BEETHOVEN'S CANTATAS OF 1790

Cantata on the Death of
Emperor Joseph II, WoO 87

Cantata on the Elevation of
Emperor Leopold II, WoO 88


LETTER TO EDUARD HANSLICK
BY JOHANNES BRAHMS
VIENNA, MAY, 1884



 

"Dear friend: You went away and left me a treasure without having looked it over yourself. Hence, I must write you a few words of thanks so that you may know just how valuable a treasure it is. There is no doubt whatsoever that in the two cantatas which Beethoven wrote in Bonn--on the death of Joseph II and the accession of Leopold II--have been discovered.  thus we now have two large-scale works for chorus and orchestra from a period in which no compositions to which we could attach any particular significance existed, as far as we knew.  If they did not bear the date (February, 1790), we would guess them to be of a later period, since we know nothing of that period!  However, even if there were no name on the title page, there would still be no doubt concerning the composer--throughout it is altogether Beethoven!  Here are the beautiful, noble pathos, the great sensitivity and imagination, the power as well as violence of expression, added to the special quality of the voice leading and declamation at which we marvel in his later works!

Naturally the cantata on the death of Joseph II interests us chiefly.  For such an historical event one doesn't write merely a piece d'occasion!  Were we to commemorate this unforgettable, irreplaceable man today, we would be as impassioned about it as Beethoven and everyone else at the time.  Nor did Beethoven merely write a piece d'occasion.  We have only to observe how this artist never fails to fashion artistically, to exert his greatest efforts, and this is more easily seen in a young man than in the master.  In the very first mourning chorus, we get the picture of Joseph himself.  Not a word or note would leave you in doubt.  A recitative, uncommonly vigorous, follows:  "A mighty one, his name, Fanaticism, rose from the depths of Hell" (later crushed by Joseph, in an aria).  I cannot help thinking back on that time when--as the vehement words demonstrate--the entire world understood what it had lost in Joseph.  The young Beethoven also understood that he had something great to say, and as was right, said it forcefully right at the start, in the powerful Overture.  To the words, "The people come forth into the light," we hear the magnificent F-major movement from the finale of Fidelio.  Here, as there, the beautiful, moving melody in the oboe.  We find many examples where the great masters use the same thought in several places.  I find it particularly good here.  How deeply Beethoven must have felt the melody in the cantata, as deeply and beautifully as later, when he sang the noble song of the love of a woman--a song of liberation as well--to its conclusion.  After further arias and recitatives, the work closes with a repetition of the opening chorus.  But I don't want to describe it any further just now.  Nor will I go into the second cantata. . . .

Now, then, my dear friend, I already hear you asking when the cantatas will be performed and when published.  And right there my pleasure stops.   Publishing has become so fashionable, that is, the publishing of things which do not at all deserve it.  You know it has always been my heart's desire that the so-called collected works of our masters should not be published so "collectively," but be made available, completely, yet singly, in good copies in our larger libraries.  You know how zealously I have sought to become acquainted with their unprinted works.  But I do not want to own all the printed works of even some of the most beloved masters.  I find it neither fitting nor healthy that amateurs or young artists be misled into overloading their libraries or their brains with "collected works" and into confusing their sense of values.

Our Haydn has not yet had the honor of a complete edition.  A truly complete edition of his works would be as impossible as it would be impractical.  Yet how desirable a manuscript collection of the same, and a number of facsimiles for public libraries would be.  How little is done to bring out new editions of certain works which it would be so desirable to study and circulate--for example, old vocal music of every genre.  You will perhaps say that they are never made use of.  But they should be; and no doubt they are being used more and more. . . .

But these are long-winded themes, and I don't want to improvise any further variations on them for you.  They also tend too exclusively toward the minor and I know that some major ones are possible and necessary.

Come back soon and share with me the quite special feeling and pleasure of being the only one in the world who is aware of these deeds of a hero" (Source:  Composers on Music.  An Anthology of Composers' Writings.  Edited by Sam Morgenstern.  New York: 1956, Pantheon Books Inc.).