Throughout his life, Beethoven was obsessed with Friedrich von Matthisson's (1761-1831) "Opferlied" (Song of Sacrifice). The poem first appeared in 1790, so Beethoven may have known the text while he lived in Bonn. Occasionally, he scribbled the last line, "Das Schöne zu dem Guten!" ("The beautiful to the good"), in his late manuscripts.
Most indicative of Beethoven's admiration of the poem is the fact that he set the text of "Opferlied" four times: The first version, from 1794, exists only in manuscript. In 1801-2, Beethoven revised his seven-year-old setting; this version, known as WoO. 126, was published in 1808 by Simrock in Bonn as part of the III Deutsche Lieder, which included the first versions of "Neue Liebe, neues Leben," WoO. 127, and "Der freie Mann," WoO. 117. The third setting, for soprano, alto and tenor soloists with four-voice chorus, two clarinets, horn, viola and cello, dates from 1822 and was first performed on December 23 of that year in Bratislava (Pressburg). However, it did not appear in print until 1888 as part of the Complete Edition of Beethoven's Works, published in Leipzig by Breitkopf & Härtel. Beethoven revised this version to produce his fourth and final setting of "Opferlied" (Op. 121b), for soprano solo with four-voice chorus and orchestra (without flutes or oboes), in 1823-4. This was published in 1825 by Schott in Mainz.
Matthisson's text depicts a young man in a oak grove offering a sacrifice to Zeus. The man asks Zeus to be the protector of liberty, and to give him, both now and in his old age, beautiful things, because he is good.
Like Beethoven's setting for solo voice and piano, the "Opferlied," Op. 121b, for soprano, chorus and orchestra is in E major and strophic form, although a few subtle changes in the second verse, particularly in the orchestration, make "modified strophic" a more appropriate description. Beethoven expands the dimensions of the song beyond that of his piano and voice setting by writing a much more active voice part and by having the chorus repeat the last half of each verse, the chorus sopranos taking the soloists' melody. Additionally, the chorus again repeats the final line of each verse, each time to completely new music, providing a strong sense of closure.
What is most striking about Beethoven's "Opferlied" is its nearly total diatonic idiom. Set in E major throughout, the piece's only chromatic alteration occurs at the middle of the verse, as part of a cadence on the dominant. Because the chorus responses are literal repetitions of the second half of each verse, these also never stray from E major.