When you are 250 years old and world famous, you don’t have to wait until your birthday comes around to celebrate. Nor does the rest of the world. Which is why the celebration of a quarter of a millennium since Ludwig van Beethoven’s birth begins this December 16 (or 17; the date is a little fuzzy) and runs for an entire year until the clock hits 250 in December 2020.
Widely regarded as one of if not the greatest classical composers of all time, Beethoven was born into a family of musicians: his grandfather sang bass and was a “kapellmeister,” or bandleader, and his father sang tenor and taught keyboard and violin. Much like an old-world klezmer, Beethoven went into the family business at a very young age, showing startling promise on his first instrument, piano, before learning viola and violin and the art of composing.
Beethoven was born and raised in Bonn, Germany, and his musical career played out in Vienna, the cultural capital of Europe at the time. That career – noteworthy for his nine symphonies, five piano concertos, and sixteen string quartets – boasted a few significant Jewish episodes, including one composition based on a Jewish melody and another on the work of a Jewish poet. Another of Beethoven’s works led to the creation of one of the most universal Yiddish poems of all time.
Beethoven’s “An die ferne Geliebte” (To the distant beloved), Op. 98, written in April 1816, was the first significant example of a song cycle by a major classical composer, and the only one he ever attempted. A song cycle, or liederkreis in German, is a selection of individual songs that are meant to be performed in a particular sequence, with the whole then taking on greater meaning than the sum of its parts. Think of it as the original playlist. Schubert, deeply influenced by Beethoven, became the composer to work in this idiom to greatest effect.
While it’s not known how Beethoven came to know his work, Alois Isidor Jeitteles provided the texts to the songs. Jeitteles was from a prominent Bohemian-Jewish family in Prague, where his ancestors included the city’s chief Jewish physician and rabbinical scholars. While Jeitteles undoubtedly made his parents proud by becoming a doctor, he was always drawn to the literary arts, and he worked as a translator, playwright, and poet, and with his cousin, Ignaz Jeitteles, he edited the Jewish weekly Siona. As was the fashion of the time, Jeitteles’s lyrics to the song cycle were pastoral love poems.
“An die ferne Geliebte” will be performed as part of the “Beethoven in the Yiddish Imagination” program at YIVO in New York City on April 20, 2020. The event - in partnership with Carnegie Hall’s Beethoven Celebration – will also include a performance of Beethoven’s C-Sharp Minor Quartet op. 131. The adagio in the sixth movement of Beethoven’s most overtly Jewish piece of music strongly recalls the familiar melody of Kol Nidre, from the Yom Kippur liturgy. Writing in the Jewish Quarterly, musicologist Cecil Bloom explained that Beethoven “was at the time very interested in the music of Handel’s oratorio ‘Saul,’ which led him onto a study of ancient Hebrew music. A short time previously, Beethoven had been approached by the Viennese Jewish community to write a cantata to celebrate the opening of their new synagogue….”
Bloom also writes that Beethoven’s “letters show more than a trace of antisemitism. He had Jewish friends and supporters, but these letters clearly show prejudice against Jews, although he was a hypocrite on a grand scale, for flattering remarks to some Jews were also made. He wrote to the music publisher Hoffmeister who was negotiating to receive some work: ‘You yourself when replying may fix the prices as well; and as you are neither a Jew nor an Italian [his emphasis] and since I too am neither, no doubt we shall come to some agreement’. But a year later he was dedicating his Piano Sonata in D. Op. 28 to the baptized Jew, Joseph von Sonnenfels, a great social reformer.” Bloom also notes that towards the end of his career, despite his ambivalent-to-negative feelings towards Jews, Beethoven chose a Jewish outfit, the Schlesinger family, to publish his final compositions.
Still, Beethoven’s work has long found universal appeal. YIVO touts its upcoming Beethoven program thusly: “From Yiddish translations of Ode to Joy by poets such as Y. L. Peretz and M. Rivesman, to short stories written for children about Beethoven, to biographies, novellas, and poems about Beethoven, to centennial celebrations reflecting on Beethoven’s legacies in the Yiddish press, there are ample testaments to Yiddish speaking Jewry’s love for Beethoven.”
As for that Peretz work, it was not so much a translation as a rewrite of Friedrich Schiller’s original “Ode to Joy,” parts of which Beethoven inserted into the final movement of his Ninth Symphony. Peretz’s poem, “Ale mentshn zaynen brider (All People Are Brothers),” has been termed a “sardonic rejoinder” to Schiller’s “paean to universal enlightenment,” in which Peretz is “shouting at the hypocrisy of a Europe that sings the Ode to the tune of Beethoven, but neglects its meaning.”
Hartmut Bomhoff, writing in the Jewish Voice from Germany, said that “Peretz’s Yiddish version of Schiller’s ‘Ode to Joy’ does not speak of people becoming brothers, but of the fact that they already are: the equality of man is not a goal to be achieved, but an accepted fact.” Bomhoff goes on to note, however, that “In the aftermath of World War II and the Shoah, Gershom Scholem reasoned: ‘Schiller was the most visible, most impressive and most resonant cause for the idealistic self-delusion to which the relationship of the Jews to the Germans led.’”
Composer/conductor Binyumen Schaechter says that “Peretz’s poem with Beethoven’s music has been sung by Yiddish choruses, adult’s and children’s, on four continents for the last 100 years.” Schaechter arranged a choral version for the Jewish People’s Philharmonic Chorus he conducts. “I would dare say that many tens of thousands, and perhaps hundreds of thousands, of people have sung the Beethoven in Yiddish,” he says.
The critically lauded documentary “In Search of Beethoven” receives a new theatrical release on its 10th anniversary on December 16, as good a place to begin as any in this, the year of Beethoven.
Roll over and tell Tchaikovsky the news.
Seth Rogovoy is a contributing editor at the Forward. He frequently mines the cultural world for hidden Jewish stories.