WoO 149: Resignation

In large part because of his advancing deafness, Beethoven occasionally considered suicide. In his Heiligenstadt Testament of October 1802, the composer wrote: "Only my art held me back. Ah, it seemed to me impossible to leave the work until I had produced all that I felt was within me; and so I spared this wretched life…." Beethoven resigned himself to both his condition and what he felt was a necessary withdrawal from society. Resignation also appears as a theme in the composer's relationships with women, in which he never achieved long-range success. Shortly before completing the song Resignation, WoO 149, Beethoven composed his groundbreaking song cycle, An die ferne Geliebte, Op. 98, whose texts are directed to a distant, probably unattainable, beloved.

Count Paul von Haugwitz's poem seems to express some of the despair Beethoven undoubtedly felt throughout his life. A light that formerly burned brightly has had its air "stolen" by someone. The narrator tells the flame to "detach itself from the air it once knew, for without it a flame will "waver," seeking and finding nothing. It is better for a flame simply to go out.

Beethoven's tendency to accent the meter of the poem through falling thirds is evident from the beginning of the piano introduction, in which this motive is prominent. Beethoven uses key relationships to illustrate the meaning of the text. For instance, for the sixth line, "Du musst nun los dich binden" (You must detach yourself), Beethoven modulates briefly from the tonic, D major, to the relative minor, B minor. Modulations to the dominant are more common at the midpoint of a Lied, but the dominant provides tension and implies resolution and thus, direction. Beethoven's emphasis on both the relative minor and the subdominant (G major) is in effect musical resignation, for the tonic readily moves to these chords. The chromatic motion and diminished chord at "sucht, sucht" (search, search) is also appropriately illustrative. Beethoven repeats the opening lines to create an ABA' format, but departs from the original setting at "Du musst…" in order to avoid the modulation to the relative minor and close the song on the tonic.

Resignation was first published in the third volume of the Wiener Zeitschrift für Kunst (1818). Beethoven produced sketches for the work intermittently from about 1813; there are also extant sketches for a four-voice setting that date from 1816.

(John Palmer, Rovi)