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An die ferne Geliebte

Review by Christopher Goldsack, December 2020

Bärenreither have recently published a new Urtext edition of Beethoven’s Lieder cycle An die ferne Geliebte (To the distant beloved), edited by Barry Cooper. This collection of six songs, performed without a break between songs, is often considered the first song cycle, though as the editor points out, none of its structural features were new. As one of the mainstays of the Lieder repertoire, a considered and scholarly new edition is certainly welcome. The print is clear and typesetting avoids the sterile appearance of many modern editions. As one would expect in a publication in this series, there is a thorough introduction which discusses the context in which the work was composed, talks about the research questions and makes an appraisal of performance practice. The editorial aims – to create an accurate text and to explain the meaning of notational uncertainties – seem to be amply fulfilled. At the back of the edition the editor has provided a reference to the sources used and a detailed listing of all the editorial questions raised. As a singer who performed these songs on numerous occasions, I found the discussions compelling. The editor has also provided English translations which are at once easy to read, but faithful to the German text, though no word for word translation is provided.

The collection has always been popular with male Lieder singers. The songs are attractive and accessible for both performer and audience.

Though simple and strophic, and making no great technical demands on the singer, the songs are nonetheless are very poignant, offering a wonderful vehicle for a tender and heartfelt performance, demanding artistry that belies their simplicity. Many have wondered if Beethoven had anyone in mind when he wrote the songs.

Just a few years earlier, in 1812, he wrote a passionate love letter to a woman known as his Immortal Beloved, whose identity is disputed, and the parallels are certainly compelling – requited love, but a relationship that cannot be fulfilled. Barry Cooper discusses the unusual care the Beethoven took in the publication process. It is clear this collection was dear to the composer.

This new edition certainly offers a performer the clearest and most authoritative reading of the musical text yet. The question that surprised me most was why the score is only published in the one key – the original key, for tenor. This certainly limits the market for the edition. The editor provides some tantalising thoughts as to why the songs should not be transposed, and it is clear that, in his view, transposition is inappropriate He even suggests that the range would still be manageable by a high baritone, which I would contest – manageable perhaps, but unappealing. This has actually made me look into the matter transposition. To understand the argument, one has to look into tuning and temperament. Like many, I had grown up being taught that Bach championed even temperament – so that transposition of material written after this was not a problem. I realise now that the evolution of temperament was much more complex than that suggests, and that Beethoven was not writing for what we understand to be even tempered tuning. Transposition would certainly have changed the feel of the songs. Does that mean they were never transposed? Was Beethoven less of a pragmatist than Schubert, writing his great song cycles just a decade later and surely writing for the same pianos? Schubert wrote his great cycles for tenors, but his music was championed by the baritone Vogl, with his blessing. Furthermore, these days tuning to anything other than even temperament is a specialist area. Realistically most modern performances are done on modern instruments with modern tuning. Whilst I now understand Barry Cooper’s reasoning, I feel that most singers will simply use alternative editions if they need to – I can only hope they at least compare their editions with this one to benefit from his undoubted scholarship.