You are on page 1of 12

Composed in 1816 during Beethovens third and final period, An

die ferne Geliebte (op. 98) was the first of its kind. The innovative
nature of this work would heavily influence the adored German lieder
of the nineteenth century. Stylistically, An die ferne Geliebte aligns with
many characteristics of Beethovens third period. This proved to be a
pivotal transitional stage in not only German lieder, but also in Western
music from the Classical era into the Romantic period. An die ferne
Geliebte is widely considered by scholars as the first song cycle and
paved the way for German lied, in particular the song cycle, because of
its thematic unity and circular design.
Though not his most prolific genre, Beethoven experimented
composing various song types. His instrumental works as well as the
songs of prolific German composers, such as Schubert, typically
overshadow Beethovens songs. The art song was not a popular genre
during the time of Beethoven and did not provide composers a steady
source of income. Beethoven still showed interest in the song form
throughout his lifetime, having published his first song, Schilderung
eines Mdchens at the age of only eleven years old and a setting of Ich
war bei Chloen a few years before his death. . Throughout his lifetime,
Beethoven composed sixty-six songs, most of which were set to
German texts. His song literature ranged from short folk-like songs to
extended pieces, such as in the form of a scene and aria. Three factors
influenced Beethovens interest and the explosion of Lied composition.

These factors included the new piano forte, the quality of romantic
poetry, and changes in the social and political climate. The innovations
in the piano led Beethoven to experiment in interesting and ingenious
ways. Although he wrote songs throughout his life, he admitted to a
friend in a letter that he did not like composing them.1
Unlike his instrumental works, Beethovens songs reveal another
side to his character. A fair share of Beethovens songs contain the
figure of a distant beloved.2 These songs reflect the ambiguous nature
of Beethovens relationships with women. Without doubt, Beethoven
was attracted to many women; however, he withdrew from full
commitment to any of them. In each case, he either chose women who
were a distance away or he purposefully placed them there. Music had
provided Beethoven an outlet to his emotional conflicts. By expressing
his feelings through his music, he was able to renounce and abandon
many of the frustrations he was unwilling to share.
Little is known about the relationship between Beethoven and
the poet of An die ferne Geliebte, Alois Jeitteles. Jeitteles was a young
Jewish medical student whose literary career was encouraged by
Beethovens friend, Ignaz Castelli, who published several of his poems.
Castelli was editor of a journal in which Beethovens song,
1 Carol Kimball. Song: A Guide to Art Song Style and Literature.
Rev. ed. (Milwaukee, WI: Hal Leonard, 2006), 72.
2 Alan Tyson, ed. Beethoven Studies. (New York: W.W. Norton &
Company, 1973), 126.

Merkenstein, had appeared in 1815.3 The fact that the poems of An die
ferne Geliebte were never published suggest Beethoven must have
obtained them directly from the poet. While the relationship between
the two remains a mystery, it is inferred that the two men were
connected through Castelli.4 Castelli could have very well recognized
the poetic capability of Jeitteles poetry to be set to music and
encouraged him to send his work to Beethoven.
Beethoven previously composed songs that dealt with the
subject of distant love prior to An die ferne Geliebte. The themes of
Jeitteles poetry were common romantic themes prevalent in the day.
These themes included love, pain, nature, and the sense of longing. In
the first song of the cycle, the singer considers the distance between
himself and the beloved. In the second song, the singer imagines
where his beloved might be and expresses how he longs to be with her.
The third and fourth songs depart from the beloved and contemplate
nature, particularly the wind, the brook, and the birds. The fifth song
compares the satisfaction enjoyed by nature and the dissatisfaction
experienced by the poet and the beloved. The sixth song resolves
through an idea expressed in the first song; the poet is able to reach

3 Paul Reid and Barry Cooper. The Beethoven Song Companion.

(Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2007), 47.
4 William Kinderman. Beethoven. 2nd ed. (Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 2009), 211.

the beloved through his music.5 Unlike Beethovens previous songs, An

die ferne Geliebte depicted a beloved whose love was not mutual or an
absent beloved who would not return.6 Therefore, the composing of An
die ferne Geliebte suggests a pivotal marker in Beethovens life.
It was just the year prior to Beethovens completion of An die
ferne Geliebte that his brother had passed away. He subsequently
adopted his nephew, Karl, under his wing. Because his focus was now
placed on Karl, his need for a female companion to love diminished.
This cycle had been labeled a bid farewell to any of Beethovens love
interests, in particular the deep longing and obsession he had toward
the Immortal Beloved.7 By writing the cycle, Beethoven was able to
come to terms with his difficult love life by making it widely known
through his music.8 This suggests an alternate theory in which
Beethoven may have asked Jeitteles to write the cycle of poetry to his
The defining musical feature of An die ferne Geliebte is its
circular design, which consummated the first song cycle. The nature of
Jeitteles poetry was thematically unifying and continual. This most
5 Barry Cooper. The Master Musicians: Beethoven. (Oxford:
Oxford University Press, 2008), 267.
6 Ibid., 277.
7 Maynard Solomon. Beethoven. 2nd, Rev. ed. (New York:
Schirmer Books, 1998), 389.
8 Paul Reid and Barry Cooper. The Beethoven Song Companion.
(Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2007), 48.

likely guided Beethoven to compose music that was equally unifying

and cyclic.9 The circular design is foremost characterized by the da
capo of song number 1 in song number 6. Beethoven brings back not
only the music from first song but also the text to the last. The function
of the return in music is to close the formal boundaries and underline
the essential symmetry of the cycle.10
The first and last song shares not only the same music and text
but also the key of E flat, which contributes to the works cyclical key
scheme. The first song begins in E flat then transitions to G, A flat, C
and returns to E flat in the final song. The opening and closing of the
cycle in the same key may not seem remarkable, particularly because
this was a common practice for instrumental music. However, many
composers did not carry the same concern for a tonal scheme in their
approach to the song cycle.11 Composers generally found themselves
more responsible for setting the text rather than adhering to pure
musical concerns. Beethoven departs from the norm by inserting piano
transitions responsible for not only changing the mood and melody, but
to modulate as well.

9 Barry Cooper. The Master Musicians: Beethoven. (Oxford:

Oxford University Press, 2008), 289.
10 Paul Reid and Barry Cooper. The Beethoven Song Companion.
(Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2007), 48.
11 Laura Turnbridge. The Song Cycle. (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 2010), 6.

An die ferne Geliebte is not only innovative in its circular design

but its prominent use of the piano as well. The work embodies a quasi
theme and variation form, in which Beethoven was able to utilize the
piano to develop the theme as well as specific moods. Piano interludes
of varying lengths help link the six songs into a coherent unit. The fifth
song includes a prominent piano interlude, where there is a full
fourteen bar transition. The final song begins with an eight bar
interlude and ends with a nine bar postlude. In general the vocal line
remains constant throughout the cycle, therefore variation is provided
by the piano.12
An die ferne Geliebte truly embodied Beethovens final and thirdperiod style. There are several characteristics of Beethovens late style
present in An die ferne Geliebte. The first is the intentional
development of themes and motives to unchartered potentials. Songs
numbers two through five heavily develop the theme of song number
one. The second characteristic is the deliberate blurring of dividing
lines. This applies to the continuous nature of An die ferne Geliebte, as
it has no breaks between songs.13 A final unique characteristic of
Beethovens later period was the combination of the artless with the

12 Paul Reid and Barry Cooper. The Beethoven Song Companion.

(Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2007), 49.
13 James Parsons. The Cambridge Companion to the Lied.
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 116.

sophisticated.14 While the vocal melodies are rather simple (typically

folk-like) the overall musical structure is absolutely ingenious, in
particular the tonal structure. While Beethoven did not compose
another song cycle, these characteristics appear in later works, most
notably the Ninth Symphony where he again longs for musical
It was during the nineteenth-century that German musicologists
began studying and defining song cycles, or Liederkreis. Music
historian and librarian, Arrey von Dommer, provided the first known
definition of the song cycle in the early 1860s. Dommer defines
A coherent complex of various lyrical poems. Each is closed in
itself, and can be outwardly distinguished from the others in
terms of prosody, but all have an inner relationship to one
another, because one and the same basic idea runs through all
of them. The individual poems present different expressions of
this ide, depicting it in manifold and often contrasting images
and from various perspectives, so that the basic feeling is
presented comprehensively.15
This definition provides two distinguishing features of the early German
song cycle. First, there is an emphasis on coherence and
comprehensiveness and second, the idea of diversity within unity.
While the individual poems of the cycle can stand alone, they also work

14 Barry Cooper. The Master Musicians: Beethoven. (Oxford:

Oxford University Press, 2008), 49.
15 Laura Turnbridge. The Song Cycle. (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 2010), 6.

as components of a larger unit. Because of definitions such as

Dommers, musicologists of the nineteenth-century most likely had
Beethovens An die ferne Geliebte in mind when they began defining
and studying song cycles. In particular, Dommers idea of diversity in
unity is powerfully exemplified in Beethovens cycle.
Modern musicologists assert that An die ferne Geliebte was not the
first song cycle but rather the first musically constructed cycle.16
Before this work there had existed song collections, which were
individual songs connected through a related poetic theme or subject.
Beethoven himself composed a song collection of six religious poets by
Gellert (op. 48). The first musically constructed cycle refers to the
linking of six individuals poems into a single interrupted musical work.
Beethoven accomplishes this feat by meticulously organizing keys and
a final return of the opening song to complete the cycle. Furthermore,
An die ferne Geliebte was not only the first musically constructed
cycle, but the first through composed song cycle as well.17 The work is
so tightly bound that it has often been referred to as a single Lied with
varied episodes, or an extended Lied.
Beethovens An die ferne Geliebte had profound influence on the
generation following his death. This cycle of songs surpasses Franz
16 James Parsons. The Cambridge Companion to the Lied.
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 115.
17 Charles Rosen. The Classical Style: Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven.
(New York: Viking Press, 1971), 402.

Schubert to the style and circular form of Robert Schuman.18 Schubert,

unlike Beethoven and Schumann, strayed from the continuity and
articulation of one single work. Rather, he composed lengthy songs
consisting of separate Lieder as well as large cycles of independent
songs. In contrast, Schumann took after Beethovens song cycle by
composing vocal works in which individual songs cannot stand alone.
Just as Beethoven strived for seamless transitions between songs,
Schumann composed songs within his cycle that are near impossible to
be conceived outside the entire work.
The coherence Beethoven was able to achieve in his song cycle relied
heavily on the piano accompaniment rather than the text. This is a
significant innovation and contribution by Beethoven to the song cycle
genre. It is the evolving piano accompaniment that provides variety to
the strophic songs.19 The height in ingenuity of Beethovens piano
accompaniment is reached in the final song of An die ferne Geliebte,
when it resembles that of a slow Classical sonata movement.20
Schumann would later pay homage to Beethoven by quoting the
opening of this final song at the end of the first movement of his
Fantasie, op. 17. The pivotal role of the piano in the cycle stems from
18 Ibid., 403.
19 Jan Swafford. Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph: A Biography.
(Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014), 655.
20 Paul Reid and Barry Cooper. The Beethoven Song Companion.
(Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2007), 50.

Beethoven infusing Italian performance directions into his music. 21 The

cycle provides countless examples of how the piano accompaniment
holds primary responsibility for illustrating the text. Influenced by
Beethoven, Schumann experiments with a much-involved piano
accompaniment that holds an intimate relationship with the text in his
own vocal music.
No vocal work prior to Beethoven contained a continuous circular
design until An die ferne Geliebte. Dubbed the first song cycle by
scholars of both the Romantic and Modern era, it began to push the
boundaries that eventually led to the German lied of todays standard
repertoire. This cycle, just as many of Beethovens late works, were
innovated in their musical approach as he set foot into what is now
called the Romantic period. Austrian pianist, Alfred Brendel, suggests,
Beethovens late music involved a general expansion and synthesis of
the means of expression, whereby opposites are often juxtaposed, with
every new complexity of style seeming to parallel, as its antithesis, a
child like simplicity.22 Beethovens first and only song cycle certainly
contained this juxtaposition, an ingenious musical design able to
express a powerful testimony so simply. The creative capabilities of
Beethoven as a song composer, exemplified in An die ferne Geliebte,

21 Ibid., 53.
22 William Kinderman. Beethoven. 2nd ed. (Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 2009), 211.

spurs musicians today to only wish he was able to contribute further to

this genre.

Cooper, Barry. The Master Musicians: Beethoven. Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 2008.
Kimball, Carol. Song: A Guide to Art Song Style and Literature. Rev. ed.
Milwaukee, WI: Hal Leonard, 2006.
Kinderman, William. Beethoven. 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford University
Press, 2009.
Knapp, Raymond. 2003. Reading Gender in Late Beethoven: An Die
Freude and an Die Ferne Geliebte. Acta Musicologica 75 (1).
International Musicological Society: 4563.
Marston, Nicholas. 1991. Schumann's Monument to Beethoven. 19thcentury Music 14 (3). University of California Press: 24764.
Parsons, James. The Cambridge Companion to the Lied. Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 2004.
Peake, Luise Eitel. 1982. The Antecedents of Beethoven's Liederkreis.
Music & Letters 63 (3/4). Oxford University Press: 24260.
Rosen, Charles. The Classical Style: Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven. New
York: Viking Press, 1971.

Reid, Paul, and Barry Cooper. The Beethoven Song Companion.

Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2007.
Reynolds, Christopher. 1988. The Representational Impulse in Late
Beethoven, I: An Die Ferne Geliebte. Acta Musicologica 60 (1).
International Musicological Society: 4361. doi:10.2307/932699.
Solomon, Maynard. Beethoven. 2nd, Rev. ed. New York: Schirmer
Books, 1998.
Steblin, Rita, and Sylvia Bowden. 2010. Beethoven's Beloved. The
Musical Times 151 (1912). Musical Times Publications Ltd.: 25.
Swafford, Jan. Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph: A Biography. Boston:
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014.
Tunbridge, Laura. The Song Cycle. Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 2010.
Tyson, Alan, ed. Beethoven Studies. New York: W.W. Norton &
Company, 1973.