Beethoven and his Jewish doctormain
An die ferne Geliebte, opus 98
Although I discussed this set in one of my first essays in this series, I am returning to it four months later in light of new research and some further isolationist thoughts occasioned by our peculiar present constraints.
In 1816, with Napoleon defeated and the leaders of unfree world gathering in Vienna to consolidate their unholy rule, Beethoven invented the song-cycle. He asked a friend, Alois Isidor Jeitteles, for some love poems he could set to music and found both the content and the form conducive to a linked narrative about a man, sitting on a hill, contemplating the girl he would never get. Since this was a valid reflection of his own unfulfilled love life, the cycle can be read in some way as autobiography, but it also needs to be seen in light of the relationship between Beethoven and the poet, a man 24 years younger than himself and from a different culture.
Alois Isidor Jeitteles came from the Czech town of Brünn (Brno), where as a student he founded and edited a Jewish weekly newspaper, Siona. His family were middleclass and erudite, with rabbinic scholars (pictured), doctors and writers among his Prague ancestors. Jeitteles translated plays from Spanish and Italian and wrote some successful ones of his own. After studying at universities in Brünn and Prague, he came to Vienna to complete his medical qualification, all the while maintaining membership of an artistic circle that included the influential playwright Franz Grillparzer as well as the no less manipulative composer Antonio Salieri. It was through this group that he obtained access to Beethoven and asked if he could submit his poems.
They arrived at a timely moment, just as Beethoven told one of his friends that he had ‘found only one, whom I shall doubtless never possess.’ What Beethovene expresses in his music is not the distant love of the text but the unattainability of love. He clearly had a liking for Jeitteles, both as a poet and as a medical man whom he could approach with his many incurable complaints, starting with deafness. We have very little further detail about their connection. Jeitteles graduated in medicine in 1821 and returned to Brünn, where he set up as a general practitioner, achieving near-heroic status during two cholera epidemics in 1831 and 1836. He offered his services for free to two local chairites, one of which was the Institute for the Deaf and Dumb. Might this have been a reflection of his Beethoven connection?
In the revolutionary year 1848 he became editor of the Brünner Zeitung. He died 10 years later, aged 63, and was buried in the Jewish cemetery. Aside from the six poems he wrote for Beethoven, nothing else that he did endures in posterity. Like many of his time and place, Beethoven was sometimes disparaging of Jews, although he had contact with very few. With Jeitteles there is no hint of prejudice, only praise. The fruit of their collaboration is a miniature artform , the song cycle, that Schubert would develop to perfection. There is one other by-product: the idea, that Beethoven held dear, that true art could enable even an outcast like himself to find love.
The six songs in the cycle are almost invariably sung by men; a gender-bending set by Lotte Lehmann, glorious though she sounds, requires a massive suspension of disbelief. They are composed in such a way that one leads seamlessly into the next.
The first question in selecting an interpretation is how the listener feels about Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. A Lieder singer who covered a large range from low baritone to mid-tenor, he has exquisite diction and limitless gradations of emotion, along with an insatiable ambition to be the very best at anything he attempted. ‘I did too much,’ he said to me sadly in a BBC Lebrecht Interview. This was not full disclosure.
At the peak of his success, F-D used his influence at Deutsche Grammophon to ensure that no-one recorded certain repertoire before he did. The result is that some of his recordings feel a tad formulaic, as if the music was just another box to be ticked in his personal catalogue. Much as I liked and admired him, my conclusion is that Beethoven was not his forte – not in this cycle , at least. Feel free to disagree. Of his three recordings of this set, the first, with Gerald Moore at the piano, is the least mannered.
The purest of German tenors Fritz Wunderlich, with Heinrich Schmidt at the piano, is higher up the scale than Fischer-Dieskau and sunnier in outlook. His singing goes straight to the heart, even if he gives the impression that if he can’t get this beloved there is always be another not far behind. Wunderlich is not the perfect Beethoven man, but by heavens he is beautiful.
Olaf Bär was an East German baritone of brief 1990s ascendancy. He achieves a dark introspection in these songs, coloured even darker by Geoffrey Parsons’ directive pianism. It’s unusual for a pianist to dominate a song cycle quite so explicitly, but the singer seems content to follow. If only for its exploration of the singer-pianist relationship, you should give this set a spin.
Among current interpreters, Christian Gerhaher most resembles Fischer-Dieskau in pitch and precision. He recorded the set in 2012 and I suspect he would have a broader perspective if he did it again. Matthias Goerne in his 2019 DG recording with Jan Lisiecki at the piano is richer in voice, subtler in colour and altogether lovelier to listen to. This is a baritone at the peak of his power lamenting the love that got away. It’s an eternal trope and there is not a dull syllable in it.