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Adelaide, Op. 46

March 29, 2015 – Matthew Polenzani, tenor; Ken Noda, piano

Having moved from Bonn in 1792, Beethoven, in his twenties, was in the process of making a name for himself as a composer and pianist in Vienna. Greatly enamored of Friedrich von Matthison’s poetry, he was especially captivated by Adelaide, which must have resonated with his own yearnings for romantic involvement with women who proved unattainable. In fact, he may have conceived his “cantata,” as he called it, for the beautiful singer Magdalena Willmann—a Bonn acquaintance who arrived in Vienna in 1794 and to whom he proposed unsuccessfully. Making many sketches, Beethoven set the poem in 1794–95 in a style that shows an Italianate-Romantic fervor, but also possibly the Classic influence of “O Tuneful Voice” by Haydn, with whom he had just been studying. Marriage proposal aside, Willman did give the first performance on April 7, 1797, and Beethoven published the song that year with a dedication to Matthison—unbeknownst to the poet.

Three years later Beethoven wrote humbly to Matthison saying, “I cannot explain why I dedicated a work to you which came directly from my heart, but never acquainted you with its existence,” except that “at first I did not know where you lived” (a flimsy excuse), and also “from diffidence” (likely), and that even now he was sending the song “with a feeling of timidity.” As it turned out, Matthison greatly appreciated the song, as we know from his introduction to an 1825 edition of his collected poems: “Several composers have animated this little lyric fantasy through music; none of them, however, according to my deepest conviction, cast the text into deeper shade with his melody than the genius Ludwig van Beethoven in Vienna.” “Adelaide” became one of Beethoven’s most popular songs—a favorite especially in salons and in numerous arrangements by other composers.

Beethoven’s setting is through-composed—every stanza fit with new music, even the refrain “Adelaide”—and divided into two parts, the first three stanzas at a slow tempo followed by a fast section comprising the last stanza. The dreamlike opening section suggests the beloved’s wandering with triplet motion and many key changes—influenced by Haydn’s song, perhaps?—and the rapturous closing section suggests the poet’s reuniting in death with the beloved who was unattainable in life.

© Jane Vial Jaffe

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