Was Beethoven any Good at Choral Music?

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Just doesn't look like a singer, does he?Just doesn't look like a singer, does he?I had an email earlier this week from an erstwhile student who is now doing a masters degree in musicology. He’s contemplating doing a study on (I quote) ‘the poor quality of Beethoven’s choral writing’ as something that seems under-discussed in the literature. He was asking for recommendations on literature that would articulate a consensus of what constitutes good choral writing against which to measure Beethoven’s work. My first instinct was to reply grumpily that I wasn’t going to do his bibliographical work for him, since the identification and evaluation of sources is a pretty major part of a musicology student’s job description. I was always mean like that when I was teaching musicology, and old habits die hard (but I’d probably also suggest having a furtle around on Choralnet.)

My second instinct, though, was to question his premise. (And if he’s still like I remember him, I think he’ll enjoy this more than a list of books.)

The idea that Beethoven’s choral writing is poor is one of those memes that floats around in general musical culture, kind of as a truism, but not really discussed. I think I first heard it from my Mum, who added the embellishment that the punishing soprano lines were a result of Beethoven’s misogyny. (Now, Beethoven’s relationship to women was hardly unproblematic, but I’m not convinced it’s actually germane to this aspect of his compositional craft.)

I don’t think that anyone is claiming that choral works like the 9th Symphony and the Missa Solemnis are poor compositions. Huge, unwieldy, baffling, maybe – but astonishing artistic achievements nonetheless. And, like all musicologists, my scholarly judgements are rooted in personal musical experiences, and performing the Choral Symphony from memory as a postgrad stands out for me as one of my most transcendent experiences as a choral singer. So I’m starting from a position of ‘why does everyone diss B’s choral writing?’ rather than ‘everyone knows B’s choral writing is grotty’.

Of course, Beethoven’s music – especially the later works – is tough. The movements are long and musically complex. You have to invest a lot of attention in it to find your way round it. Not stuff conducive to sight-singing (perhaps this gives a first clue why British choral musicians don’t take to it so much). And they’re vocally tough too – pushing into the extremes of range and volume. It takes stamina and strength to sustain the lines, and it needs a full-on physical as well as emotional engagement to be performable at all.

So, you could look at this from a bel canto perspective and say that Beethoven just didn’t understand singers. If you’re used to getting the voice into a certain poise and pouring out roulades and twiddles apparently without effort, you may think this stuff is unsingerly.

But I don’t think you can make sense of late Beethoven without taking the aesthetic of the sublime into account. This is the aesthetic that brought us the appreciation of the grandeur of the Alps (or the Peak District for the English folk who couldn’t get over to Switzerland), that brought us paintings of stormy seas, that brought us Walter Scott. It values the wild, the overwhelming, the violent, the untamed in explicit contrast to the cultured, the graceful, the poised, the beautiful. Much of late Beethoven makes an explicit commitment to either the beautiful or the sublime (the 3rd movement of the 9th Symphony is quintessentially beautiful, for instance), but you tend to find the sublime as the over-arching commitment, with the beautiful passages giving relief from it, but also contained by it. By definition, the sublime couldn’t be the subservient aesthetic.

So the music is supposed to be difficult. It is supposed to overwhelm. If it were easy to sing, it wouldn’t be sublime.

People who claim Beethoven’s choral writing is poor could thus simply be missing the point. But they may also be saying it as a kind of defence mechanism. There has been so much sycophantic guff written about the towering genius of Beethoven’s work that it can be quite hard just to meet it as music, rather than the Spiritual Symbol of our Shared Humanity ™. The ‘That Don’t Impress Me Much’ response can also be an effective antidote to bullshit.

Interesting take, but as a professional singer I'd view it a little differently.

Having sung both pieces, and quite a few of the *heavier* pieces/composers in a Choral Context, I'd say the problem is not that Beethoven is *completely inept* at vocal writing (As with completely bad writers this would mean the piece never getting performed), or that the complaints about *difficulty* miss the point, but that vocally his compositions are the musical equivalent of what Orwell terms *Good Bad Books*. Or as Birgit Nilsson described it - the 9th Symphony's writing is "Ungrateful".

The *Vocally Tough* thing isn't the problem - there's nothing in terms of stamina or range that Beethoven writes which you don't find in other demanding vocal composers (Puccini, Verdi, Wagner etc) or *Big* pieces (Gerontius, Elijah, Verdi Requiem etc). And this also discounts the Sight-singing defence - A singer of Nilsson's calibre is unlikely to be sight-singing.

The problem is more Beethoven's *inability to understand vocal tessitura, or how the voice produces its sound, negatively impacts his ability to make deliberate artistic choices in writing for the instrument to serve the vision he has*.

I never get the sense in his vocal writing that he's *deliberately wanting to write for the voice to add something to his musical vision*; there's a sense in Missa Solemnis, for example, that he essentially wrote a Symphony/Long-Form Orchestral Work and then went "Shit! I need to add voices to this because I'm being paid to".

The start of the Missa Solemnis Sanctus is a great example - it's a wonderful opening, but the musical texture is completely counter-productive given where the vocal tessitura is in relation to the orchestral. Contrast it with the opening of the Sanctus in Verdi's Requiem (given it's a similar Brassy element/full orchestral texture), and there's more of a sense that Verdi views the voice as an *active part of the overall texture* and therefore understands that you *need to modify your orchestral texture accordingly depending on the effect you want this collaboration to have*. The difference is a much more convincingly magisterial, *sublime* mood in the latter composer than the former.

And I'd contend that the reason this compositional weakness is problematic in a way that it isn't for other artistic forms, and gives rise to the whole "Beethoven is a poor choral composer", is because whenever one writes for the voice the voice tends to have primacy over anything else going on: you can enjoy Beethoven's Concerti on various other levels (motivic, form, key structure etc if you like that sort of thing) without worrying about how well he writes for the Solo instrument - try doing that in Tosca and things quickly fall apart.

As an aside, this is also why Kerman is completely wrong on Tosca's brilliance ( though it is years since I read Opera as Drama) - it works because Puccini has such an understanding of how to write dramatically for the Voice in a way that aligns perfectly with the story he's telling and the mood he wants to create musically.
Taking Act III's beginning as a mini-example, Kerman completely doesn't get it because he's focussed on the motivic nature of the folksong or how the same effect could be generated by any "incidental music" - but that doesn't matter; what matters is how it sets up the following Aria in terms of vocal colour and mood (think how well the Clarinet colour dovetails with the starting phrase of "E lucevan le stelle" or how well the upper woodwind set up the vocal mood-colour of "Recondita" in Act 1), and how well Puccini wrings the emotional drama out of the Tenor Voice in *just* the right climactic moments to get the emotional payoff (where the vowels are in the line, how that placement generates the effect etc). To misquote Kerman - by writing this well for the voice in a Vocal Drama Puccini does meet Kerman's criteria for Opera of exerting the music as the "central articulating function" - he just does it in a way Kerman seems illiterate to.

For all his qualities as a composer, Beethoven cannot approach this level of mastery writing for the voice. His writing always feels *unnecessarily effortful* rather than *artistically demanding* - as a singer you're not thinking *how do I shape the material or explore the possibilities*, you're thinking *what does he even want in terms of colour*, which - paradoxically - I'd argue makes it far from overwhelming or sublime, it just feels like a child bashing the hell out of a Drum Kit. (contrast with Stravinsky's opening in the Rite of Spring - demanding? certainly, deliberately artistic? certainly, worth the payoff? Absolutely).

And if a composer is producing something which is that unnecessarily effortful for no deliberate reason and no payoff, I'd say that's pretty good evidence that they have some flaw in the piece which prevents it being top rank. The flaw in this case being Beethoven doesn't understand singers.

Or rather, Missa Solemnis/Beethoven 9 is not effective composition *because* Beethoven writes for the Voice, it's effective composition *in spite* of Beethoven writing for the Voice.

Thanks for engaging in such detail Chris, I like the notion of 'good bad books' in this context.

I was wondering how you felt about Fidelio, which to me feels less extreme in its difficulties, though of course is in many ways likewise not directly about vocality per se, as the French and German operatic aesthetics at the time were in many ways set on differentiating themselves from the facile melodic ease of the Italian tradition. But anyway, it seems relevant in the context making judgements about B's relationship with vocal writing.

Fair bit to unpick in your reply (sorry!). The Fidelio issue I might deal with in a separate post, mainly because your question set me off thinking about the differences between how Beethoven writes for Pizarro in "Ah, welch ein Augenblick" and how Puccini writes for Scarpia in "Va Tosca". Leaving aside all other questions, the comparison is instructive on a *how to write for the voice* level and shows up some interesting differences between composers having a musico-dramatic vision they can't/can articulate through the voice - and given the roles/Fachs have a fair overlap it makes direct comparison possible.

My one-page summary would agree Fidelio is less extreme, but it's still problematic on a fundamental craft level, and it's less extreme more because Beethoven has greater margin-for-error in what he's writing than that he actively writes well.

As a small example, one of Beethoven's big weaknesses vocally is how he writes *across* registers in a way that undermines what he wants to achieve, either because he doesn't give the Singer much ability to Cover the sound or because he doesn't understand that the more rhythmically active the part the less weight you can give to any one note (think the difference between a Leggiero Tenor's dexterity and a Dramatic Tenor's weight - and then think how often Beethoven seems to write as if these two qualities can be produced indefinitely and *simultaneously* in one voice regardless of context).

Both these elements can be found in the "Turkish" Tenor solo in the 9th, for brevity I'll focus on the last phrase ("Freudig wie ein Held zu Siegen"). Musically Beethoven understands that he wants the Tenor to climax around the top Bb, and Dramatically/Musically this is a good Payoff.

But in the last "Held zum Siegen" he cuts the initial Bb short and has a rhythmic, ascending passage going from F5-Bb5. Leaving aside his word-setting, this is a passage that, vocally, goes directly over the Tenor's transition notes (F5-Ab5); as a general rule, if you want to increase intensity in this part of the Voice then you have to Cover the sound (it's pretty much essential when singing Forte properly, and most vocal problems Choirs (or solo singers) have in "Big" pieces stem from not learning how to Cover the sound to generate intensity).

But Covering the sound is not something you can really do in Coloratura, which is all about good, flexible placement and being leggiero enough to show off via dexterity; and the rhythmic impetus Beethoven writes with is Coloraturaesque.
So Beethoven is essentially asking the instrument to do two things simultaneously that *it cannot physically do*, but also focussing on *either one alone* would undercut his musical vision as written.

But crucially, his vision could be *as musically satisfying* and *no less vocally demanding*, but *much less difficult* if he simply scrapped the last solo repetition of "ein Held", replaced it with "zum" (which would help the placement of the "Siegen" given that 'i' and 'u' are the slimmest vowels and are most reliant on pure head-resonance), had a sustained top Bb in the penultimate bar (last 2 bars using only the word "Siegen", Bb5-Bb4 leap), and found a way of moving all the rhythmic material into the Chorus.

When people comment about Beethoven's "poor" vocal writing, I'd wager that they subconsciously mean this kind of inability on his part to align his musical vision with the best vocal solution for that vision, and it's particularly marked because his *musical vision* is so good. Given she had exactly the kind of voice one would expect to suit Beethoven 9, I'd also wager this is what Birgit Nilsson meant when she described his writing as "ungrateful".

By way of contrast, my outlined suggestion is pretty much what Verdi does in the climax of Manrico's "Di Quella Pira" in Trovatore, simplifying Manrico's part at the point the rhythmically-active Chorus comes in to enable the Voice to sustain the climactic *money notes* by Covering - it's no less musically, rhythmically, or dramatically intense for Verdi letting the Voice play to its natural strengths (and Verdi's comments on the 9th Symphony should really be the starting point for any investigation about Beethoven's Vocal writing; it's the considered opinion of someone who *knows* the feel of good vocal writing).


(granted the top C doesn't appear in the Score, but Verdi would likely expect a Star Tenor to do something along those lines and seems to have written with this in mind structurally).

This kind of common-problem I've outlined is also present in Fidelio, but without the relentlessness of the later Choral Works (it's not easy to write Fugues into an Opera, and the Characters don't spend *all* the time on stage) it doesn't get aurally noticed as much. But that, I'd argue, is more to do with Beethoven not being allowed to indulge in his excesses - it's not because he has some kind of more competent approach to the writing as *vocal* writing.

Fidelio's also awkward because, as Klemperer shrewdly observed, Beethoven isn't really a composer with much theatrical gift, and this seems a common observation from Fidelio directors that I've talked to at various levels of the job. A lot of blood is spilt making the thing cohere on a basic level before worrying about the quality of the drama they want to direct (to the extent that it's not unheard of for a director either to scrap the dialogue or re-write it).

The question of Traditions I'd answer in two ways (and I'm no musicologist so this is purely from a Craftsman's perspective). First is that on a training level the Italian facile melodic ease is far from facile - it's the Vocal Fulcrum.

There's a very good reason the Bel Canto tradition has a reverence as the basis of good singing, and that's because it forces the singer to be disciplined both in how to place the voice well to generate maximum mechanical advantage (especially given Italian has the purest vowels) and in the physicality required to achieve a true legato/mezza di voce. In the long run this is what will give true vocal freedom; you can cheat it in certain other rep (Lieder/Melodie, Backing Vocals, and "Early Music" groups spring to mind particularly, or anything including microphones), but that will limit what you can explore as an artist unless you have particularly fine cheekbones.

At the risk of a tenuous sporting analogy, it's like the forward defence in Cricket: regardless of which *type* of cricket you play, without a good Forward Defence you'll keep getting out cheaply and won't be able to play your shots to score runs.

With my cynic hat on, a composer who ignores this is highly likely not to understand the Voice on a mechanistic level - after that the question of artistry is pretty much irrelevant given that artistry can't easily be separated from technique; or rather, artistry is contingent on technique.

Second is that even if other compositional schools developed in artistic response to the Italian, many of the practitioners of French/German Opera (at least the ones with works that survive now or are seen as pivotal historically) seem to have had a much greater practical affinity or closeness to the voice as an instrument than Beethoven ever did; I'm not a Beethoven specialist, but my recollection is that there's very little evidence he was that interested in the Voice or associated with singers either in friendship or as part of his education (it seems he envied Rossini's facility given his struggles writing Fidelio).

By contrast, Weber's wife was a singer, Meyebeer studied in Italy, as did Massenet and Gounod, Bizet both studied in Italy and with Gounod, Saint-Saens and Gounod had Pauline Viardot (Mezzo Soprano star of her day) as a significant mentor etc (quite a few of them also worked as Choirmasters/Organists). And I'd say that the Italianate sense of how to write for the voice is present in the best exemplars of those other traditions - on a flippant level, the most commonly performed French Grand Opera is Don Carlos, which was written by Verdi.

So even if French or German composers set out to write a musical style that was distinct from Italian, the best of them seem to have realised that the Italian tradition has a level of practical vocal craft to it, which can't be found elsewhere, that is essential to well-crafted musical writing irrespective of an aesthetic tradition.

That Beethoven might have chosen either to ignore this or set himself against it is, I'd say, further evidence that he didn't understand the voice rather than a strong case for a superior aesthetic sense. Zinedine Zidane summarises the issue perfectly: "Why put another layer of gold paint on the Bentley when you are losing the entire engine?"
The aesthetic argument as defence is the kind of argument I suspect wouldn't happen if the composer in question *wasn't* Beethoven.

Really appreciate the depth you've gone into here Chris. I totally get what you say about Beethoven often getting a pass for things on reputational grounds that other composers wouldn't, though the aesthetic opposition of the French/German operatic approaches to the Italian was very much part of the context in which he was writing. Hoffmann writes about it a lot, often in the same contexts that he is doing the repuational groundwork that sets the tone for much subsequent Beethoven criticism, and it's a major theme in Weber's writings as well.

So I'm not necessarily proposing it, or indeed the aesthetic of the sublime as a 'defence' against technical flaws which you analyse so precisely, but as part of the context of what he was aiming to do. I keep coming back to your point in your first comment about 'good bad books' as a very apt frame for this discussion.

I appreciate the contextual element, and I'd agree that it's important in terms of what Beethoven might be aiming to do.

But it's not really that relevant to the question of whether he's a good vocal writer, in the sense that good writing isn't just about having a particular artistic ambition but also about how technically capable the writer is of achieving that ambition. Without that practical craft or aptitude there is no artistic product, and if there's one thing I find the Arts world guilty of it's the tendency to over-indulge badly crafted work on the basis of the intellectual/artistic idea of what the work might represent. Martin Amis has been dining out, after all, on being a writer of great sentences but generally badly crafted novels.

Best analogy I can think of is Johann Cryuff on what technique is for in football - it's not about wanting to do lots of tricks, it's about knowing and being able to produce the right kind of weighted pass to your colleague at exactly the right time. The tricks are useful only insofar that they give you more options for making the right decisions within the game, if they become an end in themselves then it's a sign something's wrong.

To cycle back to Puccini for a moment as a comparator, he's a master at knowing where in the Voice to put certain words/vowels to generate the maximum dramatic effect that he wants within the Vocal Line. It doesn't make his music *easy* to sing; but in my experience if you find Puccini or Verdi or Wagner unnecessarily difficult, I'd be 90% certain it's to do with a technical fault in how the Singer is singing (or maybe just the Voice not being suited or ready). With Beethoven I'd say the difficulty is there even if the Singer knows what they're doing, so it's more likely due to the composer's technical inabilities for the instrument (paradoxically Rutter can be quite similar).

Just to pick up on the British Choirs/Sight-Singing thing again, I'd guess Beethoven's choral works might also suffer a bit because they are similar to Rutter's Bigger Choral Works or Karl Jenkins' Armed Man: massively popular, so people keep wanting to programme them for their amateur groups/university choir etc, but they make demands that are tough even for a seasoned professional so are probably best shelved in favour of better rep choices that the group will find performatively more fulfilling or will helpfully increase their skill level.

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