Interpretare il Lied – “An die ferne Geliebte” op. 98 di Ludwig van Beethoven

Riprendiamo il filo dei post di interpretazione liederistica comparata, questa volta occupandoci del ciclo An die ferne Geliebte op. 98 di Beethoven. Scritta nell’ aprile del 1816 su testi di Alois Jeitteles, medico e letterato, la raccolta costituisce forse il primo esempio assoluto di ciclo liederistico unitario nell’ argomento e nella forma Durchkomponiert in cui i sei brani che la compongono si susseguono in una stretta relazione tonale e senza soluzioni di continuità.

Seguendo il consueto piano espositivo che ho adottato fin dalle prime puntate di questa rubrica, gli ascolti sono preceduti da una introduzione di carattere musicologico. Come primo contributo critico, ecco l’ incipit della relazione intitolata The Journey of the Song Cycle: From “The Iliad” to “American Idiot” tenuta dalla pianista e musicologa Katrina Gingerich durante una giornata di studi alla Cedarville University, nell’ Ohio.


The song cycle has been one of the most important musical forms across the span of vocal music. From the time of Beethoven’ s composition of An die ferne Geliebte to the present, the elements of a song cycle have remained unchanged. It is still one of the most emotionally powerful musical forms in the classical repertoire. Not only has its power touched the classical music world, but the form of the song cycle is also present in ancient epic poetry as well as the modern day concept album, making the song cycle one of the only musical forms to span thousands of years of human history.
The definition of a song cycle has necessarily changed along with the relevant musical concepts. A traditional classical era view defines a song cycle as a series of three or more clearly individual songs with related tonicities and a central poetic theme. A more modern definition says a song cycle makes use of “the cross reference of a motive, harmonic progression, or harmonic/contrapuntal complex;…cross reference and/or pattern completion at strategic points to define formal boundaries;…a logical key succession;…the association of key and character, or, of musical character with the ongoing progress of the work;…the use of mode for expressive (and often ironic) effect;…cyclic closure by means of pattern completion, summary statement, or other means.” In addition to this, song cycles use the accompaniment music as a commentary on the text by means of text painting. A combination of all this information defines the song cycle: a musical form with three or more defined sections that uses text painting and a logical sequence of tonicities to express a single poetic theme. The first serious work traditionally classified as a “song cycle” was Ludwig van Beethoven’ s An die ferne Geliebte, composed in 1814 to a set of six poems written by Aloys Jeitteles. As the first major song cycle, An die ferne Geliebte set the standard for what would become the traditional stylistic traits of the song cycle. Beethoven used six clearly distinct sections (one for each poem), text painting, and related tonicities (E-flat is the key of the first and last songs, the other songs all relate back to E-flat often through mediant relationships). The title An die ferne Geliebte means “to the distant beloved” and deals with the concept of longing; the speaker desires to be with his beloved Beethoven’s only song cycle and was composed after he was completely deaf.
Three compositional devices make this work different from the mus
before it: smooth transitions between songs, the importance of the accompaniment part, and the integration of text painting. In this song cycle, all of the songs are to be played consecutively; there is no thick ending bar anywhere in the cycle because the songs were intended to be a continuos circle of song. The transitions between songs are additionally smoothed by relating the key of each song to E
flat which is the primary key of the cycle. The accompaniment part is more musical than was often given to accompaniments prior to Beethoven. At one point in the score, the vocalist sings a repeated note for thirteen mesures while the piano plays the melodic line!

This was a very adventurous move for Beethoven to make musically.
beautifully evokes the text of this particular section. The literal translation of this verse says “There is the restful valley the rock/Quietly the primrose meditates/Blows so lightly the wind/
there!” The music text paints the image of the speaker sitting still and observing the nature around him.



Questo saggio di Marie Labonville, Associate Professor alla School of Music della Illinois State University, ci offre una disamina esauriente e dettagliata dell’ intero ciclo.



Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte: The First Song Cycle?

“Will nothing then reach you, will there be nothing of the messenger of love? I will sing songs which will lament my pain to you!”, In the first song of Ludwig van Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte (To the Distant Beloved), Op. 98, these words are the driving force behind the sentiments expressed in the other five movements of the work. The short set of songs for voice and piano addresses a woman with whom the “narrator” of the poems has once had a romantic relationship, but from whom he is now separated. The idea of the six divisions as a group of songs that seek to “lament my pain to you” is a unifying factor in the piece, reinforced by the final stanza of the final section: “Then that which separated us so widely yields before these songs, and a loving heart reaches what a loving heart has blessed!” An die ferne Geliebte, written by Beethoven in 1816, is often hailed as the first example in the nineteenth century of a form known as Liederkreis (“song cycle”), a form that reached its height later in the century in the vocal works of such composers as Franz Schubert and Robert Schumann. This paper will briefly examine An die ferne Geliebte, with reference both to its place in Beethoven’s output and its place in the repertoire of the German Lied, specifically in the genre of the Liederkreis.

Ludwig van Beethoven, arguably the single most significant composer in the history of Western music, composed approximately eighty songs in his lifetime, most of them in German with piano accompaniment. Nonetheless, the composer is known today primarily as an innovator of instrumental music, rather than for his vocal works. An die ferne Geliebte was one of the last few Lieder pieces Beethoven wrote, and has been described by author Leslie Orrey as “the first great example of the form [of the song cycle]”.  It consists of six movements, which flow without break from one to the next, set to texts by the poet Alois Jeitelles. Unlike the individual songs of later song cycles, such as those in Schubert’s Winterreise (Winter Journey) or Schumann’s Dichterliebe (Poet’s Love), most of the songs that comprise An die ferne Geliebte do not stand on their own successfully. (The thematic relationships that tie the six songs together will be examined more closely below.)

Several authors have suggested that the songs of An die ferne Geliebte contain an autobiographical element in their description of lost love. Beethoven’s difficulties with romantic relationships have been well documented. However, as Kerman states, “Possibly it [the song cycle] served as a literal love offering; more probably it served as a nostalgic hymn to past love in general”. Regardless, the theme of distant love is one that occurs numerous times in Beethoven’s vocal works, such as “An die fernen Geliebten” (which is a completely different text from the work under consideration here), “An die Geliebte I,” “An die Geliebte II,” and “Sehnsucht,” to name a few; it is difficult not to assign some autobiographical element to such works. Whatever the case, An die ferne Geliebte expresses a sentiment with which Beethoven had a strong personal connection, and that sentiment is expressed through a very carefully crafted and well-balanced musical structure.

As mentioned earlier, each section of An die ferne Geliebte flows into the next, often without any clear cadence, except for the end of the first song, which has a fermata on its final tonic chord. However, even between the first and second songs, the movement between E-flat and the mediant key of G is accomplished quite seamlessly, with the G serving as a pivotal tone between the two keys. The keys for the various movements are shown below:

I          E-flat major

II         G major

III/IV   A-flat major (Part of IV is in A-flat minor)

V         C major

VI        E-flat major

The return to E-flat in the sixth movement is accompanied by a brief recapitulation of the opening melody in the second half of the song.

This return of the opening theme of the cycle serves as a unifying element for the piece, both musically and textually. While the first and last movements are unified by their thematic material and textual similarity, inner movements of the cycle share a focus on elements of nature, such as birds, mountains, trees, and brooks, which stimulate continuing reflections on the nature of the distant beloved. Moreover, the songs

are strophic in nature; each strophe tends to be a variation of the melodic material found in the first strophe of the song. This variational technique is especially common in the piano part. Of particular interest is the middle stanza of the second movement, wherein the voice part simply repeats a single G, while the piano takes over the melody.

One of the fundamental characteristics of the Liederkreis is the balance between piano and voice. In a song cycle, the piano and voice are equal participants in the drama that develops in the text and music. An die ferne Geliebte is no exception, although Kerman correctly notes that “the piano almost imperceptibly assumes more and more importance as the piece proceeds”. Certainly, Beethoven’s variational techniques in the piano lend each stanza a character of its own. For example, in the third movement as the lyrics speak of “light clouds” and a “little brook,” the voice is accompanied by a triplet figure in the piano, while the same melody is accompanied by duplet figures when the text turns to sorrow and walking sadly through the woodlands. The different emotions in these stanzas of the third song are also varied through Beethoven’s use of the parallel minor in the third, fourth, and fifth stanzas of this song.
Beethoven continuously achieves different emotional effects with a very small amount of musical material in this short song cycle, using musical techniques characteristic of his style.
One of Beethoven’s characteristic style traits is the use of tempo changes to heighten the emotional impact of the text, often within movements and especially between each movement, a technique used to great effect in An die ferne Geliebte. At the end of the first movement, a fermata precedes the presto tempo marking at the beginning of the second movement. A poco adagio precedes the allegroassai of the third song, while adagio and poco ritenuto end the fifth movement before the andante of the sixth. In a characteristic manner, Beethoven juxtaposes rhythmic and dynamic contrast with sforzandi on weak beats (as in the end of the first song) and sudden changes from p to ff, as he does on the last page of the cycle.


Beethoven’s variational techniques have been mentioned earlier, and it is important to point out how fond the composer was of such techniques, as well as how skilled he was at them. Joseph Kerman points out a trait found in An die ferne Geliebte that would have an impact on Beethoven’s later works:

in certain of Beethoven’s last compositions, such as the Grosse Fuge and the Quartet in C-sharp Minor, Op. 131…there are no stops between movements, but instead curt musical transitions which are interesting to compare with An die ferne Geliebte.


Furthermore, Kerman discusses the emphasis on simplicity of vocal melody found in Beethoven’s late style period and refers to the song cycle as “a quiet herald of [Beethoven’s] third-period style”.

In addition to its impact on Beethoven’s later works, it is interesting to consider the impact of An die ferne Geliebte on later song cycles. As mentioned earlier, the individual songs of Beethoven’s cycle do not have the independence to stand on their own as in later song cycles. However, the importance of An die ferne Geliebte to the development of the Liederkreis form cannot be discounted. According to Orrey, “in the world of Lieder, Beethoven rather than Schubert was the pioneer” and “there are few devices in either the vocal or piano parts of later nineteenth-century writers that are not suggested in Beethoven’s songs”.

What conclusions may be drawn from this analysis of Beethoven’s An dieferne Geliebte? Is the cycle the first of the Liederkreis genre? Perhaps it may be said that the work is actually more of a protoLiederkreis, i.e. an earlier form of the song cycle. Schubert and Schumann certainly developed the form to a much longer and much more complete extent than Beethoven was able to do. However, short as it may be, Andie ferne Geliebte certainly possesses many of the trademarks of the Liederkreis as it later came to develop, with perhaps an even stronger internal integrity than the later cycles were to have. The later song cycles show some thematic relationships, while maintaining the individual integrity of each song. Relationships between songs are not as obvious in Winterreise, for example, as they are in Beethoven’s cycle; each song of Winterreise can stand on its own as an individual, if short, piece. Certainly, though, An die ferne Geliebte deserves a strong place in the Lieder repertoire, even if it has not always received such a place. As H. E. Krehbiel says in The Beethoven Companion:

The six songs of the cycle ‘An die ferne Geliebte’ have never been entirely in or wholly out of vogue, yet I shall never quarrel with a singer who shall say that their sanctity is such that he would not wear them on his sleeve ‘for daws to peck at’…[Opus 98] is not only the first song cycle; it is still the most perfect of all song cycles in respect of unity.

In the end, perhaps the final verdict on Beethoven’s song cycle is truly to be found within the text of the work itself:

Take then these songs which I sang to you in love, and when the twilight moves towards the still blue lake and its last ray ceases to glow behind that mountain-top, and you sing what I have sung, that flowed from a full and simple heart that knows only longing—then will that which divides us yield before these songs.


Even today, part of the power of this cycle lies in the composer’s expressed desire that music be the agent by which that which has been divided and broken could somehow be healed through the power of love—love sung from “a simple heart that knows only longing”.

Works cited

Beethoven, Ludwig van. Songs (Complete): German-English Text. New York: Kalmus, [19–].


Thomas K. Scherman and Louis Biancolli, editors. The Beethoven Companion. New York: Doubleday, 1972.


Kerman, Joseph. “An die ferne Geliebte,” Beethoven Studies. Edited by Alan Tyson. New York: W.W. Norton, 1973.


Orrey, Leslie. The Beethoven Companion. Edited by Denis Arnold and Nigel Fortune. London: Faber and Faber, 1971.


Phillips, Lois. Lieder Line-by-Line. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979.


Veniamo adesso agli ascolti. Per le ragioni autorevolmente esposte nei due saggi che ho riportato, il ciclo deve essere ascoltato nella sua integrità in quanto i sei Lieder di cui è formato costituiscono un blocco unitario e inscindibile. La prima delle quattro versioni complete che ho scelto di proporre è quella di Gerhard Hüsch (1901 – 1984), registrata nel 1937 con il pianista Hans Udo Müller.




Il baritono di Hannover è stato da me più volte citato nei post di questa rassegna e non è necessario sottolineare di nuovo l’ intensità concentrata del fraseggio, la raffinatezza e scolpitezza della dizione che anche in questo caso fanno della sua versione un vero e proprio modello di riferimento. Ascoltate come Hüsch riesca a centrare al millimetro ogni sfumatura semantica del testo, grazie a una classe interpretativa davvero difficile da eguagliare a questi livelli.

Una versione di pari livello è comunque quella di Karl Schmitt-Walther (1900 – 1985) incisa nel 1942 insieme al sommo Michael Raucheisen.



Schmitt-Walther, originario di Germersheim nel Rheinpfalz e debuttante nel 1921, fu uno dei cantanti tedeschi più amati della sua epoca in un repertorio amplissimo che comprendeva, accanto ai grandi ruoli verdiani e a parti wagneriane come quelle di Wolfram e Beckmesser, quest’ ultima debuttata nello storico allestimento bayreuthiano del 1956 con la regia di Wieland Wagner, anche l’ operetta e un’ intensa attività in campo liederistico, nella quale spiccano esecuzioni storiche come quella della Winterreise schubertiana a Berlino con il leggendario pianista Edwin Fischer e che è documentata da una ricca discografia. Il tono intenso ed ispirato della sua interpretazione può rivaleggiare degnamente con quello di Hüsch come perfezione di particolari e penetrazione del significato espressivo.

Per il terzo ascolto passiamo a una voce tenorile, quella di Peter Anders (1908 – 1954) che ascoltiamo in una registrazione eseguita nel 1944 a Berlino, anch’ essa con la parte pianistica affidata a Raucheisen.



La carriera del tenore di Essen fu purtroppo interrotta tragicamente da un incidente automobilistico verificatosi mentre il cantante rientrava ad Hamburg, dove risiedeva, proveniente da Plettenberg, dove aveva tenuto un concerto la sera del 3 settembre 1954. Accanto a grandi successi in ruoli come Hoffmann, Rodolfo, Lohengrin e Otello, quest’ ultimo debuttato nel 1950 ad Hamburg insieme a Sena Jurinac, anche Anders si dedicò intensamente all’ attività liederistica. Questa incisione effettuata alla Haus des Rundfunks in una Berlino semidistrutta dalla guerra, colpisce per i toni intensi ed altamente espressivi, più carichi rispetto a quelli utilizzati da Hüsch e Schmitt-Walther ma non per questo meno efficaci, grazie a una rifinitura tecnica che rende la voce omogenea in tutti i registri.

Ancora un tenore è il protagonista della quarta esecuzione. Si tratta del grande Fritz Wunderlich (1930 – 1966) che ascoltiamo insieme al pianista Heinrich Schmidt.



Wunderlich, anche lui scomparso tragicamente al culmine di una carriera tra le più luminose del dopoguerra, regge magnificamente il confronto con i tre artisti precedenti. Il fraseggio è assolutamente magnetizzante nella sua perentoria efficacia e il tono trasognato e quasi di allucinazione del terzo Lied, “Wo die Berge so blau” è tra le cose più belle che la discografia liederistica moderna ha documentato. Un’ esecuzione davvero esemplare da parte di un cantante che io ammiro da sempre e considero tra i miei prediletti.

Chiudiamo qui questa puntata, dandovi appuntamento ai prossimi post della rassegna.

2 pensieri su “Interpretare il Lied – “An die ferne Geliebte” op. 98 di Ludwig van Beethoven

  1. bellissime registrazioni ma ogni volta che mi capita di riascoltare Wunderlich non posso non pensare che cantanti così si nasce; un predestinato. Una musicalità straordinaria. Una capacità di far sembrare assolutamente naturale ogni frase, non pensata, non c’è nulla di artificioso nel suo canto. La sua prematura scomparsa ci ha privato di un vero grandissimo artista.

    "Mi piace"


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