Written in April of 1816, An die ferne Geliebte features six poems by the young German physician/poet Alois Isidor Jeitteles. The text is indeed cyclical in nature and each movement highlights a different aspect of the longing and desire that the speaker feels for his beloved. This follows closely behind Beethoven’s setting in song of the Adelaïde which features the same desire for an unreachable love. It seems as if Beethoven was writing these pieces as musical letters to his Immortal Beloved of the famous unaddressed letter.
The cycle is a true Liederkreis (ring). Not only are the thematic elements of the texts closely related, but the musical elements are interlocked in a cyclical manner as well. The set is also written so that each song leads into the next without break, so that no one song can stand alone.
An examination of the key structure of the cycle shows that Beethoven clearly had this Liederkreis concept in mind from the outset. The first song begins in Eb major and Beethoven moves quickly through the keys of G and C to arrive in Ab major for the third and forth movement. He them arrives back in Eb major by the end of the piece, again by way of C.
The first movement of the cycle creates the melodic material that is used, albeit transformed throughout the work. The principal theme of the first movement also reoccurs unaltered in the last movement of the cycle. The example to the right shows a section of the first movement and highlights the melodic material that will for the basis for subsequent movements.
This work stands alone as Beethoven’s only full song cycle, however, it does compare well with the works for which it was a predecessor. The song cycles of Franz Schubert, specifically Die Schöne Müllerin and Winterreise, have much in common with the earlier Beethoven work. Each cycle features the theme of a lost or unreachable love. All three cycles are dramatic in nature, not only representing a group of songs with a common theme, but a true cycle and narrative.
However, they differ in a few aspects. An die ferne geliebte, while being made of six distinct songs is through composed in a way that only allows for the performance of the work as a whole. The dramatic and musical impact of the Schubert cycles is only felt in full when the works are performed in toto, however, it is possible and frequently done to perform only a selection(s) from the entire sets.
I chose this piece because I have performed the work myself. It is a beautiful work full of stunning symmetry and relationships. Beethoven created a genre that would come do define the German art song for the next century. The transitions between movements, specifically from the 3rd to the 4th are quite exquisite.
Joseph Kerman, et al. "Beethoven, Ludwig van." Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press, accessed May 3, 2014, http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/40026pg16 .
Sylvia Bowden. ’A Union of Souls': Finding Beethoven's 'Distant Beloved’. The Musical Times. Vol. 150, No. 1909 (Winter, 2009). p. 71-94. http://www.jstor.org/stable/25597661 .