Opferlied, op. 121/b.

In the spring of 1824, a group of his friends organised a composers evening at the Vienna Kärtnerthortheater, for Beethoven (1770-1827), who was by then stone deaf and regarded as the greatest composer of his time. Beethoven was wary of the risks of such a concert because he sensed he was strongly at odds with Viennese musical taste, but he was also strongly preoccupied with arranging the performance of his two monumental works, completed just earlier. The Ninth Symphony and three movements from the Missa Solemnis were performed to a capacity audience on May 7th, and it was an immense success, marking Beethoven's final farewell to large audiences but also to large scale genres.

 

He turned instead to more personal forms, composing the set of six bagatelles for piano (op. 126), and at the end of the year, returned to one of his favourite verses, Friedrich von Matthison's (1761-1831) Opferlied, which according to its words is a “prayer for all the seasons.” Beethoven had been drawn to this text since his youth and in these years, when he hoped his fame would make it easier to sell his smaller scale works, presumably attempted to re-polish his earlier songs and market them. However, in the case of Opferlied, similar to the Ode to Joy, Beethoven seems to have felt compelled to conclude a number of unresolved matters from his life as a composer once and for all. Perhaps he felt that his time on earth was limited.

 

Beethoven produced his first musical setting of Matthison's verse in the mid 1790s, in the form of a song with piano accompaniment, but he rewrote it several times before it was finally published in 1808. In 1822,  the distinguished tenor Wilhelm Ehlers performed a version which involved three soloists, orchestral accompaniment and chorus, and although Beethoven offered it to a number of publishers, none were interested. Perhaps this was why in 1824 Beethoven decided to embark on a further version, this time for solo soprano, chorus and orchestra. Its lengthy and difficult birth is a good indication of just how important this poem was for Beethoven, perhaps because of its final lines proclaiming the unity of the Beautiful and the Good, which was Beethoven's personal artistic and philosophical credo. Thematically, this version does not depart far from the original song, but its character is now very different. It takes on the religiosity of Beethoven's late style and its gently undulating musical material transforms the verse into a true hymn.