Beethoven – Abendlied unterm gestimten Himmel, WoO 150

Heinrich Goeble’s poem, “Abendlied unterm gerstirnten Himmel,” describes a moment of epiphany brought on by the onset of a starry night. In the first strophe, the thousand stars of the night sky make the stargazer’s soul feel immense, causing it to rise out of the dust. The second strophe describes the soul searching beyond earthly existence as if looking “Zurück ins Vaterland” (Back into the fatherland), while in the next two strophes the soul soars heavenward, and the stargazer learns that, “Lange, lange nicht mehr dauert / Meine Erdenpilgerbahn” (My pilgrimage on Earth will not last much longer). Beethoven’s setting of “Abendlied” was first published 1820 in the Wiener Zeitschrift für Kunst.

Beethoven’s attraction to Goeble’s verses may have been autobiographical in nature. Since his relocation to Vienna in 1792 Beethoven had spoken of returning to Bonn, his “Fatherland.” When it became clear to him in 1801 that his hearing would never improve, his yearning for the city of his birth increased, and although he never left Vienna, he began to write more often to his old friends in Bonn. In some of his letters, and the famous “Heiligenstadt Testament” of 1802, Beethoven expresses a desire for his suffering to end, even if death were the only thing to make this possible. By 1820 Beethoven was for all practical purposes completely deaf, his chronic gastric problems had become more severe and he had endured extended litigation over the guardianship of his nephew. In fact, the day he composed “Abendlied,” 4 March 1820, he was awaiting the Court’s decision in the guardianship case. The thought that his “pilgrimage on Earth” was nearly finished, and that leaving the Earth would be “Meiner Leiden schönsten Lohn” (“The most wonderful reward for my sufferings”) may have provided some comfort to the aging composer. (This last line is the only one in the poem Beethoven chose to repeat.) It is significant that Beethoven dedicated The song’s dedicatee, Dr. Anton Braunhofer, was a distinguished Viennese physician who had begun attending to Beethoven in 1820. The composer was struck by the physician’s insistence on Beethoven’s obedience, especially Braunhofer’s proscription of alcohol and coffee. The treatment improved Beethoven’s condition, however, and he was genuinely thankful.

Beethoven’s setting of the “Abendlied” is in modified strophic form, and is clearly the work of a mature composer. Changes between stanzas are slight but telling, and subtly reflect the nuances of the text. For example, the opening line of the first strophe, “Wenn die Sonne nieder sinket” (“When the sun sinks down”), is set to a descending melody, while the text in the equivalent place in the second strophe, “Schaut so gern nach jenen Sternen” (“[My soul] looks happily at these stars”), features a rising melody, symbolizing the upward gaze of the narrator. At the beginning of the third strophe, “Ob die Erde Stürme toben,” Beethoven’s accompaniment becomes more “stormy,” flavored with dotted rhythms and greater dynamic contrasts. The great space between the right and left hands at the final chord of the song suggests the distance between earthly and heavenly realms.

“Abendlied” was the last of Beethoven’s substantial Lieder, and is certainly one of his most compelling.