Google Arts & Culture: “A Rosetta Stone”
Baritone Thomas Hampson on Beethoven’s “An die Ferne Geliebte”
The American baritone Thomas Hampson has a long and intimate history with Ludwig van Beethoven’s song cycle An die ferne Geliebte. In 1994, he recorded the work in Edinburgh with the pianist Geoffrey Parsons, and performed it in an arrangement for strings with the Amsterdam Sinfonietta throughout 2020.
At just about 15 minutes, An die ferne Geliebte, is still considered by many experts to be the first example of the modern song cycle, a grouping of pieces which use the elements of poetry and music to burrow into the human condition.
We spoke with Hampson by phone from his home in Zurich about the historical context of the cycle, how his interpretation of the piece has changed over time, and how to pair the piece with country western.
It’s remarkable how much Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte sounds like later song cycles, such as works by Schubert.
It’s almost like a Rosetta Stone. It’s interesting to focus on the fact that this was written in 1816. There was a significant overlap between Beethoven and Schubert, but we know that the attention between the two giants was very much a one-way street—meaning the adulation of Schubert toward Beethoven. Beethoven, in the 1810s, had no clue who Schubert was. Which means that we can take this development, this rather astounding Op. 98, from the middle period of Beethoven, pretty seriously.
Very often An die ferne Geliebte will be lauded as the first major song cycle. A cycle literally means things that hang together. And this is a through-composed piece where the last piece reflects the first piece and the key motives of interest within the piece all hook together. That is a demonstrably new thought. I don’t mean to be a prat about it, but we’re sure Schubert knew the piece. I think it impressed him. It probably propelled him to the idea, Oh, I could do this too. That’s kind of astounding.
Both Schubert and Beethoven were essentially adults for the Congress of Vienna in 1815, which shoved all these progressive people underground. Immediately the use of metaphor in romantic poetry to somehow articulate the individual came to the forefront. An die ferne Geliebte is like a Rosetta Stone of romantic imagery. The departed one, the woods, the mountains and the clouds, the wafting breezes, the chirping birds, the leaves which are the messengers on the brooks…it’s just a gorgeous panoply.
It occurred to me that the musical motives in An die ferne Geliebte are so tightly woven that it’s almost more than a song cycle—like a set of variations. How do you see it?
I think you’re onto something. You could almost base the tempo of the entire piece on a very thoughtful heartbeat quarter note. You don’t have to move that around very much. And the piece is absolutely motivically structured, which underscores what is essentially a very positive, however heartbreaking, moment of separation between two lovers who I believe will come back together. I don’t think this is a tragic separation. The first title of the piece was Entfernte Liebe, which means an absent love.
I’ve always heard it like six postcards being written over the summer break. Maybe there’s a telephone involved: They’re miles apart from each other and they see the moon. Sweetheart, we’re looking at the same moon. We’re actually more together than not.
Between each song in An die ferne Geliebte there are transitions of varying length, sometimes quite significant. As a singer, how do you structure those moments dramatically on stage?
In some ways it’s easier, because it’s a through-thought piece. You cannot separate it. So there’s a continuousness of it. For me, it’s about storytelling. You get to unfold into this story in Beethoven more than you might in Schubert’s Schöne Müllerin or Winterreise—those pieces are taking vignettes of emotional travel over a significantly longer period of time. The other cycles have more time in them than Beethoven’s spontaneous evening love letter in six parts.
And as a singer, what do you do onstage at those movements? Do you move, do you just listen to the piano part?
I don’t really think of it that way. On the lied stage, for singers it is equally as important to listen as it is to sing. We’re all absorbing this rather gentle modulation from one thought to another in An die ferne Geliebte. It’s the same way when you finish a song and you strike up another one. It’s about carrying your thoughts through. I don’t think singers should be preoccupied with making themselves demonstrable in what they do to tie these things together. If you are in that thought process, if you are in that storytelling mode, and those musical elements are as much part of your subconscious and conscience, then those things will happen. It’s more of a Zen moment.
I really don’t think going out on stage to sing songs is about singing to or at people. I would like to think of it as singing for people. I wanna make something audible that becomes our collective consciousness experience in a concert hall. And what people take from that is very private. I can’t convince anyone of anything. I can only be convincing in what I believe it’s about.
Some musicologists see a connection between the far-off lover of the songs and the Immortal Beloved, a woman in Beethoven’s life whom he loved unrequitedly, but whose identity is uncertain. As a performer, are you interested in finding out who that woman was? Or are you more interested in the feeling of young, separated, naive love that you mentioned?
I am curious. I want to know everything I can about Beethoven that informs his work as a genius of our civilization. This question of his love life and his unrequited love in whatever form is terribly important.
We can, without question, drill down to that emotional evidence from Beethoven within this rather gentle cycle. However, at the end of the day, I want to take the musical elements, the context, and these beautiful poems, and take it all seriously for what it is. Whether it’s young or old doesn’t really interest me; it’s a love’s declaration between two people. But I don’t want to overdress what I think is just a very beautiful, romantic, cycle.