Two Rhapsodies op. 79; Three Intermezzi op. 117

 Ed. B. Stockmann (Vienna Urtext Edition), Universal

Ed. H-C. Müller (Vienna Urtext Edition), Universal


The autograph of op. 79 is lost (surprisingly, because it was once owned and treasured by its dedicatee, Elisabeth von Herzogenberg); so the only available sources are the first edition and the engraver’s copy. This last is owned (and loaned) by Dr Günter Henle of Duisburg, where the rival Urtext editions come from – an impressive example of friendly cooperation. There are no textual surprises, and few note­worthy editorial points emerge. Might it have been worth conjecturing whether in no. 1 the D minor section beginning A-D-E had a special significance for Brahms? He is known to have used those notes meaningfully elsewhere. They are, as he must have realized, an exact echo of Schumann’s op. 68 no. 9, where also they may have been intended as an expressive farewell.

   The Intermezzi raise more editorial questions, not all of which are clearly enough answered. The factual background is not in dispute. Brahms usually handed his autograph (A) to his copyist, the well-named William Kupfer, who would prepare for the engraver what was no doubt a copperplate copy (B). The composer would then correct the engraved text before the first edition (C) was printed. And though the editor of op. 117 does not say so, Brahms also made changes and corrections at stage B – as we can see from the facsimile page in the Urtext edition of op. 79.

   In op. 117, B is lost. But we can infer that all the changes between A and C were made or sanctioned by Brahms himself, unless obvious errors have been overlooked (a rather rare contingency). This is also the editor’s assumption. and very reasonable it seems. But wait. In A, but not in C, op. 117 no. 2 has five fermatas: one over each stave to mark the caesura at the half-bar in bar 22, and in bar 38 one in each hand over the quaver chord, plus one under the right-hand semiquaver D flat. All these are restored in the present text, for no better reason than the lame conjecture that the copyist or the engraver might inadvertently have omitted them – which is not only implausible in itself, but destructive of the whole previous process of inference.

   Such editorial determinations must give us pause. There are other respects in which one remains hesitant. We are told that op. 117 no.3 may have begun as a setting of a folk poem which begins “0 weh! o weh, hinab ins Tal, und weh, und weh, den Berg hinan, den Berg hinan”, which was marked by Brahms in his copy of Herder's folksongs. I found this very interesting and quite convincing when I first read it in Max Kalbeck (1914; iv, 280), who adds the rather relevant point that this poem immediately follows the known verbal inspiration of op. 117 no. 1, the Wiegenlied einer unglücklichen Mutter. But the present editor unguardedly adds that the second poems verbal rhythm is exactly suited to the melody of op. 117 no. 3. Not so; even Kalbeck had to draw the line at that, since he had drawn out Herder's second line to make it fit. It is sad to find an editor not verifying his sources, not to mention not mentioning them.

   I think that he would have been on ground much firmer than his fermatas in pursuing the Herder associations further. One might suggest for example that op. 117 no. 2 was also inspired by a poem from the Stimmen der Völker, a favourite work; that the Intermezzi, like other settings from that source, were written or at least sketched much earlier than 1892; that all three had the closest personal associations for Brahms; and that they were conceived and presented as a motivically­ interconnected triptych.

     As usual the general format and presentation art admirable except that, also as usual, the English text has some slight but tiresome blemishes. For example, the “Klingersche Figuren” to which Brahms referred in his letter to his publisher about op. 117 are surely graphic, not “rhetorical”? It's a pity that the name of Max Klinger no longer rings a bell.      


The Musical Times, Feb. 1974 (p. 147) © the estate of eric sams