There are only two instances in which Beethoven composed several songs as a set. The best known of these is An die ferne Geliebte, Op. 98; the other is the Six Songs, Op. 48, setting texts by Christian Fürchtegott Gellert, whose work Beethoven knew most likely through his Bonn teacher, Christian Gottlob Neefe. Unlike An die ferne Geliebte, the songs of Op. 48 are not musically related to one another.
Beethoven's Gellert Lieder were composer during a tumultuous time in the composer's life. In 1801 we find Beethoven's first mention of his growing deafness, in a letter to Dr. Franz Wegeler in Bonn. The probability that his deafness was incurable tempted Beethoven to withdraw from society. During the same year, however, the composer writes of "a dear charming girl who loves me and whom I love. ... " This was certainly the Countess Giulietta Guicciardi, a student of Beethoven and the dedicatee of the "Moonlight" Sonata, Op. 27, No. 2, written in 1801. At sixteen years of age and a member of the aristocracy, Guicciardi seems to have had little interest in Beethoven as a lover. In November, 1803, Guicciardi married Count Wenzel Gallenberg, a young composer of ballet music with whom Guicciardi had been involved at least as long as she had known Beethoven. Myriad setbacks in Beethoven's life may have induced his temporary attraction to religious subjects such as the Gellert poems of Op. 48 or Christus am Ölberg, composed in 1803.
Published in Vienna by Artaria in 1803, the Six Songs were dedicated to Count Johann von Browne (1767-1827), one of Beethoven's chief early patrons. Recent scholarship shows that the songs were composed before March 1802, and that No. 3 was sketched in 1798.
"Die Himmel rühmen des ewigen Ehre" (The Heavens extol the Glory of God) was published as the fourth of the Six Songs, Op. 48, with the title, "Die Ehre Gottes aus der Natur" (The Glory of God in Nature). The song is a majestic description of nature's declarations of the glory of God. Octaves or block chords in the piano part trace the vocal line, which is more instrumental than vocal in conception. Marked "majestic," the voice and piano begin by outlining the tonic triad, creating a military atmosphere. A quick modulation to G minor at "Vernimm, o Mensch, ihr göttlich Wort!" prepares us for the appearance of E flat major two measures later. As the poem describes, "Wer trägt der Himmel unzählbare Sterne?" (Who bears the heavens' innumerable stars?), Beethoven slowly returns to the tonic, C major.