Did Beethoven take the knee?

Welcome to the 94th work in the Slipped Disc/Idagio Beethoven Edition

Beethoven: Cantatas on the death of Emperor Joseph II (WoO88) and on the accession of Leopold II, WoO89 (1790)

Beethoven advocated human brotherhood and hated tyranny. This has led many to assume that the composer lived in a state of hostility with the hereditary powers that governed Europe in his time. Nothing could be further from the truth. Beethoven did not hate the aristocracy; on the contrary, he wanted to be part of it. There is evidence showing that, in the custody battle for his nephew, he claimed to be himself of noble birth, arguing before a Viennese judge on December 11, 1818 that the ‘van’ in his surname was the Dutch equivalent of the German ‘von’ and that he was decended from the ruling classes and therefore a fit and proper person to be trusted with bringing up an unruly boy. On another occasion, he declared loudly ‘I, too, am a King!’

Beethoven was not an egalitarian. He grew up in the court of the Archbishop-Elector of Bonn, where his father was a tenor in the chapel. The Elector, Maximilian Franz, was a brother of the Austrian Emperor Joseph II, head of the Holy Roman Empire. At 13 years old Beethoven went into service for a couple of years as deputy organist in the Elector’s chapel. He learned to bend the knee, doff his cap and act in every way deferentially towards the ruling classes, knowing that they held all of the keys to his success and, indeed, survival.

When he came to Vienna he obtained introductions to young aristocrats, men his own age, who would sponsor his composing career by paying his living expenses. Prince Karl von Lichnowsky offered him 600 guilders a year, a stipend that continued until 1806 when Beethoven refused a summons to play for the Prince’s guests, a group of French officers.

Others who helped Beethoven financially were Count Ferdinand Waldstein, the Russian Ambassador Prince Andre Razumovsky and the Emperor Leopold’s youngest son Archduke Rudolph. It was not just money he needed but palaces and guest lists for his concerts and a good buffet afterwards. All these worthies got their names perpetuated in his scores. Rudolph, who was his long-term student, received no fewer than 14 dedications. In 1809 Rudolph organised a cartel of aristocrats to pay Beethoven a salary until Napoleon’s entry into Vienna caused a mass flight of bluebloods. Later, Rudolph ordered a piece from Beethoven for enthronement as archbishop of Olmütz, a work that became known as the Missa Solemnis . Genius that he was, Beethoven could not afford to affront the aristocracy. He was every bit as servile as the capricious and self-destructive Mozart, and perhaps more so. That said, he never courted royal patronage. Nor did he intrigue with or against the court composer Antonio Salieri in order to catch the Emperor’s ear. Early on, he took counterpoint lessons from Salieri; afterwards, he maintained a distant collegial relationship with him.

The only works that connect him to the ruling dynasty are two that he wrote in Bonn when he was 19 years old, and which were never performed. The first cantata mourned the death of Emperor Joseph II, aged 48, in February 1790. Joseph Haydn is said to have read the score and given his approval; it could easily be mistaken for something he wrote, ticking all the boxes for a solemn occasion. No-one knows exactly why it was never performed but the wind players are supposed to have found their parts too difficult and the young Beethoven was not prepared to compromise.

The score was found in Vienna among Beethoven’s legacy in November 1884 and given a respectable premiere. It is a mature simulation of official solemnity with very little by way of Beethoven’s personal style. The opening and closing choruses, ‘Todt! Todt, stöhnt es durch die öde Nacht (death, groan through the barren night)’ are impressive not so much for any originality as for the absence of strong emotion.

The second cantata, celebrating Leopold’s coronation, presents his calling card to the new regime. It’s heroic, flattering, drearily competent. It does not sound like Beethoven was trying very hard and it’s not surprising that neither of these cantatas is frequently performed.

Emperor Joseph II with brother Leopold II

The earliest recording of the Joseph cantata, conducted in 1950 Vienna by Clemens Krauss, leads the field with delicious wind solos from the Vienna Symphony Orchestra. The chorus is flawless and vocalists Ilona Steingruber and Alfred Poell excellent. Among a half-dozen recordings, Christian Thielemann’s 1997 attempt at the Deutsche Oper Berlin is  easily the weightiest.

There are even fewer recordings of the Leopold cantata with Thielemann, at the head of a limited field, making the finale sound like a dry run for the Missa Solemnis. Two 2020 recordings by the Finnish conductor Leif Segerstam with theTurku Philharmonic Orchestra are well turned out and free of presumption. Segerstam is a lusty character, unmistakable for his mountainous girth, amazonian beard and general absence of decorum. His lack of social niceties has a certain Beethovenian aptitude and his musicality is profound. His Naxos recordings make an urgent case for these half-hearted scores that the young Beethoven coughed up to the men in power.

Opferlied opus 121b

I would turn first to Segerstam again in this ‘Sacrificial Song’ that Beethoven tinkered with intermittently from 1794 to 1825 without ever being satisfied with the final result. Reminiscent in its airy way of the Priest’s Chorus in Mozart’s Magic Flute, it lasts barely five minutes and has a lovely soprano part (sung here by Johanna Lehesvuori). Other recordings attempted by Michael Tilson Thomas, Marcus Bosch and Matthew Best are no better than adequate. The closing words ‘Das Schöne zu dem Guten! (the beautiful to the good)’ is a favourite slogan of Beethoven’s a kind of self-entitlement.

Tremate, opus 116 (1801)
A Mozartian terzetto for three voices and orchestra, Tremate is hardly ever heard in concert and scarcely recorded. Aside from a decent effort by Segerstam and his Turku crew, there’s some serenely operatic singing on Arthur Apelt’s 1971 recording with the Staatskapelle Berlin and soloists Hanne-Lore Kuhse, Eberhard Büchner and Siegfried Vogel. A 2020 production by the Beethoven Philharmonie with Condcutor Thomas Rösner does not match the quality of the ensemble that Berlin could assemble half a century ago.

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  • John Borstlap says:

    “He was every bit as servile as the capricious and self-destructive Mozart, and perhaps more so.”

    I don’t get that impression reading biographic material and the notebook collections (like Michael Hamburger’s collection, 1951, Thames & Hudson). He wanted to be treated as an equal b y the ruling class, not as a worldy aristocrat but as an aristocrat of the spirit. So, his attitude towards the ruling class was ambivalent and complex. After all, he forged a new identity image for ‘the composer’. He was one of the aristocrats but in another field. Tyranny however, is something different – B was never treated tyrannically by the Viennese aristocrats. In contrary, he sometimes treated THEM tyranically and was always forgiven.

    The reason that B tried to be accepted as of noble birth, was that at the time there were two different legal systems, one for the aristocracy and one for the civilians. In the aristocratic system B thought he had more chance to win. He was seen through however, and had to have his case processed by the civilians’ system. (He still won his case, though.)

  • Derek says:

    On the subject of the aristocracy, I believe Beethoven said –

    “There are many princes but there is only one Beethoven”

    • Mike Schachter says:

      His aristocratic friends seemed to agree.

      • John Borstlap says:

        The three aristocrats who conferred a life pension to Beethoven so that he could work undisturbed by worldly pressures, a contract without strings attached, and which left him free to earn money from the publication of his scores and from dedications, were Archduke Rudolph (the brother of the emperor), Prince Lobkowitz and Prince Kinsky. The latter two were friendly, cultivated, rather decadent nobodies chasing any female in their environment, and Rudolf was an unhappy, sickly elileptic, who played the piano very well and was a diligent pupil at the keyboard of Beethoven, who was quite fond of him. These three men are, in a spiritual sense, co-authors of Beethoven’s music and thus, co-responsible for the development of public concert life were B’s music formed a standard of performing and composing. They set an example which was rarely followed, leaving most composers vulnerable to what became a market place, a situation we still have today.

        These three should get a combined statue in Vienna and in all other European classical music centres.

  • Let’s ban Beethoven’s music! He bowed in the Elector’s court when he was 13! In his court battle to gain custody of his nephew he tried to say the van was actually von. Horrors! He took money from rich people. (That also means banning just about every composer in the 20th and 21st century.) I just completed an audio program analyzing the Eroica and dedicated it to Beethoven but after reading this article I erased his name, leaving only a hole in the hard drive where the program resides.

  • David K. Nelson says:

    Cynical obsequiousness is a skill which, once learned, can bring many benefits. Beethoven’s letters to various publishers are as good an example as any of his deference to those who, in the bigger picture, were in a position to call the shots. I doubt for example that he truly regarded the merely competent Hoffmeister a “brother composer.” His affection and respect for the Archduke Ferdinand seems to have been sincere however.

    • John Borstlap says:

      B’s dealings with his publishers were very dubious, because in those times there was no copyright, and publishing was a rather unhealthy and parasitic business. Publishers tried to get his scores on the cheap, and B tried to get as much money out of them as possible, knowing his music would sell very well.

    • Hilary says:

      “Beethoven’s letters”
      It may be of interest to you that a collection of his letters have been set to music by Ireland’s leading living composer. The harmony reminds me a little bit of Stravinsky’s “The Rake’s Progress”.


  • Richard Bloesch says:

    In my opinion, Beethoven’s Cantata on the death of Emperor Joseph II is far superior to his second Cantata on the accession of Leopold II, and deserves far more performances than it gets today.

  • Montague Gammon III says:

    Since the Amazons were female, I must wonder what the phrase “Amazonian beard” means.

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