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The Orpheus Legend & Beethoven’s Op. 58

The second movement of Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto, perhaps best described as a dialogue between soloist and orchestra in no easily recognizable musical form, has provoked commentary from music historians and critics since the mid-nineteenth century. At the heart of this discourse is the matter of program: Beethoven did not leave us one, but the conversational tone of the movement seems to invite interpretations that indulge in the extramusical. Not forty years after the private and public premieres of the concerto in 1807 and 1808 accounts of the programmatic content in the movement began to appear in print. One of the earliest, by A.B. Marx, centered on the Ancient Greek legend of Orpheus’s journey to the underworld. Subsequent authors would build on Marx’s ideas, the earliest drawing loose associations between the music and the legend, the most recent assigning specific narrative functions to each of the brief movement’s phrases. Many of the connections made between the movement and the legend have been recently and rightly questioned in an ongoing scholarly debate.

In Ancient Greek mythology, Orpheus was a poet, musician, and prophet best known for his ability to entrance all living things with his music. One of the most famous stories about him depicts his efforts to retrieve Eurydice, his wife, from the underworld. After placating the Furies of Hell with his lyre Orpheus is granted permission to return to Earth with Eurydice on one condition: he must precede his wife as they exit the underworld and not look back to see her until both safely stand on Earth. Orpheus agreed, but upon reaching Earth he looked back, forgetting his promise and unaware that Eurydice had not yet completed the journey. After Orpheus sees her figure, she vanishes, never to set foot on Earth again.

The first musician to suggest an extramusical association with the movement in print was Carl Czerny, Beethoven’s piano student and assistant. Although Czerny did not call on the Orpheus legend specifically, his commentary is curiously focused on antiquity. In his 1846 On the Proper Performance of All Beethoven’s Works for the Piano, Czerny writes that “In this movement…one cannot help thinking of an antique tragic scene, and the player must feel with what intense, pathetic expression this solo is performed, in order to contrast with the powerful and austere orchestral passages, which are, as it were, gradually withdrawn.”[1] He never suggests what “antique tragic scene” the movement might evoke, but he does recognize in it two characters, as it were, who are opposite in temperament (the “pathetic” soloist and “austere” orchestra).

Just over a decade later the German music theorist and critic Adolf Bernhard Marx wrote about the movement in his 1895 monograph on Beethoven’s life and works. His interpretation of the concerto second movement relates to the Infernal Scene in Gluck’s opera Orfeo ed Euridice. (This is the scene in which Orpheus confronts the Furies upon his arrival in the underworld.) Comparing the two works, Marx writes: “Hardly could two poems at their very basis have a closer relation to one another than that Gluck scene and this Beethoven Andante. The opposition of a single person, who has no weapon and no force except the depth of his feeling and the irresistibility of his plea, against the assembled force of a chorus, who deny and resist each advancing step, who shove back–that is the content of one musical poem as well as the other.”[2] Not unlike Czerny, Marx hears two opposed forces in the concerto, but he takes matters a step father by explicitly linking the legend and the movement. This link would have huge implications for twentieth-century scholarship.

In 1936, the English music scholar Donald J. Tovey supported the Orpheus connection in his Essays on Musical Analysis. But in doing so he confused the situation considerably. First, Tovey attributed the composer Franz List with being the first to couple the legend and the movement. Although Liszt was familiar with the Orpheus legend (one need only think of his tone poem Orpheus), there is no record of his connecting the story and concerto. Second, Tovey writes that in the movement he hears Orpheus taming the wild beasts, a different Orpheus legend than the one Marx had proposed decades before. The relative appropriateness of one legend over the other need not factor into our criticism of Tovey’s interpretation, though: at the end of the day, he still hears the one against the many and the placation of the fierce, with Orpheus’s music as the neutralizing agent. And as Marx had, Tovey refers to the relevance of Gluck’s Infernal Scene. It is worth quoting him at length:

“[It] is so apt that it is almost free from the general objection that such comparisons tend at first to substitute their own vividness for that of the music and then to lose their vividness in the necessity for tiresome qualifications of detail. But here the comparison is remarkably spiritual and free from concrete externals…[The] depth of the analogy is best shown in the one point of resemblance between this unique movement of Beethoven’s and a very different one, Orpheus’s first sustained address to the Furies in Gluck’s opera. The pleadings of Orpheus are met phrase by phrase with a thunderous No from the Furies in unison, until the last No is a chord which shows that they will at length yield. In this andante the orchestra does not imitate wild beasts or nature, and the pianoforte does not imitate a lyre or singer. But the orchestra (consisting of the strings alone) is entirely in octaves, without a vestige of harmony, so long as it remains stubborn and rough in its share of the dialogue with the quiet veiled tones of the solo.”[3]

In agreeing with and building upon the ideas of Czerny and Marx, Tovey extended the discourse on the Fourth without much todo. But in 1985, the discourse would shift from discussion to debate when Owen Jander published his article “Beethoven’s ‘Orpheus in Hades:’ The Andante con moto of the Fourth Piano Concerto” in the journal 19th-Century Music.[4] Arguing in favor of the Orpheus interpretation, Jander assigns a narrative function to each phrase of the movement, drawing from early-nineteenth century Orpheus literature and art to construct the plot.

That Beethoven would have been familiar with several versions of the Orpheus legend while he was composing the Fourth is central to Jander’s thesis, a point that he well demonstrates. A German edition of Ovid’s Metamorphoses was wildly popular in Vienna at the turn of the nineteenth century, and several of Beethoven’s friends, patrons, and colleagues had the volume in their libraries. Operatically, Beethoven certainly knew Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice, and, consequently, the Infernal Scene from which A.B. Marx and Tovey draw their comparisons. These works are a little more mainstream, though; there were also two other operas that Jander posits as potentially significant in the development of the Fourth. The first was Johann Gottlieb Naumann’s opera Orpheus und Euridice, a setting that Beethoven might have encountered in Bonn, and the second, Friedrich August Kanne’s opera Orpheus, which premiered in Vienna in 1807. As Jander explains, Beethoven and Kanne were close friends and both patrons of Prince Lobkowitz, at whose palace Beethoven’s concerto and Kanne’s opera were premiered. Jander speculates that Kanne would have shared ideas for his opera with Beethoven as he was composing it.

Jander makes much over Kanne’s setting of the scene in which Orpheus confronts the Furies, noting that it is substantially shorter than Gluck’s. Because the characters in Kanne’s scene speak almost exclusively with one line at a time, Jander draws a parallel between the dialogue of the opera and the phrases of the concerto movement: “One is amazed to discover that the one-line speeches…can be placed under the opening phrases of the Andante con moto of Beethoven’s concerto, and they seem to be saying exactly hat the music is saying.”[5] Moreover, Jander states that the movement cannot be understood through any common formal structure (sonata form, rondo, etc.) but rather only through an imposed narrative:

“Any reader who has made a close study of the second movement of this concerto is aware that to try to relate this work to any of the recurring forms of slow movements of Classical concertos is futile. My own conviction is that any attempt to analyze the form of this movement without constant reference to its Orphic program is equally futile…In my opinion, to analyze this work without program misses the point of the form.”[6]

 Jander then divides the movement into what he calls five “programmatic sections.” For the first, mm. 1-39, he borrows text from both Naumann and Kanne’s librettos, placing one line of dialogue beneath each musical phrase in a musical example. He does this to demonstrate that he hears in these measures the initial interaction between Orpheus and the Furies. In order to create a coherent exchange, though, Jander must reorder the sequence of lines from Kanne’s opera and insert where he finds appropriate text from Naumann’s. Jander suggests the opening orchestral phrase (mm. 1-5) is the first challenge from the Furies and assigns it text from Kanne’s opera: “Ha! Who dares approach this place!” The piano (or Orpheus by Jander’s account) then replies in measures 6-13, for which Jander borrows again from Kanne: “I tread this path of terrors gladly.” Jander relies on the operatic sources for his annotations through measure 39. He then turns to Ovid and Virgil, assigning each musical phrase some text from one of their versions of the legend in the remaining four programmatic sections. Main plot-points include three crashes of thunder after Orpheus’s backwards glance in measures 56-59, Eurydice’s disappearance in measures 62-64, and Eurydice’s final utterance, “farewell,” in measures 69-70.

In his conclusion, Jander necessarily throws caution to the wind: “All of the above may be nothing more than an amazing array of coincidences…Any decision, therefore, regarding the presence of a program in the second movement of Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto must, in a sense, remain a decision for the individual listener.”[7] Many listeners, as it turned out, were unwilling to make the same decision as Jander.

Jander’s radical program elicited mixed responses from the scholarly community, none more important perhaps than the rebuttal from Edward T. Cone that appeared alongside Jander’s article in 19th-Century Music. In this retort, titled “Beethoven’s Orpheus–Or Jander’s?” Cone questions whether Jander’s program makes any sense beyond the opening measures: “Certainly the way he [Jander] fits the dialogue from Kanne’s Hell-gate scene to Beethoven’s opening colloquy is brilliant…After that, however, he falters…Finding no single poetic source that seems to fir the direction of the music, he concocts one by juxtaposing lines from Ovid and Virgil, sometimes out of their original order.”[8] Moreover, Cone does not believe that an understanding of the form of the movement is dependent on an extramusical narrative. To counter Jander’s five programmatic sections, Cone suggests that the movement is structured in a two-part form. The following is an abridged reproduction of the formal chart Cone provides along with his explanation of that chart:

Section Measures Harmony
A 1-5               6-13


A’ 14-18         19-26


B 26-32         33-38


B‘ 39-44         45-64


Coda 64-72


I shall begin with a brief analysis–which, being purely musical, finds not five sections but two, each of which is again bifurcated. In both cases the second subsection is a modified repetition of the first, the last subsection is expanded by a cadenza and followed by a coda…What emerges, then, is a two-part form: AA’-BB’-Coda according to thematic structure, i-i-V-i in E minor according to the chief cadences.”[9]


One of Cone’s biggest issues with Jander’s interpretation is that Jander wants the movement to depict the legend in its entirety (from Orpheus’s arrival in the underworld through the disappearance of Eurydice) rather than the initial encounter between Orpheus and the Furies alone. Where Jander had read the Furies’ acquiescence to Orpheus beginning in measure 38, Cone suggests that the entire movement could more feasibly depict a longer interaction between Orpheus and the Furies, culminating only in the final measures with the placation of the Furies. But even this tempering of Jander’s interpretation leaves Cone unconvinced:

“Let me make it clear, though, that I do not insist on the relevance of my program. I offer it only as one that is more convincing to me than Jander’s, and one that equally well fits the historical context he has described. But in the absence of a well-defined iconography…only a definitive word from the composer could designate a program as anything but conjecture. A more crucial question emerges here. Regardless of which program we choose, do we need one at all? Indeed, in the absence of a descriptive title or other verbal indications, have we the right to accept any?”[10]

With these concluding remarks, Cone summarizes the apprehension with which many scholars received Jander’s ideas. If Beethoven left no indication of a program, why are we searching for one? If the Orpheus legend is indeed as essential as Jander claims in order to understand the movement, why did Beethoven not disclose it to the first audiences and to posterity? Jander builds a compelling case for Beethoven’s probable familiarity with the legend, as Cone admits, and the Orpheus legend can, at least in an abstract way, be convincingly applied to the movement. As we have seen, musicians have made the association for well over a century. Nevertheless, it seems out of character for Beethoven to leave us without so necessary a guide.

Since the publication of his article Jander has expanded his ideas in a book, Beethoven’s ‘Orpheus’ Concerto: The Fourth Piano Concerto in its Cultural Context.[11] The book explores the (possible) relationship between all of the concerto’s movements and the Orpheus legend. Of course, his monograph has not settled the issue. And although the debate has cooled somewhat in recent years, the question of narrativity in the second movement of the Fourth Piano Concerto stands to remain a contestable issue for some time to come.



Cone, Edward T. “Beethoven’s Orpheus — or Jander’s?” 19th-Century Music 8 (1985): 283-86.

Czerny, Carl. On the Proper Performance of All Beethoven’s Works for the Piano. Edited by Paul Badura-Skoda. Wien: Universal Edition, 1970.

Marx, Adolf Bernhard. Ludwig van Beethoven: Leben und Schaffen. Berlin: Otto Janke, 1884.

Owen, Jander. “Beethoven’s ‘Orpheus in Hades:’ The Andante con moto of the Fourth Piano Concerto.” 19th-Century Music 8 (1985): 195-212.

Tovey, Donald J. Essays in Musical Analysis: Concertos. London: Oxford University Press, 1936.


Further Reading

Plantinga, Leon. Beethoven’s Concertos: History, Style, Performance. New York: W.W. Norton,  1999.

Owen, Jander. Beethoven’s ‘Orpheus’ Concerto: The Fourth Piano Concerto in its Cultural Context. Hillsdale: Pendragon Press, 2009.


[1] Carl Czerny, On the Proper Performance of All Beethoven’s Works for the Piano, ed. Paul Badura-Skoda (Wien: Universal Edition, 1970): 110.

[2] Adolf Bernhard Marx, Ludwig van Beethoven: Leben und Schaffen (Berlin: Otto Janke, 1884): 77.

[3] Donald J. Tovey, Essays in Musical Analysis: Concertos (London: Oxford University Press, 1936): 80-81.

[4] Owen Jander, “Beethoven’s ‘Orpheus in Hades:’ The Andante con moto of the Fourth Piano Concerto,” 19th-Century Music 8 (1985): 195-212.

[5] Jander, “Beethoven’s Orpheus,” 202.

[6] Ibid, 205.

[7] Ibid, 210.

[8] Edward T. Cone, “Beethoven’s Orpheus — or Jander’s?” 19th-Century Music 8 (1985): 283-86.

[9] Ibid, 284.

[10] Ibid, 285.

[11] Owen Jander, Beethoven’s ‘Orpheus’ Concerto: The Fourth Piano Concerto in its Cultural Context (Hillsdale: Pendragon Press, 2009).

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