Bitten (Plea) is the first of six songs that together make up Ludwig van Beethoven's Op. 48. Published in 1803 (but thought to have been completed at least a year earlier), the songs in the collection are all on sacred texts by Christian Fürchtegott Gellert (1715-1769). The Op. 48 collection is one of only two in Beethoven's oeuvre that can be considered a proper song "cycle," and while the other, An die ferne Geliebte, Op. 98 (1816), is built upon an overall unifying harmonic scheme, this group is principally held together by the religious and devotional nature of the poetry.
Nonetheless, the text and music of Bitten do convey an invocational mood that sets the tone for the remainder of the song cycle. The text unfolds at an even, measured pace above a moving bass line and spare accompaniment. There may be pictorial intent in the melodic leaps associated with the sense of distance suggested by the opening two lines, "Gott, deine Güte reicht so weit/So weit die Wolken gehen" (God, how far thy goodness extends, as far as the hovering clouds), but the overall attitude of the vocal line is one of restraint and piety. This reflects Beethoven's general tendency to avoid facile tone/text indulgences, preferring instead to convey or present the spirit of a text rather than depict it. Gellert's poem, with its spare, aphoristic quality, thus suits Beethoven's song style -- he is, after all, much less known for lyrical, memorable melodic lines than for poignant moods and sturdy thematic structures, which tend to lend a certain austerity to much of his vocal music. (Indeed, although he wrote numerous songs, which in large part paved the way for the famously prolific Schubert, they linger in the shadow of his monumental instrumental works.) In fact, it is the harmonic structure of this song, more than the vocal line, that lends it its expressive shape. Beginning in the tonic of E major, the song takes an overall chromatic path away from the home key, increasing tension -- some might say "distance," to use the spiritual metaphor described in the text -- until, with a final re-utterance of the final line, "Denn ich will vor dir beten" (I shall pray before thee), the singer pulls the harmony back into the familiar realm of the home key.