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Rehearsing Beethoven’s Cantata with the SFS Chorus

March 25, 2013

By Elaine Robertson, SF Symphony Chorus Manager 

I’ll admit—before I saw the initial programming for the San Francisco Symphony’s 2012-13 season, I had never heard of, let alone listened to, Ludwig van Beethoven’s Cantata on the Death of Emperor Joseph II. (In a quick, informal poll, many of my musical friends had also never come across the piece, so I didn’t feel so terrible!) As Chorus Manager at the Symphony, and having been a choral singer since I was a child, I was both surprised and excited to see a piece I didn’t know as one of the choral highlights of the season. Part of my job as Chorus Manager is to sit down with SFS Chorus Director Ragnar Bohlin and work out how many rehearsals and what personnel are needed for each choral program in the coming season, so of course, I immediately spent some time listening to and learning the Cantata. And all I can say is that I’m so happy that this beautiful piece of music is something I now know, and I’m excited that so many of you will get to hear this rarely performed gem.

As I spent time researching the Cantata, some things leapt out at me. Strikingly, the Cantata—written for orchestra, chorus, and soloists—was actually never performed in Beethoven’s lifetime. The manuscript was lost in 1792, just two years after its composition, and the first performances did not take place until 1884. Beethoven was just 19 years old and living in Bonn when he wrote the Cantata in 1790. Upon hearing of Emperor Joseph’s death, the Bonn Reading Society planned a memorial, for which a cantata was to be composed, based on text written by Anton Severin Averdonk to commemorate Joseph’s death. The cantata was to be composed by “one of the excellent musicians from among our ranks,” or “an outside composer, who will apply himself to his musical task.” It is telling that “outsider” Beethoven was given the commission, and it is indicative of his growing reputation that he was asked to compose the Cantata. It is also indicative of his originality as a composer that the work actually could not be performed at the memorial “for various reasons,” either because it was too difficult, required too large an orchestra, or simply wasn’t completed in time. Because of its length and complexity, it is often considered the first of Beethoven’s master works, filled with hints of the greatness of his works to come.

You may recognize the soprano’s soaring melody in the Cantata’s “Da stiegen die Menschen an’s Licht” (“Then mankind climbed into the light”) as the melody that we hear in the beautiful oboe line in “O Gott! welch’ ein Augenblick” (“Oh God! What a moment”) from Beethoven’s later opera, Fidelio. The Cantata’s opening and closing choruses, “Todt, stöhnt es durch die öde Nacht!” (“Death, groan it through the barren night!”), in Beethoven’s oft-used key of C minor, echo his Pathetique Sonata, and the funeral march from his Third Symphony, Eroica.

Some of you may recognize Emperor Joseph II as the character portrayed in Milos Forman’s movie Amadeus. Known as the “Musical King,” Joseph was named Holy Roman Emperor in 1765, and ruled the Habsburg lands from 1780 until his death in 1790.  His “enlightened absolutism” brought about many changes, including the spread of education, emancipation of peasants, limited freedom of worship, and implementing German as the standard language of administration and education in the Habsburg lands. Because of the large scope of these changes, and in part because the changes threatened the aristocracy, Joseph’s reign saw many rebellions, and he died at age 48 a rather unpopular leader. At his own request, his epitaph reads, “Here lies Joseph II, who failed in all he undertook.” However, despite this sentiment, Averdonk’s text for the Cantata references Joseph’s “enlightened” 1780s reforms and his good deeds for mankind:

“Joseph the Great is dead! Joseph the father of immortal deeds, is dead! . . . A monster, Fanaticism by name, arose from the depths of hell, stretched itself twixt earth and sun, and night fell. Then came Joseph, with the strength of God, tore the raging monster forth, forth from between earth and heaven, and trampled on its head. Then mankind climbed into the light, earth turned more happily round the sun, and the sun warmed it with godly rays.”

History’s view of Joseph ranks him as a great monarch—but one who may have tried to undertake reforms too quickly.

The San Francisco Symphony Chorus is really looking forward to learning this hidden musical gem. We start rehearsals in early April, and will have three rehearsals with Ragnar, before joining MTT and the Orchestrain rehearsal. This program also features the SFS Chorus in the world premiere of Ragnar’s arrangement of Beethoven’s Adelaide. I asked Ragnar what he’s looking forward to in these performances, and he is as excited as the Chorus: “It is especially exciting that the Cantata is so rarely performed, yet it is surprisingly rich, dramatic, and mature, written by a very young Beethoven. I’m also excited to have been asked to provide an arrangement of one of Beethoven’s most popular songs, Adelaide, for these concerts.”

If you need still more incentive to come and hear this wonderful choral program, I’ll leave you with this from Johannes Brahms, who said upon seeing the manuscript for the Cantata, “Even if there were no name on the title page, none other could be conjectured—it is Beethoven through and through! The beautiful and noble pathos, sublime in its feeling and imagination, the intensity, perhaps violent in its expression, moreover the voice leading and declamation, and in the two outside sections all the characteristics we may observe and associate with his later works.”

Elaine Robertson, SFS Chorus Manager