadays, some think Kaufmann sounds like a baritone – and now you are telling us Fischer-Dieskau and Prey were tenors …!?

  • “Beethoven yet again invented an entirely new musical genre.”

    I understand the genre referred to here is the lieder cycle and not just the lied itself, but it’s hard to forget that Schubert had already produced “Gretchen am Spinnrade” in 1814 and “Erlkönig” in 1815, and that these two pieces alone constitute the pillars of the glorious opening gate to the great achievements of his contemporaries and successors (of whom Beethoven, giving his limited output in the genre, cannot be considered one of the greatest exponents).

    Don’t read me wrong: this is still great music, especially performed by such giants…

    • Very true, but hardly a song cycle in either case, even a small one? Quite a strong quartet of singers, however one classifies them!

  • ‘Four tenors dominate the recorded field – Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Fritz Wunderlich, Peter Schreier and Hermann Prey.’

    When were the two baritones Fischer-Dieskau and Prey ever tenors?

  • What an amazing piece.
    Schreier with Shetler in a live performance is the most gripping for me.
    Padmore and Bezuidenhout is a fantastic performance with fortepiano. But there’s something special about the way FD sings this, particularly the last song.

  • “An die ferne Geliebte” I think is the first song-cycle, unusual also in that each song flows into the next without a full stop, and that the opening melody returns at the end.

    Gerhard Huesch made a fine “stand and deliver” early record of it with Hans Udo Mueller, also of the difficult “Adelaide” {“Auf jeder purpur Blaettchen” is a mouthful, repeated many times), and :”Neue Liebe, neues Leben” that is so like Schubert’s horseback “Musensohn”,

    Fischer-Dieskau is excellent as ever. Gerald Finley and Roderick Williams could certainly do them all justice.

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