Three drafts of Vom Tode, Biamonti 190 (1798-1799, 1803) (mp3)
Performer: Mark S. Zimmer
Author: Mark S. Zimmer
The song Vom Tode is well known to Beethoven fans as op. 48, nr. 3, in F-sharp minor. However, Beethoven made three other settings of the poem by Gellert. The first two are in D minor, and are found at page 25 in the Grasnick 1 sketchbook, held in Berlin. The third sketch comes from the Landsberg 6, the so-called Eroica sketchbook, held by the Biblioteka Jagiellonska in Krakow, Poland. Note that the E minor version in Landsberg 6 dates from 1803, and the published version was already completed by 1802, so Beethoven apparently was still having second thoughts about the setting that was eventually used in op. 48; published in 1803, that setting may or may not have already been published when this last setting was sketched.
The Grasnick settings begin in a very different manner from the published song; rather than the famous ominous monotone, the melody of the chorus is borrowed for the opening phrase instead. These drafts have a dramatic intensity stripped out of the moody F-sharp minor version, filled with resignation and hopelessness. Here, defiance is felt in the melody and the accompaniment. The second version (bars 38-72 of the midi) is similar to the first setting (bars 1-35), but has a different conclusion, in place of that used in the first setting. The Landsberg 6 setting is patched together from various fragments (many lacking accompaniment) found in the sketchbook at page 116. The first third of the song is missing from this version (the first three lines of the lyrics below), but one the song is different enough that one cannot just use the beginning of the published version transposed into E minor.
The lyrics from Gellert's poem Vom Tode are:
Meine Lebenszeit verstreicht staendlich eil, Ich zu grabe, und was ist's das ich velleicht, das ich noch zu leben habe? Denk, o Mensch, an deinen Tod Saeume nicht, denn Eins ist Noth. On Death My term of life passes away, Hourly I speed towards the grave, and I must ask myself, how long have I to live? Think, O Man, upon your death! Delay not, for one thing is needful.(the last line references Luke 10:42)