In his guide to Johannes Brahms’s lieder, British musicologist Eric Sams calls Brahms “the supreme master of Romantic isolation … Throughout the Brahmsian lied … singer and pianist unite in a lament for loneliness, usually because of separation from the loved one.” Born in the Hamburg slums, growing up as a teenage pianist in a brothel, passionately in love at age 20 with a woman he could not have (Clara Schumann), and then choosing lifelong bachelorhood despite the many women he attracted, Brahms became the ultimate outsider, always gazing ruefully through the window at others’ happiness. No matter how successful he became, the pain of early sorrows and frustrations never eased, and it is this sense of unhealed trauma that makes his music so distinctive and so moving.
Though himself a devoted and discriminating reader, Brahms did not typically choose verse from the great German poets such as Goethe and Heine (though there are Brahms settings of both) for his songs. Rather, he preferred lesser versifiers, sometimes personal friends, who touched on themes of particular relevance to his own life. Whether setting poetry of the first rank or verse of much more pedestrian quality, Brahms gave it close analytical attention, often reading it aloud or having others who were especially gifted speakers read it to him so he could ascertain the exact rhythms, natural stresses, and pauses needed. “Brahms meant his songs to mirror their poems down to the last detail,” writes Sams. With this understanding allied with his formidable musical technique, he was usually able to elevate the most modest verse to greatness.
Brahms wrote songs throughout his creative career. The first two songs on today’s program—“Liebestreu” and “Liebe und Frühling II”—are from his first set, composed when he was 19 and 20. Written in January 1853, “Liebestreu” (“Love’s Devotion”) is not the first song he wrote, but it is certainly his first vocal masterpiece. Both his mentor Robert Schumann and his close friend violinist Joseph Joachim (inspirer of his Violin Concerto) were deeply impressed. As Sams points out, it contains four themes that would haunt Brahms’s songs: an unloved girl in despair, a mother-daughter dialogue, “faithfulness in love, and the depths of the sea.” Brahms distinguishes carefully between the mother’s dark, minatory voice and the daughter’s gentler, clearer sound in both the vocal lines and accompaniment. In the grim, sinking postlude, he may be suggesting the girl drowns her sorrow in the sea.
From the same year, “Liebe und Frühling II” (“Love and Springtime II”) is much lighter: the impassioned song of a young lover for whom his beloved represents the Spring more powerfully than does Nature's beauties. An impetuous short-long rhythm throughout embodies his impatient desire.
“Geheimnis” (“Secret”) is a much later song from 1877 and sets a poem by the clergyman Karl August Candidus. It sways gently like the branches of the whispering trees. Brahms emphasizes the depth of feeling behind the repetitions of “uns’rer Liebe süss” (“our sweet love”) with an aching descending phrase in the piano.
“Wir wandelten” (“We wandered”) is a serenely beautiful song of mature love from the composer's own maturity, written in 1884. It sets verse translated from the Hungarian by Georg Friedrich Daumer, one of Brahms’s favorite sources. The steps of the couple are represented in two-part counterpoint in the piano as the song begins; their harmonious thoughts, like “golden bells,” are heard in the piano's chiming high notes.
Published in 1868 but probably composed earlier, “O liebliche Wangen” (“O lovely cheeks”), is a song of ardent, physical longing that may recall Brahms’s passion for Agathe von Siebold, to whom he was briefly engaged. Leon Botstein suggests that “the juxtaposition of [notes indicating both] major and minor at the end of every strophe underscores the aspect of intense and unfulfilled desire.” The verse by Paul Fleming comes from the 17th century.
From 1883 or 1884, “Sapphische Ode” takes its name from the classical Sapphic strophic style of its verse, which was written expressly for Brahms by his young composer-poet friend Hans Schmidt. One of his most popular songs, it is a celebration of the warm depths of the alto voice. Brahms enlivens it with a syncopated accompaniment that plays against the stresses of the vocal line.
Like many Romantics, Brahms was entranced by medieval legends, as shown in the 15 Magelone Lieder, his only song cycle, published in the 1860s. Johann Ludwig Tieck inserted these poems in his retelling of the familiar 12th-century story of Count Peter of Provence and his love for the beautiful Princess Magelone of Naples. In the story, the two decide to elope, and “Ruhe, Süssliebchen” (“Rest, my love”) is Peter’s tenderly sensuous lullaby as Magelone rests from their journey in the idyllic countryside by a murmuring brook. The caressing piano interludes and postlude are especially wonderful, as is the soothing ascending-line refrain that closes each stanza.
“O wüsst ich doch den Weg zurück” (“O if I only knew the road back”) is one of three songs under the title “Heimweh” (“Homesickness”) composed in 1874. Two years earlier, Brahms had been called back to his native Hamburg to attend to his dying father, and this song is probably a remembrance of that sad time. While there, Brahms wrote to a friend: “You know my weakness for the homeland, and you can imagine with what special feelings I went through the streets this time—which I certainly won't see again for a long time.” As Sams comments, the rippling flow of the piano evokes the waters lapping the shores of this port city. At the words “Vergebens such ich nach dem Glück” (“In vain I search for happiness”), there is the shadow of tragic regret as the line sags on flattened harmonies.
The emotionally complex “Alte Liebe” (“Old Love”) of 1876 straddles the divide between gentle nostalgia and real pain as memories of a lost love are reawakened. That pain is revealed in the restless harmonies and more intense motion of the piano in the middle section; the postlude deepens the sorrow.
We meet another girl in despair in “Mädchenlied” of 1887. This song begins in the traditional folk style of a spinning song, with the piano’s constant arpeggios mimicking the sound of the wheels. The girl’s wheel slows its motion as she ponders her lonely state, and to a shocking modulation, she cries, “Why should I spin?” The poet, Paul Heyse, won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1910.
One of Brahms’s greatest songs—and one truly designed for the alto voice—is “Die Mainacht” (“The May Night”): the ultimate portrait of an outsider shut out from bliss. The poem is by Ludwig Christoph Heinrich Hölty, one of 18th-century Germany's finest poets, who had a tragically brief life. Writes Misha Donat: “Hölty's poem contrasts the loneliness of the man with the tranquility and harmony of nature; and Brahms finds the perfect musical metaphor—a floating melody of profound calm, which … carries with it a distant undercurrent of restlessness.”
Setting a Spanish verse translated by Daumer, “Es träumte mir” (“I dreamed”) of 1871 may recall Brahms’s unfulfilled love for Clara Schumann, for Sams identifies the musical motive he created for her as being embedded in both the piano and voice parts at the beginning. The harmonic pain as the lover awakens stuns the song briefly into silence.
“Verzagen” (“Despair”) returns us to a similar situation as “Liebestreu,” as a bereft young woman sits by the sea, now in raging tumult. The voice surges over a virtuoso piano part of swirling, dissonance-flecked arpeggios. It is an extraordinary portrait of psychological combined with physical turmoil.
Setting a poem from the Wendish, a German/Slavic dialect, “Von ewiger Liebe” (“Of Eternal Love”) of 1864 is one of Brahms’s greatest and grandest songs. Divided into three sections, this dramatic narrative opens with brooding music in the minor that uncannily sets the scene of two lovers, separated by their families, walking through a bleak nocturnal landscape. The young man in vehement, virile tones suggests they should part. But the girl's reply changes everything, as the key brightens to the major and the meter slips into a calm lullaby. Her ringing final affirmation is intensified by the conflicting two-against-three rhythm Brahms loved so well.
—Janet E. Bedell
French composer Henri Duparc had one of the most tragic lives in music history. While Mozart and Schubert died young, Duparc suffered the cruel fate of progressively losing control over his body while living on to the age of 85, blind and finally paralyzed. Yet he bore it all with a sweetness and patience that endeared him still more to his circle of devoted friends, including many of France’s leading musicians and artists. His career lasted a mere 16 years from 1868 to 1884, when his undiagnosed nervous condition began to cripple his creative abilities; today, he is known only for his 17 magnificent songs.
Hypersensitive to all the arts—he was a talented amateur painter as well as a musician—Duparc chose poetry by contemporary poets in the Parnassien and Symbolist movements, some of whom were his personal friends. In Martin Cooper’s words, “his feeling for poetic atmosphere and his ability to communicate it in music were unequalled among his contemporaries.”
Setting a poem by the renowned Théophile Gautier, “Au pays où se fait la guerre” (“To the war-torn land”) is a scene out of medieval legend, whose pre-Raphaelite sensibility is captured by the haunting refrain melody that returns in both the piano and the voice. Originally titled “Absence,” it was intended for an opera, Rusalka, the composer never finished; it therefore projects a more theatrical style, as the lady waiting in her tower briefly mistakes the arrival of her little page for her longed-for lover.
No Duparc song is lovelier than “Extase” (1874) with its languid vocal line floating on a radiantly colored piano part; the piano's coda beautifully echoes the high-flying phrase “Mort exquise, mort parfumée.” Composed in 1882, “Phidylé” is a gorgeous setting of an equally gorgeous poem by the Parnassien poet Charles Leconte de Lisle. It captures the heat and languor of a summer’s day and evening in such detail that we can experience it with all our senses. From a quiet beginning, it moves steadily to an ecstatic outpouring of love.
—Janet E. Bedell
Though known primarily for his mastery of the keyboard and the symphony orchestra, Sergei Rachmaninoff was also a devoted songwriter, writing some 85 throughout the Russian period of his career. His phenomenal gift for creating memorable, heart-stirring melodies enriched his vocal lines, and his virtuosity as a pianist ensured the accompanist was also given a major role. Sadly, after his flight to the West in 1917, he never returned to songwriting.
Not a passionate reader of poetry himself, Rachmaninoff was inspired to write songs by particular singers he admired. Most of them fell into the category of the Russian romance: a 19th-century style that emphasized open and impassioned emotional outpourings, nearly always about romantic love yearned for, enjoyed, and lost. And he knew the type of poetry that worked best for his temperament. Writing to poet Marietta Shaginyan, who often selected poems for him to set, he cautioned: “The mood must be sad rather than happy. The lighter shades do not come easily to me.” Like much of his instrumental music, his songs tended to favor minor keys.
The six songs of his Op. 4 were Rachmaninoff’s first to be published in 1893. “Oh no, I beg you” was probably written about a year earlier, at the same time as his First Piano Concerto, and its opening piano notes resemble that work's slow movement. This song may have been inspired by the adolescent composer’s infatuation with Anna Lodizehnsky, the gypsy wife of an older friend. Propelled by agitated piano triplets, this impassioned song hurtles to a ringing vocal climax.
Another early song (1893), “I have grown fond of sorrow”—also known as “The Soldier’s Wife”—sets a Russian translation of a poem by the Ukrainian national poet Taras Shevchenko. Rachmaninoff chooses a poignant rocking melody in Russian folk-song style to express the suffering of a soldier’s wife who has been abandoned by him in a foreign land. The song ends in wordless keening.
Three songs from Op. 21 show the composer’s gift for exquisite lyrical melodic invention at its best, though they were written in haste in 1902 to raise money for his upcoming marriage. The entranced “Twilight” paints the portrait of a lovely young girl framed in a window as twilight descends; continuous pedal notes in the left hand freezes this perfect moment for eternity. Setting words by Victor Hugo in Russian translation, “They Answered” is magically divided between masculine energy and inscrutable feminine calm. The men, fleeing to urgent arpeggios, pose their questions; the women respond with serenely laconic answers. One of the composer’s most inspired vocal melodies floats over a shimmering accompaniment in “Lilacs.” This is a song of refined simplicity and unity: Nearly all of its melodic material is derived from the rocking three-note motive with which it opens.
Rachmaninoff was only 21 when he wrote “I wait for thee” in 1894, and his immaturity weakened the considerable musical control with which it begins, as the lover waits patiently. After the singer’s thrilling climax, the piano flies over the top with youthful exuberance.
By contrast, “Night is mournful” of 1906 is one of Rachmaninoff’s finest melding of voice and piano. The latter provides a rich yet subtle counterpoint to the lovely but restrained vocal phrases. The composer commented that here the “singing is more the prerogative of the accompanist than of the singer.”
Returning to Op. 4, “Sing not to me, beautiful maiden” sets a poem by the great Alexander Pushkin. Taking his cue from its reference to Georgian songs, Rachmaninoff clothes it in the exotic melismas of the Russian oriental style, clearly influenced by Borodin. The final moments are especially marvelous as the singer floats slowly down from a pianissimo high note over the piano's reprise of its melancholy rocking melody.
—Janet E. Bedell