Beethoven: Cantata on the Death of the Emperor Joseph II

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.

Beethoven composed the Cantata on the Death of the Emperor Joseph II in 1790, but the work was not performed until 1884, when it had its premiere that November in Vienna. The only previous performances by the San Francisco Symphony were given in July 1981; Leonard Slatkin conducted, with soprano Esther Hinds and bass Marius Rintzler, and the SFS Chorus. The orchestra consists of two each of flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, and horns, plus strings. Performance time: about thirty minutes.

How did a nineteen-year-old musician in a small Rhenish electorate come to compose a cantata in the grand manner on the death of a monarch whose capital lay a four-day journey to the southeast? The connection between Bonn and Vienna was both familial and ideological. Maximilian Franz, who had become Elector of Bonn in 1784, was a Hapsburg archduke and younger brother to Joseph II, ruler since 1765 of the Holy Roman Empire. Inheriting the passion for reform that characterized his mother, the Empress Maria Theresa, Joseph brought about the consolidation of the educational system, the separation of the executive and judiciary branches, the establishment of a Universal Code of Civil Law, the expansion of a public health service, the abolition of serfdom, the emancipation of the Jews, and equality before the law of members of all faiths. He even took on the Catholic church, forcing the dissolution of several hundred monasteries of orders not engaged in teaching or medical work. All this, along with a few insensitivities like imposing German as the official language in Hungary, made Joseph profoundly unpopular with his generally conservative subjects; at the same time, he became a hero among liberal intellectuals throughout Europe. When Maximilian Franz went to Bonn, he found himself in a climate receptive to those ideals of the Enlightenment that he brought with him from Vienna. Bonn in the 1780s was a town famous for its climate of intellectual freedom, for its well-stocked Court library and bookstores, and for the richness of the teaching at its newly founded university.

Joseph II died on February 20, 1790, a few weeks before his forty-ninth birthday. The news reached Bonn on February 24. Severin Anton Averdonk, a theology student, wrote the text for a commemorative cantata, and at a meeting of the Bonn Lese-Gesellschaft or Literary Society, Professor Eulogius Schneider, who taught Greek literature at the university and who was a celebrated spokesman in liberal causes, proposed that it be set to music by Beethoven and performed at a memorial ceremony the society proposed to hold on March 19. We know now that young Beethoven was the most talented composer in Bonn in 1790. We don’t know whether Schneider and his fellow-literati had a clear sense of that, whether they felt that an older man like Christian Gottlob Neefe, Electoral Music Director and Beethoven’s teacher, or Joseph Reicha, Director of the Orchestra and Opera at Bonn, would be disinclined to take on a job with so tight a deadline, or whether it simply pleased their liberal leanings to go with a very young man rather than a more established figure.

What happened next is not so clear. The minutes of the Literary Society for a meeting on March 17 state that “for various reasons the proposed cantata cannot be performed," and a projected performance the following year in the nearby town of Mergentheim did not materialize either. The Joseph cantata is almost certainly one of the works that Beethoven showed to Haydn, an act whose ultimate consequence was Beethoven’s move to Vienna; for the rest, he made no effort to have it performed or published, though he did not forget it. The manuscript was bought by the composer Johann Nepomuk Hummel at an auction in 1813, disappeared from view for many years, and came to light again at another auction in 1884. It was performed in Vienna that November and in June 1885 the music was at last heard in Bonn.

Brahms examined the manuscript in 1884 and was moved to write to the critic Eduard Hanslick: "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 outer sections all the characteristics which we may observe in and associate with his later works!"

It is a first foray into territory Beethoven would not thoroughly conquer for many years; for one thing, he had to acquire a lot of sheer technique. It is not, however, farfetched to say that these weeks of labor in February and March 1790 mark the birth of the future composer of the Eroica, Fidelio, Coriolan, the Fifth Symphony, the Egmont music, and the Ninth Symphony—in a word, of the "heroic" Beethoven. There was a well-established way of writing such pieces, and one can hear how Beethoven has studied and absorbed the language and the gestures of such masters as Gluck and Mozart. What stuns us is the force with which Beethoven invests those gestures, the vividness of the contrasts, the passion that feeds the declamation, the turbulence of the orchestra in the recitatives, the uncanny skill at making the expected happen not quite when you expect it (the first choral entrance!), the gripping silences, the phrases that seem to have been broken by the intensity of grief. Sometimes Beethoven’s melody strikes us as Mozartian, for example in the second soprano aria, Hier schlummert seinen stillen Frieden (Here the patient sufferer slumbers  peacefully), but we also meet a kind of melos that is uniquely Beethoven’s, sustained, laid out in broad curves, untroubled. The adagio of the Ninth Symphony has such melodies, and there is one of singular beauty in the first soprano aria of the Joseph cantata, Da stiegen die Menschen an’s Licht (The people rose to the light). The bass has described how Joseph crushed the monster, Fanaticism, but before the soprano tells us of the rising of the people into light, the oboe anticipates her song.

Fifteen years later, Beethoven returned to that melody—and its scoring, with oboe and sympathetic chorus—for the most sublime moment in Fidelio, the moment when Don Fernando, governor and symbol of the Good Monarch, has handed the keys of Florestan’s shackles to Leonore and that heroic woman prepares to free her long-imprisoned husband. On November 20, 1805, when Fidelio was first heard in a city just invaded by the Bad Monarch Napoleon Bonaparte, Beethoven alone was in a position to recognize that melody and to feel its force of that reaching across the years.

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 the Cantata—Matthew Best conducting the Corydon Orchestra and Singers, with soprano Janice Watson, mezzo-soprano Jean Rigby, tenor John Mark Ainsley, and bass José van Dam  (Hyperion)

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