Like the Eight Songs op. 52, those of op. 75 were neither composed at the same time nor intended to form a set. Unlike the earlier publication, the songs of op. 75 are clearly the works of a more mature Beethoven. Dedicated to Princess Caroline Kinsky, the six songs were published simultaneously in Leipzig and London in October 1810 by Breitkopf und Härtel.
Beethoven once told Bettina Brentano, "Goethe's poems have great power over me, I am turned up and stimulated to composition by his language...." Not surprisingly, the most intriguing songs of op. 75 are settings of texts by Goethe. "Mignon" ("Kennst du das Land?") is from Goethe's Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre of 1795. Beethoven's music parallels Goethe's description of Mignon's performance. At the fourth line of each strophe, where Goethe indicates that Mignon sings in a "more somber" manner, Beethoven moves to a minor harmony. Also, Beethoven changes tempo and meter when Mignon cries, "Dahin, dahin!" ("Over there, over there!"), expressing greater urgency.
The second song of the set, Goethe's "Neue Liebe, Neues Leben," had been sketched in 1792, completed in 1799, and printed by Simrock in 1808 as WoO 127. Beethoven revised it for publication as part of op. 75, and in so doing created one of his most advanced through-composed art songs. After the second strophe, a linking passage leads to a return of both text and music of the first two strophes, but this time with a different modulation. Another link introduces the third strophe, with new text and music.
Also a revision of an earlier setting, "Aus Goethe's Faust" (Mephisto's Flea-song) is a Gesellschaftslied ("community song"), with a chorus entering at the close, singing "Wir knicken und ersticken / Doch gleich wenn einer sticht." (We snap it and smother it / As soon as one bites.) The chorus melody appears three times earlier in the solo part, at the close of every other strophe, thus acting as a refrain, but with changing text. The piano introduction conjures an image of hopping fleas, while the relatively low register of the voice part (written for tenor) alludes to the diabolical nature of the narrator. Rapidly repeated piano chords during the chorus's final word resemble laughter, as do the ensuing slurred notes. Furthermore, Beethoven marked that the slurred notes in the right hand are to be played with the thumb only, the resultant sliding motion evoking the image of someone squashing a flea.
Composed in 1795, "Gretels Warning," with text by Gerhard Anton von Halem, is the oldest of the set. "An den fernen Geliebten" and "Der Zufriedene" (nos. 5 and 6) are among Beethoven's briefest songs-ten and fifteen measures long, respectively-and were composed in 1809. The poems are by Viennese poet Christian Ludwig Reissig, a personal acquaintance of Beethoven.