Reflections on Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte
The Musical Souvenir
The musical souvenir is a classic device in drama, and a familiar phenomenon in real life. Music has a particular power to trigger memories that have become associated with it in the past. In the most typical scenario, these are thought of as sentimental and pleasant – hence, the Darling They’re Playing Our Tune or DTOPT phenomenon I have discussed earlier. The deep roots of music in memory have become most spectacularly clear in those cases of where music helps to revive seemingly lost memories and abilities, as in certain cases of Alzheimer (Sacks 2007).
What seems to be an important factor in this remarkable property of music is the fact that it unfolds in time. It allows us to follow it, participate in it by singing and moving along, inwardly or outwardly, in a structured experience. With a regular pulse and patterns of anticipation and resolution, music may give, as long as it lasts, coherence to what for the patient otherwise would be an endless series of isolated moments. And not just for those who suffer memory loss. Its ability to structure experience through time is one of the most important factors in musical enjoyment and its contribution to wellbeing.
But music itself often seems to resemble, represent or simulate a mental process. Can it also represent or simulate the process of remembering? Is there such a thing as music remembered in music?
In one of his engaging essays author and pianist Charles Rosen speaks of Beethoven as “the first composer to represent the complex process of memory – not merely the sense of loss and regret that accompanies visions of the past, but the physical experience of calling up the past within the present” (Rosen 1995: 166). Rosen is referring here to the song cycle An die ferne Geliebte (To the Distant Beloved, 1816).
I am not aware of any claims to earlier musical representations of the process of memory. Though it is a fairly common idea, in the early nineteenth century, that music may simulate a thought process. It is not so far-fetched that this thought process may include memories; that the resurfacing of a musical theme or idea may be interpreted, under suitable circumstances, as an act of recall.
Beethoven’s song cycle is a confusing work: alternately naïve, subtly moving, and, in its operatic final climax, outrageous. The six songs are linked without interruption. Because of its unusual form it might better be called a lieder-cantata than a song cycle.
The text (written probably on order by the little known Alois Jeitteles) is put into the mouth of a poet-singer, the poem’s ‘I’, who finds himself far from his beloved. In the first song, which is a kind of prologue, he bemoans the distance between them. He therefore decides to create a number of songs for her (nrs 2-5). When she in turn will sing his songs, in that act of recreation their sense of separation will vanish. This he anticipates in the epilogue (nr. 6). The last lines of nr. 1 are here repeated, with slight alteration (my transl.):
With the sound of song
All space and time vanish;
And what a loving heart has offered
Will reach a loving heart!
Then with the sound of song will vanish
What has kept us so far apart,
And what a loving heart has offered
Will reach a loving heart!
It is an interesting variation on the DTOPT theme. “Our songs” are here created by the poet in the hope of producing a kind of DTOPT moment in the future: by singing the same songs, the lovers may feel united across time and space. It might be more rewarding than a phone call.
The poetry itself is often trivial, and even the music has its awkward moments. But the self-referentiality of the framing device, in which nr 6 echoes nr 1 and both refer to the songs in between, has given Beethoven an extraordinary opportunity to create musical-poetic relations. It also provides commentators with an almost limitless playground for interpretative ideas (Marston 2000).
The poetry implies that the music of nr. 1 will recur in nr. 6. And we know from his sketches that this was Beethoven’s original idea (Kerman 1974). But in the first stanza, the notes didn’t fit the text: the accenting is wrong (Nimm sie hin denn, diese Lieder – instead of Nimm sie hin denn, diese Lieder). As often in artistic creation, the obstacle created an opportunity which vastly improved the work. Before returning to the original opening melody, Beethoven introduces an new idea that subtly resembles the original melody. The sense of direction, movement, and anticipation is however much stronger. And its significance is emphasized by the fact that it is fully presented first by the piano, before giving voice to the poetry. It is above all this wordless moment that lifts the cycle above the level of mere sentimentality.
“Calling up the Past”
Now back to Rosen’s claim that in this work Beethoven managed “to represent the complex process of memory”. Does it really represent “the physical [!] experience of calling up the past”?
According to Rosen, the new melody “is not derived from the first but recalls it”, it “suggests the first, brings it to mind”.
In the analyst’s mind, and that of the attentive listener. And as subtle, maybe subconscious reminder of the beginning it anticipates the reprise to come. But does it also represent the poet’s memory?
[…] the first song returns only gradually: what actually comes back as the last song opens is a distorted memory of the past, a new melody so much like the initial song that when the opening of the cycle almost literally returns, it seems to arise directly out of the last song. (170)
It is not simply the presence of the beloved but the songs of regret and longing which are remembered and become present, and these songs are themselves already the expression of memories. … The last song is not a memory of the distant beloved but a memory of grief and of absence. Even if, as the words claim, the distance in time and space is vanquished by song, the effect of transcendence depends on our understanding that the absence persists. (174)
In Rosen’s interpretation, the work as a whole expresses an obsession with memory, grief and loss. “Our song” remains the poet’s own lonely song. This, to my mind, goes against the sense of text and music together: the dominant idea is one of longing that is transformed in anticipation, and in that anticipation finds comfort. (Even if the work’s excessive climax makes it sound like the poet is fooling himself!)
The opening song cannot be “recalled” by the poet, because is not actually one of his songs: it is part of the framework, the dedication. With the beginning of nr. 6 the poet completes the framework and resumes his earlier train of thought: that poetry may overcome the sense of separation. This thought is infused with a stronger sense of anticipation – precisely by those marvellous four bars in the piano.
To be continued.
Kerman, Joseph. 1974. “An die ferne Geliebte.” In Alan Tyson (ed.). Beethoven Studies (London: OUP, 1974), 123-157.
Marston, Nicholas. 2000. “Voicing Beethoven’s Distant Beloved”. In Scott G. Burnham and Michael P. Steinberg (eds). Beethoven and His World (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000), 124-147. Marston’s idea that the Distant Beloved’s ‘voice’ is projected onto the piano part seems to me rather far-fetched.
Rosen, Charles. 1995. The Romantic Generation (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press).
Sacks, Oliver. 2007. Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain. (New York: Vintage Books).