Beethoven: Adelaide

Ludwig van Beethoven was born in Bonn, then an independent electorate, probably on December 16, 1770 (his baptismal certificate is dated the 17th), and died in Vienna on March 26, 1827.

“Adelaide” is a song completed in 1796. It was first heard at San Francisco Symphony concerts in December 1933, performed by tenor Roland Hayes and pianist Elizabeth Alexander. In the most recent performances here, in June 1981, tenor Paul Sperry sang the song, with pianist Irma Vallecillo. These are the first concert performances of Ragnar Bohlin’s choral arrangement. Performance time: about six minutes.

Adelaide” is a song on a large scale. Indeed, the first edition, published in 1797, calls it a cantata, and it lends itself to the kind of expansive treatment Ragnar Bohlin has given it in his arrangement.

In 1800, Beethoven sent a copy to Friedrich Matthisson, whose poem “Adelaide” provided the composer with his text. Beethoven explained that he had not sent his song earlier because he had no address for the poet. “In part,” he added, “I was also diffident, not knowing but that I had been over-hasty in dedicating a work to you without knowing if it met with your approval. Even now I send you “Adelaide” with some timidity. You know what changes are wrought in a few years in an artist who is continually going forward; the greater the progress one makes in art, the less satisfied with one’s earlier work.

“My most ardent wish will be fulfilled if my musical setting of your heavenly “Adelaide” does not wholly displease you, and if it should move you soon to write another poem of its kind, and you, not finding my request too immodest, should send it to me at once, I will put forth all my powers to do your beautiful poetry justice.”

In the collected edition of his work, Matthisson had this to say about “Adelaide”: “Several composers have given this little lyric fantasy life through music; according to my most sincere conviction, however, none so threw the text into deeper shade with his melody than the intensely gifted Ludwig van Beethoven in Vienna.”

Michael Steinberg 

Michael Steinberg, the San Francisco Symphony’s Program Annotator from 1979 to 1999 and a contributing writer to our program book until his death in 2009, was one of the nation’s pre-eminent writers on music. We are privileged to continue publishing his program notes. His books are available at the Symphony Store in Davies Symphony Hall.

More About the Music
RECORDINGS: For “AdelaideBaritone Hermann Prey with pianist Leonard Hokanson (Capriccio)  |  Tenor Fritz Wunderlich with pianist Hubert Giesen (Deutsche Grammophon)

READING: Beethoven, by Maynard Solomon (Schirmer Books)  |  Beethoven, by William Kinderman (University of California Press)  |  Beethoven: The Music and the Life, by Lewis Lockwood (W.W. Norton)  |  Beethoven, by Barry Cooper (Oxford, Master Musicians Series)  |  The Beethoven Compendium, edited by Barry Cooper (Thames and Hudson)  |  Thayer’s Life of Beethoven, in its most recent revision by Elliott Forbes (Princeton University Press)  |  Beethoven and his World: A Biographical Dictionary, by Peter Clive (Oxford)   

DVD: Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony explore the composer and his world in Beethoven and the Eroica, part of our Keeping Score series (SFS Media). Also available at