WoO 117: Der freie Mann ("Свободный человек")

Although Beethoven composed "Der freie Mann," WoO 117, either shortly before or shortly after leaving Bonn in November 1792, the song was not published until 1808 by Simrock in Bonn as part of III Deutsche Lieder. Beethoven's choice of Gottlieb Conrad Pfeffel's poem is evidence of both the composer's budding political ideology and the atmosphere of the enlightened court at which he was employed. Dr. Franz Wegeler, a long-time friend of Beethoven, later appended a different text, "Was ist des Maurers Ziel?" ("What is the Freemason's goal?"). This was published in 1806 by Simrock. "Der freie Mann" is often referred to by its first line, "Wer is ein freier Mann?" ("Who is a free man?").

Who, then, is a free man? Pfeffel's text tells us that he is one who obeys the law, but the law must be set down by his own will, not dictated by a despot. He is one who loses nothing when he suffers the loss of his life and property to gain freedom. His birth or title cannot save his brother. He is secure enough in himself to resist venal patronage. He can endure ingratitude, even from his Fatherland. When death calls, he can look boldly into his grave and backwards, as well. Most recordings include only a selection of Pfeffel's verses.

Beethoven's setting of "Der freie Mann," in C major and simple strophic form, exemplifies the eighteenth-century Gesellschaftslied. Each of the seven strophes of Pfeffel's poem opens with "Wer ist ein freier Mann?" ("Who is a free man?"), and each closes with "Der ist ein freier Mann!" ("He is a free man!"). Beethoven gives the first line to a unison chorus, as he does the last line, but only after the soloist has sung it. Between the opening and closing lines the soloist explains what kind of man is free. The easily memorized melody is accompanied note-for-note on the piano.

(John Palmer, allmusic.com)