Opus 121b: "Opferlied" (Жертвенная песня) для трех солистов (первая версия) или сопрано (вторая версия), хора и оркестра

Время создания:
первые черновики версии для голоса и фортепиано (WoO 126) относятся к концу 1794 / началу 1795 года;
завершено в декабре 1822 г.;
окончательная редакция — 1824 г.

Lorna Haywood, сопрано
Ambrosian Singers, хормейстер John McCarthy
London Symphony Orchestra, дир. Michael Tilson Thomas

Friedrich von Matthisson's poem "Opferlied" appeared as early as 1790 in Voss' "Musen Almanach". Beethoven must have been greatly taken by the text, as it continued to haunt him till the end of his life. In the winter of 1794/95 he sketched the Lied. Shortly afterwards he notated a complete version of the first verse of the Lied for voice and piano on a sketch leaf. In the second half of 1798 Beethoven began work on the first drafts of the "Opferlied" in the version which is today known as WoO 126. He probably finished this version shortly afterwards. Further sketches appear several times from then on, e.g. in the "Keßler Sketchbook" of December 1801 or on the last leaf of the copyist's manuscript of the Triple Concerto of 1806. In 1808 the publisher Simrock in Bonn published the piano version from the 1790s, however in all probability not at Beethoven's instigation. Beethoven did not, however, put the text to one side. At the end of 1822 he began to work on the subject again. He composed a new version for an academy of the tenor Wilhelm Ehler in Preßburg, this time for three solo voices, choir and small orchestra. Melodically he turned to the piano version. The corrected copy NE 194 was made in connection with this academy and reflects the time pressure surrounding the preparations. Although it was made by a professional copyist, the copy does not give one the impression that it was completed in peace and quiet. Beethoven often shortened similar passages in his autograph scores with the words "come sopra" (as above), but had them written out fully in the copy. In this case the copyist reverted to the abbreviated form. On leaf 5r (image 9) he only notated the soprano part, saving himself the trouble of notating the other vocal parts and instruments. He merely notated the end more fully. From 1823 onwards Beethoven tried to sell this version of the "Opferlied" to several publishers. But negotiations not only failed with Peters in Leipzig and Lissner in Petersburg but also with Probst in Leipzig. Perhaps this is why Beethoven revised the work again in 1824 - numerous sketches bear witness to the fact. This final version, now with only one solo part and orchestra, was published by Schott in Mainz in 1825. Today it has the opus number 121b. Beethoven worked on the "Opferlied" from 1794 to 1825 - throughout his active life. The last line of text in the song "Das Schöne zu dem Guten" (The beautiful to the good) sounds like a motto, reflecting Beethoven's outlook on life, his music and his way of working.


Throughout his life, Beethoven was obsessed with Friedrich von Matthisson's (1761-1831) "Opferlied" (Song of Sacrifice). The poem first appeared in 1790, so Beethoven may have known the text while he lived in Bonn. Occasionally, he scribbled the last line, "Das Schöne zu dem Guten!" ("The beautiful to the good"), in his late manuscripts.

Most indicative of Beethoven's admiration of the poem is the fact that he set the text of "Opferlied" four times: The first version, from 1794, exists only in manuscript. In 1801-2, Beethoven revised his seven-year-old setting; this version, known as WoO. 126, was published in 1808 by Simrock in Bonn as part of the III Deutsche Lieder, which included the first versions of "Neue Liebe, neues Leben," WoO. 127, and "Der freie Mann," WoO. 117. The third setting, for soprano, alto and tenor soloists with four-voice chorus, two clarinets, horn, viola and cello, dates from 1822 and was first performed on December 23 of that year in Bratislava (Pressburg). However, it did not appear in print until 1888 as part of the Complete Edition of Beethoven's Works, published in Leipzig by Breitkopf & Härtel. Beethoven revised this version to produce his fourth and final setting of "Opferlied" (Op. 121b), for soprano solo with four-voice chorus and orchestra (without flutes or oboes), in 1823-4. This was published in 1825 by Schott in Mainz.

Matthisson's text depicts a young man in a oak grove offering a sacrifice to Zeus. The man asks Zeus to be the protector of liberty, and to give him, both now and in his old age, beautiful things, because he is good.

Like Beethoven's setting for solo voice and piano, the "Opferlied," Op. 121b, for soprano, chorus and orchestra is in E major and strophic form, although a few subtle changes in the second verse, particularly in the orchestration, make "modified strophic" a more appropriate description. Beethoven expands the dimensions of the song beyond that of his piano and voice setting by writing a much more active voice part and by having the chorus repeat the last half of each verse, the chorus sopranos taking the soloists' melody. Additionally, the chorus again repeats the final line of each verse, each time to completely new music, providing a strong sense of closure.

What is most striking about Beethoven's "Opferlied" is its nearly total diatonic idiom. Set in E major throughout, the piece's only chromatic alteration occurs at the middle of the verse, as part of a cadence on the dominant. Because the chorus responses are literal repetitions of the second half of each verse, these also never stray from E major.

(John Palmer, Rovi)