BEETHOVEN IN 1790
Emperor Joseph II's February 20th death would yield a commission for Beethoven from the Bonn Reading Society, the ‘Cantata on the Death of Joseph the Second', after news of this event had reached Bonn on February 24th. The actual ‘sequence of events' was very likely as follows:
Immediately, the ‘Lesegesellschaft' planned a memorial celebration that was to be held on March 19th.
At a further ‘preparatory meeting' that took place on February 28th, Professor Eulogius Schneider, the designated ‘deliverer' of the memorial address, already held in his hands a text written by Severin Averdonk, and expressed the wish that it be set to music so that it could be performed at this upcoming celebration. He asked for either a skilled local musician or a ‘foreign' artist to provide this music. With respect to Severin Anton Averdonk can be reported that he was a 'monk in the corporation of the canons of the Bethlehemite Monastery in Ehrenbreitstein (Wiedtal)' (Irmen). As can be easily concluded, he was a protegee of Eulogius Schneider and a 'candidate at the Upper School in Bonn' (Irmen).
If we consider the influence of Beethoven's friends who were members of this society, this commission being awarded to him should not surprise us.
However, Beethoven, instead of writing a moving-enough ‘occasional piece', would end up turning this ‘commission' into an ‘early masterwork'.
Therefore, as Thayer reports, the minutes of the last society meeting prior to the actually held March 19th meeting, those of March 17th, laconically stated that "for various reasons the proposed cantata cannot be performed" (Thayer 119). From a different source than the usual biographical writings, namely the cover article of the recording the writer also worked with in this process, we can provide you with an indication as to what those 'various reasons' might have entailed or been:
"In order to pinpoint these 'various reasons', we need look no further than into the relevant documents and the source. On 16 June 1790, Clemens August von Schall wrote: 'As far as the music is concerned, Beethoven has produced such a densely written sonata on the death of Joseph II--the text is by Averdonk--that it can only be performed here by a full orchestra or other similar body.' The piece was so 'densely written', i.e. thickly orchestrated, that it could not be adequately performed by the instrumentalists available for the funeral service" (Text by: Hans-Josef Irmen. Translation: Roger Clement).
It is further reported that Beethoven must have written this work between March and June of that year.
Joseph II's death also brought with it the coronation of Emperor Leopold II on October 9th (to which occasion Elector Max Franz would be present in Frankfurt, as was Haydn as an invited guest and Mozart at his own expense). This sequence of events may serve as an indication as to when Beethoven began to work on this cantata. It is not certain as to whether or not the Elector commissioned this work from Beethoven. The text seems to again have come from Averdonk's pen. Of particular interest in this context is, of course, any "direct" reference, be it in the music or in the text, to either Schiller's ‘Ode to Joy' directly or to Beethoven's subsequent creative plans in that respect. What is most interesting to note in this context is Averdonk's including in the text of the finale of the ‘Coronation Cantata', the line from Schiller's ‘Ode', "stuerzt ihr nieder, Millionen? (‘Do you bough down' or ‘you bough down', millions?) in slightly ‘reversed' order, ‘Stuerzet nieder, Millionen! (Bough down, millions!).
While we can not venture here into completely outlining a thorough ‘creation history' of these two works (which will follow separately in the near future), we may wish to recommend to those readers who want to gain a musical ‘hands-on' impression of Beethoven's expressing in this work, as many musicologists point out, the private grief and strife he went through during the years of his ‘early creative hiatus' in the ‘Funeral Cantata', while he also rendered an artistically viable representation of public grief over the loss of an enlightened emperor (whom he may well have seen in public during his 1787 visit to Vienna), by listening to these works very carefully, discovering their beauties for themselves and by forming their own differentiated opinions.
However, with respect to the compositional quality of this work, we may quote Johannes Brahms (who had the chance to take a look at the re-discovered score in the 1880's):
"Even if there were no name on the title page none other could be conjectured- -it is Beethoven through and through! The beautiful and noble pathos, sublime in its feeling and imagination, the intensity, perhaps violent in its expression, moreover the voice leading and declamation, and in the two outside sections all the characteristics which we may observe and associate with his later works" (Thayer 120).