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Songs are not the first genre of music we usually associate with Beethoven, but he wrote them throughout his career, beginning with "Schilderung eines Mädchens," published when he was just 13 years old. He had over 70 to his credit when he wrote the Liederkreis, or song cycle, An die ferne Geliebte (To the Distant Beloved) in April 1816.
This was a time of severe personal crises for him. His famous letter to his "Immortal Beloved" had been written in 1812 and he was still feeling despair over the impossibility of attaining the relationship he had desired so ardently. His hearing had deteriorated to the point that he gave his last piano concert in January 1815, and he was deeply concerned with the care of his nephew Karl.
This was also a musically fallow period for him, having composed little in the previous months other than some cello works and piano sonatas. He had begun arranging folksongs for George Thompson, however, ultimately contributing over 150 of them to the Scottish publisher.
Folksong was certainly an influence on the songs of An die ferne Geliebte, which have a simplicity and directness of expression like many of the songs Beethoven arranged for Thompson. The six poems were written by Alois Jeitteles, a young Czech medical student in Vienna, possibly at Beethoven's request. (Later, Alois' cousin Ignaz would also be an associate of Beethoven.)
But charming as the tunes may be, they are tautly organized into the first of the great Romantic song cycles. In terms of direct imitation, An die ferne Geliebte may have been the most influential of all of Beethoven's works on his contemporaries and those immediately following him, particularly Robert Schumann, who further developed the song cycle and quoted the beginning of "Nimm sie hin denn, diese Lieder" in his Fantasy in C major, Op. 17, an homage to Beethoven.
There are changes in tempo, dynamics, and inflection throughout the cycle, creating a sense of almost improvisatory spontaneity, but interludes and transitions connect the six songs, and the effect of the musical links and the narrative line is that of a single mega-song. The melody of the first song is quoted in the last one (and both are in the same key, E-flat major) - this beloved may be distant, but she is also immortal, as the end of this song circle returns to the beginning, a closing that is also an opening.
- John Henken is Director of Publications for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.