When one hears the name Beethoven, one usually thinks of the great symphonist, the composer of many incomparable string quartets, piano sonatas, concertos, or perhaps even the single, but magnificent, opera Fidelio. Rarely is the tempestuous early romantic associated with the miniature, intimate genre of the art song. It is usually forgotten or ignored that Beethoven composed more than seventy songs, perhaps in part because his contemporary Schubert's genius overshadowed the older master in this-and only this-genre.
But history has preserved Beethoven's place in this genre because he wrote the first-and to some historians, the best-song cycle, An die ferne Geliebte in 1816. The work consists of six separate songs, each connected by piano interludes, and each portraying various states of mind of the poet (Alois Jeitteles) as he longs to be with his beloved but must bear the pain of separation. Whether the cycle is autobiographical is not known for sure, but Beethoven's biographer Thayer suspected that it was: that it was inspired by Amalie von Siebald five years earlier. Thayer quotes a letter to Ferdinand Ries in 1816 in which the composer wrote: "My kind regards to your wife. I, alas! have no wife. I have met only one and her I shall probably never get."
I was first introduced to this cycle as an undergraduate voice major, and it has always held a special allure for me. But as time went on, I began to "hear" this work as a choral piece, rather than a work for solo voice. My arrangement that will be performed by the Choral Union is done as a gesture of homage to the great genius, not as an attempt to "improve" his original masterwork.
Stephen B. Wilson
Link to: Cortland Music Website