Beethoven Cantata on the Death of Emperor Joseph II | Symphony No. 2
On February 20, 1790, Austria was shaken by the death of its leader, Joseph II, who had been Holy Roman Emperor from 1765-90 and ruled the Hapsburg realms in his final decade. His progressive philosophy led to outstanding advances in judicial equality and religious tolerance, and his liberal bias won admiration from persons of a humanitarian bent. One of his siblings was Maximilian Franz, Elector of Cologne, a Bonn-based principality of the Holy Roman Empire. Among the musicians in the Elector’s service was nineteen-year-old Ludwig van Beethoven, who was showing considerable talent and ambition as a composer. The local Lesegesellschaft (Literary Society) asked Beethoven to write a funeral cantata, to words by the local monk Severin Anton Averdonk, for a memorial service for Joseph II scheduled for March 19 in Bonn. It seems the work was not completed in time, and a performance planned the following year in a nearby town was also scrapped, apparently because of the cantata’s great difficulty. It is a remarkable work, powerful in its rhetoric, specific in its depictive persuasiveness—as when the bass sings in an ominous recitative of the monster Fanaticism plunging the world into darkness. Although Beethoven never heard this cantata performed, he did get practical use from it; he recycled several of its ideas into his 1805 opera Leonore (later Fidelio), including phrases of the soprano’s soaring aria-with-chorus Da stiegen die Menschen that resurface in the opera as an exaltation of freedom.
In 1792, Beethoven left Bonn to establish himself in Vienna, where he spent the rest of the decade refining his composing technique, gaining a foothold in the city’s musical and social establishment, and making a modest mark through a stream of new works. By 1800, he was ready to unleash his First Symphony. It was warmly received, and three years later he included it on the program when he introduced his Second Symphony not to the new work’s immediate advantage. Wrote one critic: “The First Symphony is better than the later one because it is developed with a lightness and is less forced, while in the Second the striving for the new and surprising is already more apparent. However, it is obvious that both are not lacking in surprising and brilliant passages of beauty.” Familiarity bred growing enthusiasm, and by 1837 we find the composer Hector Berlioz extolling the Second Symphony’s distinctive virtues: “The Scherzo is as openly cheerful and playful in its fantasy as the Andante [sic] was happily serene, for this symphony is cheerful throughout. Even the warrior-like verve of the first Allegro is entirely free of violence; one can sense only the youthful ardor of a noble heart that keeps intact the finest illusions of life.”
—excerpt from liner notes by James M. Keller