A sense of yearning (Ger: sehnsucht) seems to have been at the core of Beethoven's psyche. Of his songs for solo voice, six bear the title "Sehnsucht", and a number of others--most notably his seminal song cycle An die ferne Geliebte--deal with themes of longing and desire. Four of these "sehnsucht" songs, namely his settings of Geothe's "Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt", WoO. 134, are especially interesting. Not only is it unusual for a composer to set a single poem four times, but the same poem would eventually be used in notable songs by Schubert, Schumann, Wolf, and Tchaikovsky; clearly this particular "sehnsucht" is a poem unusually rich in musical and dramatic possibility.
Beethoven's first setting of Goethe's "Sehnsucht," was published in 1808 in the Viennese periodical Prometheus; all four were printed in 1810 by the Bureau des Arts et d'Industrie in Vienna. Beethoven left a curious inscription on the autograph of the four settings: "NB: I did not have enough time to produce a good one, so here are several attempts."
A notable feature of Goethe's poem is the repeat of first two lines: "Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt / Weiss was ich leide!" (Only he who knows yearning / Knows what I suffer!) at the very end of the poem. Each of Beethoven's four versions uses this repetition as a structural key, repeating the opening musical material as well. Settings Nos. 1-3 of "Sehnsucht" are strophic, while No. 4, arguably the most interesting of the set, is through-composed.
The first setting, in G minor, briefly modulates to the key of C minor at "Allein und abgetrennt von aller Freude" (alone and separated from all happiness), separating the music from the "home" key. The repeat of the opening lines at the end is altered out of musical necessity; at the opening the second line modulates to the dominant, but it remains firmly in the tonic key at the end.
Also in G minor, No. 2 generates forward motion through its 6/8 meter, constantly articulated in the accompaniment. Missing is the illustrative modulation to C minor, leaving only the brief push to B-flat major that exists in each version, except this time Beethoven returns to G minor through a poignant French sixth chord. The melodies of No. 2 are more sweeping than those of No. 1, while the voice and piano parts are completely independent.
The third setting stands out because it is in E-flat major. Beethoven moves to the dominant for "Allein und abgetrennt...," but the effect of "separation" is not nearly as effective as it is in No. 1. Because the two opening lines close on the tonic, the repeat of this material at the end of the song is literal.
For No. 4, Beethoven again chose the key of G minor and 6/8 meter. Here we find various elements of Nos. 1-3 such as independent voice and piano parts, the 6/8 meter made clear in the accompaniment, and a literal reprise of the first two lines. Beethoven increases the sense of separation at "Allein und abgetrennt..." by first firmly moving to the dominant, continuing with a push to B-flat then further on to C minor in the next line. The through-composed version of "Sehnsucht" allows Beethoven to explore the differences in text meaning between the two stanzas that are inevitably compromised in a strophic setting. For instance, Beethoven illustrates the agitation of "Es schwindelt mir es brennt / Mein Eingeweide!" (I am reeling / My insides burn!) through rapid, repeated chords.