Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Music History Monday: Beethoven and the Human Voice

Beethoven in 1812, from a life mask made by the sculptor Franz Klein
Beethoven in 1812, from a life mask made by the sculptor Franz Klein

We mark the premiere on May 23, 1814 – 208 years ago today – of Ludwig van Beethoven’s one-and-only opera, Fidelio, at the Kärntnertor Theater in Vienna.  While Beethoven (1770-1827) had composed two preliminary versions of the opera, which had been performed in 1805 and 1806, it is this third and substantially different version that we will hear in the opera house today.

It’s an odd but, in this case, an applicable idiom, “red herring.” Literally, a “red herring” is, believe it or not, a red herring (see image above): a dried and smoked herring that’s turned red due to being smoked.  However, for our purposes, a “red herring” is:

“something that misleads or distracts from a relevant or important question. It may be either a logical fallacy or a literary device that leads readers or audiences toward a false conclusion.”

The Beethovenian red herring to which we are referring started with the German author, legal scholar, composer, music critic, and artist Ernst Theodor Amadeus (or “E. T. A.”) Hoffman (1776-1822).  Hoffman wrote a lengthy and frankly worshipful appreciation of Beethoven’s instrumental music entitled “Beethoven’s Instrumental Music” in 1813, when Beethoven was in his 43rd year.  In the course of his essay, Hoffmann wrote this:

“Beethoven’s [instrumental] music wields the lever of fear, awe, horror, and pain, and it awakens that eternal longing that is the essence of the romantic. If he has had less success with vocal music, this is because vocal music excludes the character of indefinite longing and [instead] represents the emotions [as described by] words.”

Hoffman’s implication – that Beethoven was inherently less successful as a composer of vocal music than of instrumental music – ran like open carbuncle through the Beethoven literature of the nineteenth century.  By the twentieth century, it had become an article of faith among many musicians – who should have known better – that Beethoven couldn’t write properly for the voice because he could not compose “vocal styled” or so-called “lyric” melodies.  …

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