Interview: Music Professor James Wright teams up with CBC’s Julie Nesrallah to set Beethoven’s “Letters to the Immortal Beloved” to music
As Beethoven lay in his bed in waning health on July 6th and 7th, 1812, the great composer authored three passionate love letters to a woman unknown. Discovered in Beethoven’s bedside table shortly after his death in 1827, these intimate and now infamous letters addressed to “meine unsterbliche Geliebte” – “my immortal beloved” – have been a source of speculation for the past two centuries and have simultaneously shed light on who Beethoven was as a man, and cast mystery over his personal relationships when he was at the height of his creative powers.
Two hundred years later, almost to the day, Music Professor, James Wright has become the first composer to set the words of Beethoven’s love letters to music.
Wright composed a chamber art song cycle, titled “Letters to the Immortal Beloved,” at the Banff Centre for Arts over the winter months of 2012.
He has specifically written this work to be performed by Carleton Music Alumnus and CBC personality, mezzo-soprano Julie Nesrallah and the Juno Award winning Gryphon Trio. Nesrallah and the Trio will give the work’s premiere performance at the Ottawa International Chamber Music Festival on Friday, July 27 at 7:00 pm, Dominion-Chalmers. At 5:30 pm, just prior to the concert, Wright will discuss the Immortal Beloved story in a 45-minute Chamber Chat. More details
Immortal Beloved – Wright’s Essay
Immortal Beloved – Excerpts from Wright’s Score
Beethoven’s Letters to the Immortal Beloved (in German original and English translation)
Wright discusses Immortal Beloved on CBC’s All In A Day (July 27, 2012)
James Wright and Julie Nesrallah both took time out of their demanding schedules to discuss their shared interest in Beethoven, music, and collaborating with one another.
Professor of Music and composer of Letters to Immortal Beloved
What inspired you to score Immortal Beloved?
I have long been fascinated by the ways in which historical composers have tried – often unsuccessfully, sadly – to balance their creative and personal lives. In the end, their single-minded devotion to their art often won out and made domestic happiness almost unimaginable. Beethoven and Brahms are classic examples. Both sought relationships with women who, for a variety of reasons – including age, marital and/or social status – were essentially unattainable. Yet their passionate devotion to the women they loved, often expressed more in correspondence than in a genuine personal or physical relationship, inspired so many of the great musical masterpieces that they left to posterity.
The three passionate love letters that were found in a box in Beethoven’s bedside table after his death in 1827 really captured my imagination. The letters are especially fascinating because we do not know the identity of the intended recipient, a woman Beethoven addresses as “meine unsterbliche Geliebte” (“my immortal beloved”). You may have seen the 1990s film, with the same title, starring Gary Oldman as Beethoven, and Isabella Rossellini as one of the women he loved.
More than a dozen “Immortal Beloved” candidates have been proposed by musicologists. Based on my own reading and research, my guess is that Beethoven’s “Immortal Beloved” was the Countess Josephine von Brunswick, a beautiful young Hungarian aristocrat who the composer first met in 1799, shortly before her marriage to Count von Deym. After the Count died in 1804, the Countess’s relationship with Beethoven increasingly intensified over the next several years. Beethoven’s mysterious and passionate “Letters to the Immortal Beloved” were penned in the summer of 1812, exactly 200 years ago. Sadly, it seems that the Countess’s social status and parental obligations prevented her from marrying Beethoven, a suitor deemed unsuitable by her family (her hovering and matriarchal mother, in particular).
It is even possible that this relationship produced a “love child”! In June of 1812, exactly one month before Beethoven’s “Immortal Beloved” letters were written, Josephine was left by her second husband, the Baron Christoph von Stackelberg, whom she had married in 1810. On 9 April 1813, exactly nine months after Beethoven’s letters were written, Josephine gave birth to a daughter, Minona. It is therefore quite possible that Minona – who resembled Beethoven and who would go on to become a fine musician – was Beethoven’s illegitimate child. Curiously, her name, spelled backward, is“Anonim, which is Hungarian for “anonymous” (or, perhaps in this case, “the child whose true name cannot be uttered publicly”).
You can see why this relationship, and Beethoven’s passionate letters of 1812, have been a real source of fascination for me. To my knowledge, no one has ever used Beethoven’s own words as poetic texts for a vocal work, as I have in this chamber song cycle. I am particularly excited that it is being premiered at Chamberfest during the summer of 2012, exactly 200 years after the letters were written.
What was the process in completing this project?
I wrote Briefe an die unsterbliche Geliebte (“Letters to the Immortal Beloved”) in January and February of 2012, in a Leighton Colony studio for composers in residence at the Banff Centre for the Arts. The name of the studio – the “Valentine” (after its architect, Frederic Valentine) – only added inspiration to the serene beauty of the natural setting in which I wrote this work. Each day in my cottage studio I would look out the window only to find a deer, an elk, a marten or one of the Banff National Park’s beautiful birds looking back. For a composer seeking a creative getaway, it was truly a dream setting!
When writing vocal music, I always look to the poetic text to show me the way forward in terms of compositional issues such as mood, character, form, melodic and phrase shape, musical imagery, word-painting, etc. Beethoven’s letters provided me with passionate and richly textured poetic texts to work with. Their musicality, rhythmic nuance, sonorous quality and evocative imagery of were a joy to work with. I suppose that I should not have been surprised to find that Beethoven’s spoken and written language was somewhat “musical.”
The three movements of Briefe an die unsterbliche Geliebte are organized in a roughly ternary design (A-B-A’), with strongly contrasting material in the middle movement, and a recapitulation of material from the first movement appearing in the last. My first set of decisions involved the selection of poetic excerpts from Beethoven’s three letters. Once I had chosen my texts, I then made some important musical decisions about form and primary thematic materials. At that point, using Beethoven’s words as my guide, I found that the first and third movements essentially “wrote themselves.” The second movement (“Mein Engel”), which provides the most brooding and passionate moments in the cycle, was harder to complete. In order to help me with the process, I decided to adopt a “cipher” system that would allow me to embed musical references to the four “principal characters” involved in the “Immortal Beloved” mystery. After I created a rudimentary system for converting alphabetical letters to musical pitches, “Ludwig” became B-G#-C-A#-(G#)-F#, “Pepi” (Josephine’s endearing nickname) became D#-E-(D#)-G#, “Giulietta” (another of Beethoven’s flames) became F#-G#-(G#)-B-(G#)-(F#)-E-G-(G)-C and “Antonie” (considered an “Immortal Beloved” candidate by some) became C-C#-G-D-(C#)-G#-E. These musical “characters” take on a significant thematic role in the second and third movements, and they interact and intertwine in a variety of ways.
In the third movement (“Meine unsterbliche Geliebte”), toward the end, I decided to quote the lyrical opening theme of Beethoven’s “Andante Grazioso in F Major” for piano solo (catalogued as WoO 57, and popularly known as the “Andante Favori”), a piece that Beethoven secretly dedicated to Josephine von Brunswick in the spring of 1805, shortly after the death of her husband. The theme I quote in my last movement is therefore sometimes known as “Josephine’s Theme.”
What does it mean to you to have Julie Nesrallah and The Gryphon Trio performing Letters to the Immortal Beloved at Chamberfest?
I have dedicated this work to Julie Nesrallah and the Gryphon Trio (violinist Annalee Patipatanikoon, pianist Jamie Parker and cellist Roman Borys), because their inspiration, friendship, example and consummate musicianship were always in mind during its conception and composition. I am absolutely thrilled that Julie and the Trio will give the premiere performance of Briefe an die unsterbliche Geliebte on 27 July 2012, at the Ottawa International Chamber Music Festival (“Chamberfest”).
I have known Julie for a number of years, and we have collaborated in a variety of ways over the years. In addition to being an extraordinarily gifted and dedicated artist, Julie is quite simply a very special person. Her energy, talent and generosity are unequalled in this community. Julie knows how to lift a text off the score page and convey it to the audience better than any vocalist I have ever seen, and my “Letters to the Immortal Beloved” was written with her voice in mind. Annalee, Roman and Jamie are also among the finest classical music performers Canada has produced. They have been hugely supportive of this project from the outset, and they have been incredibly generous with their time. To say that it has been a privilege to collaborate with Julie and the Trio is to understate my appreciation for having the opportunity to work with them on Briefe an die unsterbliche Geliebte.
What do you hope the audience takes away from your Score/the performance?
Julie and I have had some great chats about this. In both the popular and scholarly imagination, the name of Beethoven has become almost synonymous with a post-19th-century cultic concept of the divinely gifted creative “genius.” But while Beethoven may have been a prodigiously gifted human being, and he lived his life with a singular dedication to his art, he wanted above all to love and be loved, just like the rest of us. And just as we often think of Beethoven’s music as having a certain universal appeal that transcends time, place and culture, his letters also seem to express universal truths. In their emphasis on the ineffable, unattainable, eternal and divine nature of the love expressed, Beethoven’s letters might even be seen as a 19th-century manifestation of the courtly love-lyric tradition that dates back to the Middle Ages. Like Beethoven’s letters, the early “Minnesingers” sang of a love that was illicit yet morally elevating, passionate yet disciplined, humiliating yet exalting, human and yet transcendent.
In the end, of course, I also hope that my music, itself, will inspire the hearts and minds of the listeners at the premiere performance on July 27.
Anything you’d like to add?
My deepest thanks are due to John Osborne, my Dean, without whose encouragement and support my winter creative residency at the Banff Centre – and therefore the creation of these pieces – would not have been possible.
I am delighted that the score of “Letters to the Immortal Beloved” has already been published by Da Capo Music of Manchester, England. The Da Capo score includes preface materials, individual instrumental parts, an article summarizing the background and context for the letters, and the complete letters themselves (both in the German original and in English translation).
Carleton Alumnus, Host of CBC Radio 2′s flagship classical music program, Tempo. Letters to the Immortal Beloved performer
Can you describe your experience in working with Professor James Wright?
Working with Professor James Wright is always a tremendously positive and illuminating experience. He is a superb colleague, always open and accommodating, always striving for excellence. James Wright helps you to bring out the best in yourself, as a musician and as a collaborator.
You have a noted interest in Beethoven. Was it this interest that principally attracted you and the Gryphon Trio to perform Immortal Beloved?
James and I are kindred spirits. We both share the same passion for Beethoven as a composer and for the person Beethoven was. Last fall, I mentioned to James that no one had ever written any music based on Beethoven’s Immortal Beloved letters. James lit up and said that he would love to write a set of songs for me using the Immortal Beloved letters as the text. Naturally, I was thrilled and totally excited!
Beethoven’s love letters are some of the most passionate, soulful and tender documents on the planet. To have a friend like Jim compose music around those letters with my voice and temperament in mind, is an extraordinary act of friendship. Further to that, when James mentioned that he was thinking of composing these pieces with the Gryphon Trio also in his musical mind, this completed the inspiration to perfection.
As Professor Wright was conceiving and composing this work, he always had you and the Gryphon Trio in mind as the performers. How do you plan to interpret, and convey the text to your audience? Can you describe your process leading up to the Chamberfest performance?
I can only hope to convey the depth of intimacy, genuine affection and honesty that Beethoven meant to impart to his Immortal Beloved. These letters – as is Beethoven’s music – are supreme examples of the soul turned outward. And that vulnerability and affection needs to be conveyed through these songs. James has written the pieces in a way that showcases all of these aspects.
Every time he finished writing a snippet, James sent it to me and asked me to sing through it. I, in turn, looked for ease of melodic line, whether the text was comfortably set with the accents on the right musical syllables (the songs are in German). As a testament to James’ consummate musicianship, there were only very few – and very minor - tweaks. James and I had a preliminary run through before the first rehearsal with the Gryphon Trio, and it was such a wonderful experience! He was thrilled, I was completely honoured. And together, we lifted James’ songs and Beethoven’s words off the page for the very first time.
Anything you’d like to add?
When someone writes a piece of music with you in mind, it is an honour. And when someone who is a dear friend like Jim writes music for you, based on your musical hero, then you know it’s going to be a very special event. To have a world-class ensemble like the Gryphon Trio bring these letters to life is an outstanding opportunity and such a privilege.