In his short, neglected masterpiece, “Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage,” Beethoven—who himself never traveled by sea nor left continental Europe—created a tone poem that reflects the Romantic awe of storms and the sublimity of God-in-nature. It also reflects, on a miniature scale, Beethoven’s own story of suffering and transcendence.
Those who have read previous essays of mine about music and composers know that I enjoy paying tribute to the lesser-known and unjustly neglected. Such undoubtedly is Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage, a short work for chorus and orchestra composed by Beethoven in 1814-15 to a text by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. One critic has described this eight-minute tone poem as “scarcely discussed, even in the central Beethoven literature” and “one of the most overlooked works in Beethoven’s output.” I always find it sad when a substantive work is relegated to “minor” status in a creator’s oeuvre, thus condemned to obscurity and neglect. Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage merits a second look, and for a number of reasons: It comes from the frontier of Beethoven’s venerable late period; its expressive arc charts the passage from darkness to light, so dear to the composer; and the story behind its creation reveals interesting points about the personal relationship between two great artists.
Beethoven greatly admired Goethe, regarded as Germany’s national poet even during his lifetime, and set a number of his poems to music in addition to writing incidental music for his tragedy Egmont. The two men met in 1812 while on holiday, spending many hours together in conversation, but apparently their differing temperaments and social attitudes caused them not to get on as well as Beethoven would have hoped. Goethe later wrote to his friend Carl Zeller about Beethoven’s world-despising nature which made life difficult for those around him:
[Beethoven’s] talent amazed me. However, unfortunately, he is an utterly untamed personality, who is not altogether in the wrong if he finds the world detestable, but he thereby does not make it more enjoyable either for himself or others. He is very much to be excused, on the other hand, and very much to be pitied, as his hearing is leaving him, which, perhaps, injures the musical part of his nature less than his social. He, by nature laconic, becomes doubly so because of this lack.
Beethoven, in his turn, thought Goethe overly enamored of the “glitter” of court life; 21 years older, the poet belonged to a more formal and aristocratic generation.
In any case, Beethoven loved Goethe’s poetry and set it to music repeatedly. A few years after their encounter he set Goethe’s popular pair of short poems Meeres Stille and Glückliche Fahrt as his opus 112—a work hard to classify and perhaps best described, as per one commentator, as a “choral ode.” It was performed in Vienna on Christmas day, 1815, at a hospital benefit alongside a revival of the (now highly underrated) sacred oratorio Christ on the Mount of Olives and the Name Day Overture.
Beethoven had the piece published a few years later, in 1822, dedicating it to Goethe and sending the poet a copy with high hopes that “I had united my harmony with yours in appropriate fashion.” Goethe gave him no reply. Nine months passed. At last Beethoven wrote to Goethe recalling their happy time together and bemoaning that “I am now faced with the fact that I too must remind you of my existence”:
I trust that you received the dedication to Your Excellency of Meeres Stille und Glückliche Fahrt which I have set to music…How highly would I value a general comment from you on the composing of music or on setting your poems to music!
Still, Goethe was silent. Was this a rebuff, reflecting a dislike of Beethoven’s personality (alluded to in his letter), or just an overall indifference to music? Another possible reason—and this may be the true one—is that Goethe was very ill when he received Beethoven’s letter.
Whatever the case may be, we have a most interesting musical diptych. In the first part, Beethoven depicts the unearthly motionlessness of a windless sea: “Deep stillness rules the water…And sadly the sailor observes / Smooth surfaces all around” (English translation of Goethe’s German). In an age when many of us have no experience of sea travel, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that a “calm sea” was not a desirable thing; it meant you wouldn’t go anywhere. A certain amount of wind was necessary to propel the journey. A calm sea was deadly: “No air from any side! Deathly, terrible stillness!” Beethoven emphasizes the stillness by dry, plucked notes in the strings and staccato notes separated by rests in the chorus. The dynamic sempre pianissimo. Suddenly, on the word “fürchterlich” (terrible), Beethoven underlines the word with a stinging dissonance. This he does again on the word “Weite” (referring to the “immense distances”) where a high soprano note, in a sudden fortissimo, caps a startlingly wide, dissonant chord in the full chorus and orchestra. Perhaps this reflects the longing of a deaf man once again to hear the piercing sounds around him?
A fluttering figure in the cellos signals that the wind is picking up and brings us to the second panel of the diptych. “The fog is torn / The sky is bright / And Aeolus releases / The fearful bindings.” The wind has picked up, and the journey is now underway again. Beethoven whips up an Allegro vivace in six-eight time, becoming as rugged and fearfully joyous in a way that presages the choral “Ode to Joy” of the Ninth Symphony. Rushing wind conjured in rapid repetitions of the word “Geschwinde” (swiftly) propels the music onward to the sighting of land (“Schon seh ich das Land!) that closes the poem and the piece. The abrupt ending is perfect, giving the impression that the music and the journey will continue out of our hearing.
Beethoven—who himself never traveled by sea nor left continental Europe—created a piece that reflects the Romantic awe of storms and the sublimity of God-in-nature, which we feel in the Pastoral Symphony and in countless landscape paintings of the era. Beethoven’s teacher Haydn had written a choral storm-scape to an English text (The Tempest, 1792), and Beethoven’s Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage would inspire an identically titled orchestral overture by Felix Mendelssohn in 1828. Although seldom performed in concerts, Beethoven’s piece has been committed to disc by such esteemed conductors as Michael Tilson Thomas, Riccardo Muti, and John Elliot Gardiner.
The main challenge of performing this gem today is knowing how to present it, given its brief standalone nature. I would suggest that it finds natural company with such other Beethoven choral works as the Mass in C, the Choral Fantasy and the Ninth Symphony—the latter of which fulfills the ecstatic passages in the Prosperous Voyage. Thus, we have here an interesting transitional and prophetic work, yet one worth appreciating in its own right. Beethoven captures the universal human feeling of exhilaration when the wind is in your sails again, after a period of uncertainty and stagnation.
I am struck by Goethe’s statement that Beethoven’s hearing loss affected the social part of him more than the musical. Here was a composer who had to learn to hear and compose music internally, from inside his very soul, without the exterior sense; but so profoundly ingrained was music in him that he conquered the challenge. Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage reflects, on a miniature scale, this story of suffering and transcendence.
This essay is part of a series commemorating the 250th anniversary of the birth of Ludwig van Beethoven.
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“When Beethoven Met Goethe,” by Sudip Bose. The American Scholar.
“Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage,” program notes by Phillip Huscher. Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
“Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage,” description by John Palmer. AllMusic.
The featured image is “Große Bucht vor holländischem Städtchen” (c. 1820) by Johannes Hermanus Koekkoek, and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. It has been brightened for clarity.