The worst thing Beethoven ever wrote

The worst thing Beethoven ever wrote


norman lebrecht

July 18, 2020

Welcome to the 99th work in the Slipped Disc/Idagio Beethoven Edition

Beethoven: Germania, WoO 94 (1814) 

If you thought Wellington’s Victory was as low as Beethoven could sink in pandering to a tide of popular emotion, this cruddy little chorus for the German part in defeating Napoleon is about as craven a piece of musical propaganda as you will find before the Hitler and Stalin years.

The impetus was a patriotic opera by George Friedrich Treitschke (1776-1842) titled Die gute Nachricht (Good News) for which music was solocited from all the leading Viennese composers. The finale, titled Germania, was reserved for Beethoven. Treitschke, before we dismiss him as a theatrical hack, was a respected entomologist with dozens of important publications on the butterflies of central Europe. He had previously done Beethoven a favour that year by revising the libretto of Fidelio, his literary improvements enabling the composer to ‘rebuild the ruins of an old castle’ and finally establish the opera as a masterpiece.

The words of Germania are, by contrast, triumphalist, faux-classical and revolting. This is the first of five verses:
Germania, Germania,
How bright you stand right now.
Mists envelope your great head,
The old sun might have been stolen,
But God, the Lord, came to your aid.
Let Him be praised, and Heil to thee, Germania.

Beethoven appears to have been caught up in some kind of masss hysteria for this constitutional loner wrote the following letter about a joint victory concert for the beneft of wounded soldiers in which he took part: ‘It was a rare assembly of outstanding artists… Each, inspired by the sole thought of contributing something for the benefit of the Fatherland, worked together without thought of rank and in subordinate positions to bring about an outstanding performance. (…) The leadership of the whole crowd fell to me only because I composed the music. Had it been by someone else, I should have been as willing as Hr. Hummel to take my place at the great drum, since we were all filled solely with the purest feeling of love for the Fatherland and with the joy of giving of our powers for those who had given so greatly for us.’ The euphoria must have been brief, because he soon fell out with Treitschke over a faulty rhythm in the final verse around the Latin word ‘Victoria’. Beethoven said: ‘By the way, I shall not be the slightest bit offended if you want to have it set to music again by Gyrowetz or someone else, though I prefer Weinmüller. For I lay no claim whatever to it. At the same time I refuse to allow anyone else, whoever he may be, to alter my compositions.’ (Weinmüller sang the role of Rocco in the 1814 Fidelio revival.)


Germania is five minutes of intolerable smugness relieved neither by invention nor a hint of detachment on the composer’s part. It is very rarely performed. Of the three recordings on Idagio’s I would recommend the quickest and least indulgent, conducted by Andrew Davis in 1996, with Gerald Finley as the get-over-it soloist and blustery singing from the BBC Singers. It’s done in four and a half minutes.

This is not Beethoven’s only patriotic contribution, although it is by some way the most offensive by the bombast he provides for full orchestra and chorus. The others tend to be solo songs like

Des Kriegers Abschied WoO 143

the warriors farewell for bass and piano, austerely sung by the German bass-baritone Hans Hotter in the thick of Hitler’s war, with Michael Raucheisen at the piano. The singer pledges himself body and soul to the Fatherland.

In Abschiedsgesang an Wiens Bürger WoO 121

farewell song of a Viennese citizen in wartime, Beethoven permits a dash of levity, sending his citizen off with a lilt in his step and a male chorus echoing his national and religious sentiments. Hermann Prey gives good account of it. Prey also performs Kriegslied der Österreicher WoO 122, which begins with the words ‘A great German Volk are we…’ These solo songs add no more than tiny hints to our understanding of Beethoven in a time of war.

More problematic is a cantata that he wrote in 1814, but was not published in his lifetime.

Der glorreiche Augenblick (the glorious moment), opus 136,
While as bombastic as Wellington’s Siege, this cantata is recognisably Beethoven at close to his best, with some transcendent soprano solos and a beautifully integrated orchestra and chorus. The text, by a Salzburg surgeon called Alois Weissenbach, is full of victorious clichés and tributes to noble allies. But Beethoven slips a violin cadenza in the midst of the noisiest passage, suggesting that his mind is drifting to less militaristic objectives.

All told, the cantata is a patchwork quilt of many colours, full of the most unexpected declaration of love to his adopted city, Vienna – ‘Heil, Vienna! Heil und Glück!’ To confuse matters further, an alternative text by Friedrich Rochlitz was appended to to second posthumous publication of the cantata, a decade after Beethoven’s death.

If you shut your ears to the words, this not bad Beethoven by any stretch. The first complete recording was claimed in 1997 by the St Luke’s Orchestra in New York conducted by Robert Bass and Deborah Voigt as one of three soloists on the defunct Koch label (not on Idagio). There are two acceptable options on Idagio – Myung Whun Chung with a superb Roman ensemble and Hilary Davan Whetton in 2011 with the Westminster Cathedral Choir and soloists including Claire Rutter and Stephen Gadd, and violin solos by Clio Gould. I have a personal preference for the latter. It’s really not that bad.



  • fflambeau says:

    I still think his Missa Solemnis leads his list of worst compositions. There are many, many better masses out there.

    He wrote quite a lot of junk, but then most composers do.

  • sam says:

    Germania is 10x better than Rule Britannia.

  • Nick says:

    Nobody is saved working on commissions

  • John Borstlap says:

    ‘The words of Germania are, by contrast, triumphalist, faux-classical and revolting.’

    They appear revolting if seen through the lens of recent (20C) history. But they are entirely innocent and understandable if considered in the context of their own history. After decennia of deeply disruptive wars and occupations by France, which showed how backward the German principalities and the Austrian empire were, and all the upheavals caused by French new social ideas and laws which upset the entire existing strata of society, the German lands laid more or less in ruins, the economy destroyed, millions dead and displaced, and suddenly France was at bottom and a pulverized Germany and Austria liberated, ready for a new beginning. Nobody could – at the time – suspect that in 100 years Germany would raise to become the new bully of Europe.

    • BrianB says:

      Absolutely right. Beethoven’s work is infinitely more excusable and understandable than Brahms’ celebration of Bismarckian bullying in his Triumphlied, an enduring blot on his reputation.

      • Scott Colebank says:

        If one ignores the text, Triumphlied is entertaining if for no other reason than Brahms writing in the style of Handel, quite effectively, in part one.

      • John Borstlap says:

        Brahms grew up in a pre-unification Germany which was still backward, poor, splintered and culturally heavily influenced by all things French. Like many people at the time, he obviously had no idea of the chicaneries and dangers Bismarck represented.

    • Edoardo Saccenti says:

      One cannot accuse a man of 19 century not to think like a man on 21 century…

  • Dirk Hendriks says:

    The 4th movement of the 9th symphony.

  • Jenny Robinson says:

    Der glorreiche Augenblick contains some glorious moments indeed and is well worth a listen. But the recording you favour is nothing to do with Westminster Cathedral (or Abbey). Hilary Davan Wetton conducts the City of London Choir and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (led by Clio Gould), with the Westminster Boys’ Choir joining for the final rousing movement.

    International Record Review said at the time: “Davan Wetton rouses his forces to hymn the praises of Vienna and Emperor Franz of Austria, drawing from the City of London Choir the full-bodied outpouring that one expects at celebratory occasions. The Westminster Boys Choir adds pristine treble tones to the concluding chorus. The Royal Philharmonic plays with relish”. BBC Music Magazine gave it five stars.

    The Idagio metadata is far from accurate – though it is good to see it there – but the artists are all clearly listed on the original Naxos cover, including pianist Leon McCawley for the his highly praised performance in the Choral Fantasy, which appears on the same disc.

    Thank you for shining a spot of light on it. What better time than now for Beethoven fans to explore this little-known repertoire.

  • M McAlpine says:

    I believe Wellington’s Victory was a good earner for him. And like all of us, a man’s gotta eat!

    • BrianB says:

      And I defy anyone else to have done better when having to write for some crazy steampunk contraption.

  • HugoPreuss says:

    Yes, and “Rule Britannia” or the “Marseillaise” are monuments to international understanding and world peace. Esp. the part “Let an impure blood / Water our furrows!” (Qu’un sang impur / Abreuve nos sillons!).

  • Peter Phillips says:

    My first visit to RFH in 1960 or so: Der Glorreiche Augenblick was the second half of a BBCSO concert conducted by Rudolf Schwarz. I remember enjoying it.

  • Peter San Diego says:

    I was told, long ago, that at the NYPO, Leonard Bernstein would program Der glorreiche Augenblick as the filler for the Missa Solemnis: it was just the right length not to drive the orchestra into overtime pay territory.

  • Jonathan says:

    This article is making the mistake of evaluating the music solely on the words. It’s a combination of anachronism (lyrics being considered synonymous with the music in pop music) and a reflection of the fact that it’s a lot easier to point out a problem one has with what the words are saying than explaining what one objects to in the music itself. And as to the words, it’s just a patriotic song. I think implied in the criticism is that surely any patriotic song about Germany must be equated with Nazism, etc. But Beethoven of course had no idea of what would happen in the 1930s and 40s. While this may not be one of the more memorable of Beethoven’s compositions, the fact that it’s a setting of simple patriotic lyrics doesn’t make it bad musically.

  • Peter San Diego says:

    Having just listened to “Germania”, I can now hardly wait for an enterprising ensemble and label to record the entire “Die gute Nachricht”.

    Actually, I’ll be happy to wait.

    Among works by multiple composers, I rather doubt it would measure up even to “Hexameron” or “Les maries de la Tour Eiffel” or “Eventail pour Jeanne.” …

  • Edgar Self says:

    Servus, San DiegoPeter– Raytmond Lewenthal’s RCA High Performance CD, one of the best reclrdkgs of a piano I know. It has a god back story to benfit an Italian charity, and reunited in Paris for a last time old Carl Cterny and his star pupil ixzt in a tub-thumping good tune with a variation each from Herz, Pixis, Liszt’s rival Thalberg, Czerny and Liszt themselveS, and an exquisite two minutes from Chopin lovingly placed in gem-like setting by Liszt, who wrote the preamble, postlude, and strung the whole thing together, giving Thalberg first go. Lewenthal fills out the CD with Alkan, all superbly played, marvelously recorded, and nevvere di anything better.

    History waffles about which the legendary concert took place with each of the six composers playing his, but it makes a good story to a rather touching piece, immortalized by Lewenthal’s phenomenal performance.

    A similar Russian composers committee wrote a collective birthday piece, and the “other” Diabelli ariations offer a dazzling group effor, a virtuql dictionary of composers of the dayt. Anton Rubinstein’s stupendous variations on “Yankee Doodle” are in a single solitary solo class all their own, exploited on Rooby’s North Ameroica forays. As for anthem words, the USA is in a glass house wi4th Beethovn’s “Adelaide” and “Fidelio” arias. God save the Queen and the horse she erode in on; “”La Marseillaise” rules Brittania until God Saves the Kaiser and his humble servant Joseph Haydn.k with a fot spot for the Old Tsarist anthem. To each his own., eh, Canada. One of the gaudiest is Louis Moreau gottschalk’s grand Phantasy on the Brazilian National Hymn for Dthe Emperor Dom Pedro II, whose imperial phsician attended Louis in his last illness and which Guiomar loved to play, though she regularly opened her recitals with Alexander Siloti’s grandly terraced Bach organ prelude in G minor also recorded by her compatriotNelson Freire in pre-Bolsonaro days.

    • Peter San Diego says:

      Hello, Edgar! I came off more dismissive of Hexameron than I meant to be. As for the Diabelli variations, the compendium is a mixed bag, indeed; Beethoven’s contribution outshines the rest, of course, in a way that I bet Germania doesn’t.

      The real problem with Germania is the xeroxed repetition of the strophe, whose music isn’t bad at all but which doesn’t bear the repetition well. (Yes, Beethoven twiddled the orchestration a bit from one strophe to the next, but the whole thing is obviously tossed off in one go; I bet there aren’t any interesting sketches showing a meaningful evolution of his thoughts…)

      Regarding the Gottschalk fantasy, a fun piece, and its inspiration, Pedro II: there are a couple of novels about one of the aftermaths of Pedro’s deposition from the throne: Mario Vargas Llosa’s great “The War at the End of the World”, and Sandor Marai’s unknown (in English; virtually unknown even in the original Hungarian), “Judgment at Canudos”. Both rely for source material on Euclides da Cunha’s “Os Sertoes”, a historical account of the civil war.

      A consideration of collaborative compositions in general might be an interesting topic for NL to take up at some point.

  • Gaffney Feskoe says:

    Had he had the chance and was well paid for it, I wonder what movie music or advertising jingles by Beethoven would have sounded like.

  • Edgar Self says:

    Thanks or your indulgence, Peter, and the Dom Pedro novels, even the Hungarian one, which I’m glad to know of. The typos in my post are so appalling I’m surprised you could decrypt it,– a triumph of Anglo-Hungarian engineering.

    Crack pianist Jeanne Behrend, Alexander Kelberine’s widow and duo partner in the Moor-Bechstein duplex piano in Bach transcriotions, wrote a good biography of Gottschalk. It and her edition of his”Notes of a Pianist’ have still more information if needed. The thought of his “Grand Triumphal Phantasy on the Brazilian National Hymn”, with its clattering rhythm,is to be avoided n long railway journeys. Eugene Ljst’s Vox Box of Gottxchalk,and Ivan Davis’s solo Decca CD have a comprehensive selection.

    Kelberine, separated from Behrend, gave a final death-themed recital in New York before killing himself in the early 1840s. It inluded Liszt’s “Totentanz” with which I beguiled Dr. Erno Daniel, the soloist who played it in the concert I both played French horn in and reviewed, earning his approval next day.

    I have (mostly) Hungaroton CDs of Emanuel Moor’s piece for four cellos, a concerrto, and Jthink a sonata.

    One story, a little ben trovato, has it that Dom Pedro was such a nice man that when Brazilians deposed him they neglected to tell him. He may have died thinking he was still emperor, not a bad way to go.

    å classmate of my sons lives in Buda-Pesth teaching English there and has just married a Hungarian woman half his height: perhaps another engineering problem. We’re keeping our gifders crossed with trunnion bascules at the ready, or vice-versa. Servus!

  • Edgar Se.f says:

    en fin, these juvenlia reveal the first stirrings and well-springs of genius, his earliest models, what he was thinking, attempting, and how well he succeeded with the necessarily imitative processes of growth. I find them fascinating, especially the Elector sonatas that even Gilels played, and three piano quartets. The early choral works are ambitious: he was aiming high at a mark he couldn’tyet see, and he got there.

    The distance between them and the first published works with familiar opus designations, shows just how fast the process was, abd how rapidly he was growing. They also are touching. One would like to help him, as some of his first teachers and Bonn patrons did, but genius keeps its own hours and can’t be hurried.

  • Edgar Self says:

    San Diego Peter, I like your idea of a collaborative compositions discussion and hope Mr. Lebrecht will launch one. Obvious candidates are the Frei Aber Einsam violin and piano sonata of Brahms and friends Dietrich and Joachim (?); other completions such as “Turandot” and Tovey’s for the final triple Kontrapunktus in “Art of Fugue” … there must be many others.

    Many oeras are ideally collaborations of librettist and composer, rarely the same person. The notorious Mozart-Sussmayer Requiem”, our battered “Hexameron”, the Russian happy birthday committee, Albeniz’s “Navarra” with various completions by Deodat de Severac, William Bolcom, that chsp Martin Jones on Nimbus, and Artur Rubinsteins’ severely pruned but thriving edition; certain interchangeable works that Michael Haydn and Mozart wrote for each other, like the latter’s 37th symphony. The cath-all Diabelli miscellany’s volume one with another to follow.

    I’d cheerfully forego horrors like Schoenberg’s inflation of Brahms’s perfectly fine piano quartet in g minor, as if afflicte with elephantiasis.