BEETHOVEN 200 YEARS AGO TODAY: Saturday, April 7, 1821

The Wiener Zeitung of today contains an announcement of the publication of Schubert’s song on Goethe’s poem, Erlkönig, by Cappi & Diabelli, also one of Beethoven’s publishers. This was the fourth version that Schubert wrote, and he gave it opus number 1 (today catalogued as D.328). The song had been publicly premiered a month before to great success, on March 7, 1821. Diabelli was nevertheless cautious, and only published the song on commission from Schubert.

Beethoven had sketched but never finished a draft of a lied based on this poem in about 1797. The two composers independently came to very similar settings, with a driving bass part suggesting the galloping horse bearing the father and son. Like Beethoven, Schubert sets the voice of each character in a different vocal range, and both settings are quite challenging for the vocalist, with extreme highs and lows.

Here is Beethoven’s sketch, realized by Reinhold Becker and performed by Robert-John Edwards and Jon French:

The sheet music for The Unheard Beethoven’s modification of Becker (more faithful to the sketch than Becker’s 1897 completion, which changes Beethoven’s intended ending significantly) can be downloaded here:

And here for comparison is Schubert’s song D.328, performed by Johannes Kalpers and Burkhard Kehring:

Since Beethoven regularly read the Wiener Zeitung, especially the advertisements in its arts and literature section, he surely would have noticed this prominent announcement and no doubt was interested in seeing what young Schubert had done with the setting of the poem. The close similarity of his setting to Schubert’s may well discourage Beethoven from including it in his price list of works for sale in 1822, when he will offer publishers a number of other sketched-but-not-completed lieder written in about the same period. It would not do for Beethoven to appear to be imitating young Schubert, even though Beethoven’s version was in fact written a generation earlier.

If Beethoven had finished and published his version of the lied back at the turn of the century, would Schubert have similarly ceded the field? How would the younger composer’s career have been different without this brilliant initial success?