Sehnsucht, woO 134
Beethoven is a nightmare for biographers.
His life was uneventful. He was born and raised in Bonn, moved to Vienna in his early 20s and stayed there for the rest of his life. His romantic attachments were enigmatic and unfulfilled, his other relationships were rough and remote – except the love for his nephew, who fled when the deaf composer became too overbearing. For all that we have conversation books where he communicated with visitors, together with reminiscences of his close acquaintances, getting inside Beethoven’s character is a near-impossible task.
Idealised memoirs by Ries and Wiegler appeared in 1838, a decade after Beethoven’s death, followed by Anton Schindler’s more comprehensive account two years later, which laid the foundations for Beethoven as Romantic hero. Inaccurate and distorted, these works are reliable nor revealing of its subject’s profundity. Schindler was estranged from Beethoven from 1824 until the last months of his life.
The first comperehensive biography was undertaken by an American, Alexander Wheelock Thayer (1817-1897), a librarian at Harvard. Annoyed by the glaring inconsistencies in Schindler, Thayer made multiple trips to Europe to examine original documents and interview survivors. For reasons never fully apparent, Thayer had his work published in German – three volumes in his lifetime and two posthumous. ‘I fight for no theories and cherish no prejudices,’ wrote Thayer, ‘my sole point of view is the truth.’
His set produced in an English edition by the New York critic Henry Edward Krehbiel in 1921 and has stood ever since as the cornerstone biography, albeit neither a literary work nor one that kept up with later discoveries. Germans turned more to Ludwig Nohl, whose three-volume work (1864-77) contains detailed musical analysis.
Half a century passed before a New York record-label owner by name of Maynard Solomon brought out the first biography to supplant Thayer, involving Freudian analysis of Beethoven’s relations with his family and elusive beloveds. Solomon founded Vanguard Records with his brother Seymour (their star performer was Joan Baez) and was the first to propose the contentious notion that Franz Schubert was gay. He also came out as a Marxist, although this aspect of his thinking is lessdetectable in his empatheic, highly readable portrait of the composer and his perpetual demons.
The British academic Martin Cooper wrote a study of Beethoven’s last decade which, half a century after first publication, remains an indispensable guide to following the composer’s thoughts from one score to the next. An accomplished pianist, Cooper studies Beethoven from the keyboard up, and all the better for that.
In 2014 the American composer Jan Swafford took 1,000 pages of ‘Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph’ to describe the torments of building a symphony from scratch. Swafford’s empathy is engulfing and his tone authoritative. His work is unlikely to be overtaken any time soon simply because there is little more to add to the biography, and the interst in Beethoven in shrinking.
That said, there are some fabulous studies of individul works such as Beethoven’s Ninth by the Argentine-French scholar Esteban Buch, following the work from first origins to its symbolic distortions from Liszt through Hiter to the EU. There is also an adroit guide to Beethoven’s life ‘in nine pieces’ by the Oxford academic Laraua Tunbridge.
But that’s enough about the books. I was supposed to be writing about a song that exists in four different versions and never made it into the Beethoven canon. Sehnsucht (nostalgia), from Goethe’s novel Mignon, occupied Beethoven for 15 years, from 1808 to 1823. It’s about a love that is hopeless from the moment it starts.
Was zieht mir das Herz so?
Was zieht mich hinaus
Und windet und schraubt mich
Aus Zimmer und Haus?
Wie dort sich die Wolken
Um Felsen verziehn,
Da möcht’ ich hinüber,
Da möcht’ ich wohl hin!
What tugs my heart so
What tugs me inside out?
And twists and turns me
Out of room and house?
As the clouds there
Forgive the rocks
I must go go over there
I must go there!
Beethoven had trouble with Goethe’s irregular rhythms and was troubled further by his own unfulfilled romantic longings. Each version of the song exposes more difficulties until the final revison simplifies Goethe and achieves some kind of catharsis. Goethe’s own longing in writing this poem was not for a woman, but for a return to Italy.
Perhas because the song failed to make it into the main Beethoven catalogue there are relatively few interpretations on record.
Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, for instance, did not attempt this quadruple version of the song, and there’s not much in the Lied book that escaped his attention. Hermann Prey deputises admirably in the first version, the lightness of his tone preparing us sensitively for the death of love.
Ann Murray is captivating in all four versions, singing well within herself and letting Beethoven’s pathos flow through Goethe’s words with supportive pianism from Ian Burnside.
The only other contender is a 2020 recording by Ian Bostridge, with Antonio Pappano at the piano. Bostridge sings a poetic line in the way Peter Pears used to do, slightly didactic in manner and will syllabic precision. Pappano slightly over-dramatises. I prefer Prey and Murray but you may differ.