Choral Fantasy (Beethoven)
Background, composition, and premiere
The Fantasia was first performed at the Akademie (benefit concert) of 22 December 1808, which also saw the premières of the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies as well as a performance of a portion of the C major Mass. To conclude this memorable concert program, Beethoven wanted a "brilliant Finale" that would unite in a single piece the different musical elements highlighted in the concert night: piano solo, chorus and orchestra. The Fantasia, Op. 80, written shortly prior, was thus composed expressly to fulfil this role. Beethoven himself played the piano part and the opening solo offers an example of his improvisational style (at the premiere he did, in fact, improvise this section).
Beethoven wrote the piece during the second half of December, an unusually short time by his standards. He commissioned a poet—whose identity is disputed—to write the words shortly before the performance to fit the already written parts. According to Beethoven's pupil Carl Czerny, the poet was Cristoph Kuffner; the later Beethoven scholar Gustav Nottebohm doubted this attribution and suggested it may have been Georg Friedrich Treitschke, who in 1814 prepared the final text of Beethoven's opera Fidelio.
The premiere performance seems to have been a rather troubled one; according to the composer's secretary, Anton Schindler, it "simply fell apart," a result most likely attributable to insufficient rehearsal time. Because of a mistake in the execution of the piece, it was stopped half way through and restarted. In Ignaz von Seyfried's words:
When the master brought out his orchestral Fantasia with choruses, he arranged with me at the somewhat hurried rehearsal, with wet voice-parts as usual, that the second variation should be played without repeat. In the evening, however, absorbed in his creation, he forgot all about the instructions which he had given, repeated the first part while the orchestra accompanied the second, which sounded not altogether edifying. A trifle too late, the Concertmaster, Unrath, noticed the mistake, looked in surprise at his lost companions, stopped playing and called out dryly: ‘Again!’ A little displeased, the violinist Antonín Vranický asked ‘With repeats?’ ‘Yes,’ came the answer, and now the thing went straight as a string
The Choral Fantasy and the Ninth Symphony
The work includes a sequence of variations on a theme that is widely felt to be an early version of a far better known variation theme, namely the one to which Beethoven set the words of Friedrich Schiller's Ode to Joy in his Ninth Symphony. The two themes are compared below.
- Choral Fantasy:
- Ninth Symphony:
Michael Broyles has suggested another musical similarity: the two works share essentially the same harmonic sequence at their climactic moments, the chords (in C major) C F D (G) E♭, where the E♭ stands out from its harmonic context and is performed fortissimo. The words sung at this point are (for the Choral Fantasy) "Lieb und Kraft" ("love and strength") and (for the Ninth Symphony) "Über'm Sternenzelt! Über Sternen muss er wohnen." ("Above the tent of the stars, above the stars he must dwell").
There are also affinities in the texts. The theme of the Choral Fantasy text – universal fraternity with the meeting of arts – evokes similar feelings as the "Ode to Joy" text.
Beethoven himself acknowledged the kinship of the two works. In a letter of 1824, when he was writing the Ninth Symphony, he described his project as "a setting of the words of Schiller's immortal "Lied an die Freude" in the same way as my pianoforte fantasia with chorus, but on a far grander scale."
The Choral Fantasy, which in most performances lasts about twenty minutes, is divided into two movements:
- 1. Adagio
- 2. Finale. Allegro – Meno allegro (Allegretto) – Allegro molto – Adagio ma non troppo – Marcia, assai vivace – Allegro – Allegretto ma non troppo quasi andante con moto »Schmeichelnd hold und liebliech klingen« – Presto
The Fantasy opens with a slow but virtuosic 26-bar piano introduction, modulating from C minor to C major and back again. The main part of the piece, marked "Finale", begins with an Allegro theme played by the cellos and basses. Next, the solo piano introduces the choral theme in an ornamented version. Variations on the theme are then played by the flutes, oboes, clarinets, and string soloists, respectively. A full orchestral version of the theme, played at a forte dynamic leads into a more lyrical piano line.
The orchestra accompanies an eighth-note heavy piano part as the piece modulates from C minor to C major. A calm, flowing A-major section, ending with a call-and-response section between double reeds, horn, and piano, leads into the Marcia, an F-major variation on the main theme in march style. A reprise of the instrumental theme from the first Allegro transitions into the choral entrance.
The chorus enters with the sopranos and altos singing the main theme, harmonized in triads. The tenors and basses then sing the theme, after which the entire chorus is joined by the orchestra in a tutti rendition. A presto coda with orchestra, chorus, and piano brings the piece to a close.
The work's text is as follows:
|German text (see above for authorship)||English translation|
|Schmeichelnd hold und lieblich klingen||Graceful, charming and sweet is the sound|
|unseres Lebens Harmonien,||Of our life’s harmonies,|
|und dem Schönheitssinn entschwingen||and from a sense of beauty arise|
|Blumen sich, die ewig blühn.||Flowers which eternally bloom.|
|Fried und Freude gleiten freundlich||Peace and joy advance in perfect concord,|
|wie der Wellen Wechselspiel.||like the changing play of the waves.|
|Was sich drängte rauh und feindlich,||All that was harsh and hostile,|
|ordnet sich zu Hochgefühl.||has turned into sublime delight.|
|Wenn der Töne Zauber walten||When music's enchantment reigns,|
|und des Wortes Weihe spricht,||speaking of the sacred word,|
|muss sich Herrliches gestalten,||Magnificence takes form,|
|Nacht und Stürme werden Licht.||The night and the tempest turns to light:|
|Äuss're Ruhe, inn're Wonne||Outer peace and inner bliss|
|herrschen für den Glücklichen.||Reign o'er the fortunate ones.|
|Doch der Künste Frühlingssonne||All art in the spring's sun|
|lässt aus beiden Licht entstehn.||Lets light flow from both.|
|Großes, das ins Herz gedrungen,||Greatness, once it has pierced the heart,|
|blüht dann neu und schön empor.||Then blooms anew in all its beauty.|
|Hat ein Geist sich aufgeschwungen,||Once one's being has taken flight,|
|hallt ihm stets ein Geisterchor.||A choir of spirits resounds in response.|
|Nehmt denn hin, ihr schönen Seelen,||Accept then, you beautiful souls,|
|froh die Gaben schöner Kunst||Joyously the gifts of high art.|
|Wenn sich Lieb und Kraft vermählen,||When love and strength are united,|
|lohnt den Menschen Göttergunst.||God’s grace is bestowed upon Man.|
As noted above, the words were written in haste, and Beethoven was perhaps not entirely pleased with them. He later wrote to his publisher Breitkopf und Härtel:
- You may wish to print another text, as the text like the music was written very quickly ... Still with another set of words I want the word kraft ["strength"] to be kept or one similar to it in its place.
As Kalischer et al. observe, the word Kraft "is treated with grand style in the music."
- Albrecht et al. (1006, 10) identify Kuffner as "an official at the War Ministry, musically talented poet, author of the text of the Choral Fantasia Op. 80, and of the drama Tarpeja, for which Beethoven supplied incidental music WoO 2, in 1813." His life dates are 28 June 1780 (Vienna) - 7 November 1846 (Vienna).
- Kinderman (1995, 132)
- Landon, H.C. Robbins. Beethoven: His Life, Work, and World. Thames and Hudson. New York City. 1992; pg 149
- Roger Ruggeri. "Program notes".
- A. W. Thayer, Life of Beethoven, edited by Elliot Forbes. Princeton, New Jersey Princeton University Press, 1964,pp 448–449
- "Wet" refers to the ink; in Beethoven's day the performance parts would have been prepared by copyists using pens.
- Broyles (1987, 263–264)
- "Lied": song
- Quoted from Kinderman (1995, 132)
- Lühning 1990, 200
- Source for quotation and "Kraft" comment: Kalischer et al. (1972, 106).
- Albrecht, Theodore et al. (1996) Letters to Beethoven and Other Correspondence: 1824–1828. University of Nebraska Press.
- Broyles, Michael (1987) Beethoven: the emergence and evolution of Beethoven's heroic style. Taylor and Francis.
- Kalischer, Alfred Christlieb, John South Shedlock, and Arthur Eaglefield Hull (1972) Beethoven's Letters. Courier Dover Publications.
- Kinderman, William (1995) Beethoven. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.
- Lühning, Helga (1990) Beethoven: Lieder und Gesänge, Band II. Munich: G. Henle.
- Piece details from the Los Angeles Philharmonic
- Choral Fantasy: Free scores at the International Music Score Library Project