Brahms Songs

2/1980 [pp.  68; ISBN 0 563 10431 7]


      The Lied as an art‑form arises when words inspire music which embodies them, just as a face or scene might move another artist to paint a portrait or landscape. So it is not necessarily the greatest poems that make the best Lieder, any more than it is the most beautiful faces or landscapes that make the best pictures. What matters is the quality of feeling distilled into the finished work of art. This comparison is especially apt to Brahms, whose song­themes are love and nature and whose penchant is for second‑rate verses on those themes. There are two reasons for that predilection. First, his passion for reading was self‑determined, and his apprecia­tion of it self‑taught; and he could never tell good verse from bad, or folk from fake. Secondly, and more important, he was above all a musician, seeking an outlet through poetry for his own feeling. His songs are always ready to turn into instrumental music; it is no mere chance that so many of them are echoed in his violin sonatas, nor that they contain so much long‑flighted melody and contra­puntal device.

Thus Brahms inhabits that hinterland of the Lied where song borders on absolute music, while Hugo Wolf occupies the oppo­site frontier where song aspires to the condition of poetry or recitation. No wonder there was no love lost between them. No wonder either that they had no clear or immediate successors as great song‑writers; each had explored his own domain to its farthest limits. Each had inherited his portion from Schumann, who as successor to Schubert had become the undisputed sovereign of that realm where words and music meet and mingle in lyric forms. That territory was a microcosm of the social world of Europe. It had derived from a new movement in German poetry. With Goethe and Hölty, verse had become singable, as if classical style and metre had been crossed with folksong. At the same time the pianoforte was being developed as an accompanying instru­ment, again a compromise between the court orchestra and the homely guitar. Thus the romantic nineteenth‑century Lied began with Schubert as a middle‑class hybrid form, blending elevated style with popular feeling.

      Brahms was Schubert's heir. He had little of the musico‑poetic depth and complexity of Wolf or Schumann. Conversely, they wrote no popular music of their own, while he was so steeped in that tradition that his songs became not only popular music but 'folksong' in his own lifetime, like 'Wiegenlied' or 'Vergebliches Standchen'. So (by then) had many of Schubert's, and their Lieder are strikingly akin, especially in their use of melody, which was for them the heart of song‑writing. Both favoured strophic forms where successive verses are repeated to the same tune. So general a treatment is bound to be less apt for some stanzas than for others and will lead to occasional incongruities such as the faulty declama­tion for which both have been criticised. The price seems little enough for a great song. Even if Brahms goes further than others there are always compensations. Here for example are the rhyth­mically simple first two lines of a Holty quatrain:

Holder klingt der Vogelsang,
Wenn die Engelreine...

(literally, and metrically, Swéeter sóunds the sóng of bírds/ Whén the ángel‑púre one...)

as set by (a) Schubert (1816), (b) Mendelssohn (c. 1826), (c) Brahms (completed 1877):

Ex. 1


 Mendelssohn could hardly have known the Schubert setting, which was not published until i88 . Each represents a basic and obvious melodic equivalent of the verses. Brahms probably knew the Mendelssohn setting, if not the Schubert. But he preferred a more complex type of melody; his wayward and cross‑grained treatment of Holty's text is not the least successful or engaging of these three delightful songs.

      In matters of construction, however, Brahms was a thorough­going Schubertian. Nearly half his songs are strophic, whether simpliciler or with variations. Most of the rest are basically in A B A form. They evince no special interest in the poetic or literary aspects of song. The rich vocabulary of accompaniment figurations and rhythms is deployed to give formal variety, just as in the instrumental music, rather than as conscious illustration of the verse. We rarely hear the words for their own sake, as recitative; they are more a medium for melody. Even so, the vocal line is often restrained in its compass and intervals. Only two songs ('Klage I', 'Frühlingslied') call for a rising major seventh; only one (the last of all) requires a vocal leap of more than a tenth, and then only as an alternative. Similarly the traditional harmony is not enriched, as Wolf's was, with Wagnerian coinages; their small change, such as the augmented triad, was hardly ever tendered by Brahms. There is little rhythmical experimentation apart from the frequent use of two‑against‑three, and this too is usually more an instrumental device than expression of verbal ideas. Entirely typical is Brahms's advice to an aspiring song‑writer to 'make sure that together with your melody you compose a strong independent bass'. Indeed, his method of judging songs was to cover up every­thing but these two lines, as if song were essentially a construction of melody and counterpoint. Certainly these are the most easily identifiable of his own fingerprints. For example, the piano's horn passages in the early songs, though striking and characteristic, are not so clearly and unmistakably Brahmsian as the voice's rising or falling dominant seventh arpeggios in the middle period songs:

Ex. 2


or the ubiquitous falling sixths or sevenths at the final cadence of songs about the bliss and sweetness of love:

Ex. 3


      Hugo Wolf would no doubt have disputed the Brahmsian view, claiming that songs were not so much musical as musico‑poetic; that declamation, rhythm, keyboard register and texture, and motivic treatment were fully as important as melody; and that they all ought to derive from the poem. Fortunately that dispute is over, and we can learn from both masters and both schools. Most song­writers will agree that music symbolises human feeling. For Brahms, the absolute musician, the succession and structure of tones does this without any special or conscious need for adapta­tion. Clearly this attitude was due to innate temperament, not to any lack of technique or inspiration. Further, his earliest published works were pseudonymous pianoforte pot‑pourris of operatic airs and national songs, so he had plenty of practice in writing accompanied melody. Even in his early piano sonatas the slow­movement melodies often derive from the metrical movement of a poem or song that had caught his fancy. No doubt many of Brahms's other works throughout his life contain melodies sug­gested to him by his reading of verse.

      Although Lieder form a natural part of his development from eighteen onwards his settings are a response to a general mood rather than to poetry as such. This is clear from his repetitions of the text for the sole purpose of sustaining the melodic line. Such a viewpoint, though dismaying to the purist, has its own practical advantages and its own real insights. For example, it was always possible for Brahms to find a poem which suited his mood and then to clothe it with ready‑made material. This was often an arduous and time‑consuming process; but it    could also be a very successful one.

      In any event, the choice of verse will tell us much of interest about Brahms as man and musician. He had at his disposal a wide range of German poetry, which by the nineteenth century included some of the outstanding masterpieces of world literature. If from this whole rich field he culled mainly such nonentities as Lemcke or Daumer, it was for excellent personal reasons. That pulp was the right raw material for his creative process, which was powered by his own inmost feelings. So when he sings for example of two lovers parting (as in Opp. 14 and i passim) or of their walking together in the woodlands ('Wir wandelten', 'In Waldeseinsamkeit') he is likely to be recalling some experienced emotion, probably on some actual occasion, and using some later more tranquil time to

turn that emotion into music. Thus he chooses texts as a preacher might ‑ less for their intrinsic merit than for relevance to a given topic or mood. Other composers set the words; Brahms uses them to set the tone, or the scene, of his own experience. But to describe his songs thus is not to disparage them. They contain deep and valid symbols of felt life, true experience, as real and durable as any ever expressed by a composer.

      The animating force, in Brahms as in all the great song‑writers, is the musical image. The following examples seek to illustrate only the two extremes of a very wide spectrum from the presumably unconscious to the clearly deliberate. An example of the former is the idea of vision or dream expressed in slow upward arpeggios in the left hand, like a vague notion drifting up from sleep towards the borderlands of consciousness, as throughout 'Es träumte mir':

Ex. 4    


and similarly throughout 'Es hing em Reif', which has the direction 'träumerisch', or to illustrate the word 'Traum' in 'Der Tod, das ist die kühle Nacht'. This idea begins with that fine song 'An eine Aeolsharfe' where the Aeolian harp symbolises the sensitive mind caught in a trance through which the least breath turns into music. A conscious form of translation is the equally Schumannian technique of turning names into expressive musical symbols letter by letter. Brahms is known to have used that device in the String Sextet, Op. 36, and the a cappella chorus, Op. 44, no. o, where the name Agathe (von Siebold) becomes:

Ex. 5


I shall suggest that he also used this idea in the solo songs written for Agathe, and further that an analogous idea can help to identify those songs which were written with Clara Schumann especially in mind.

      Between these two realms of subconscious and conscious invention, whole regions lie open to research and conjecture. Perhaps the best way of examining this musical vocabulary in detail is to consider a song chosen as typical by Brahms himself, in his early forties, when advising an aspiring song‑writer. He is recorded as saying that one must not be too easily satisfied. The first ideas or inspirations, whatever or whenever one calls them, come of their own accord or not at all. When they do, then the real work begins. They are not really our property until we have worked on them, cultivated them, made them our own. This will not be quick or easy. Take for example the beginning of 'Die Mainacht' (here Brahms sang the first line). Having got that far, he said, 'I might as well shut the book, go for a walk, do absolutely anything; even forget the whole thing for six months. But if it is a live and viable idea, then in the meantime it will be growing unseen. Then I can begin work on it.'

      One may venture to reconstruct the process. Brahms says in effect that he had a book of Holty's poems open in front of him. 'Die Mainacht' is in four stanzas of a classical metre (asclepiads), the first of which may be rendered thus to show meaning and metre together:

Now the silvery moon gleams among boughs and leaves,
Strewing slumberous light over the dreaming lawn.
Sweet the nightingale's fluting;
Sad my walking from tree to tree.

      The next two stanzas compare and contrast shared nest and sweet song with lonely silence, darker shadows. Finally the poem declares the cause of its sorrow: 'I shall never see you on earth again, my love; and the scalding tears flow faster yet'. Holty's opening lines repeat the same thought and the same metrical pattern; so the natural response would be to repeat the melody with some variation, say a tone higher. Then comes a modulation with flats to match the flutes, and finally a sad minor melodic line to match the last poetic line. In this way the natural growth of the music will conform with the lattice work of the poem's pattern of meaning and metre. But other influences are also soon at work. For example the stately 3 + 3, 3 + 3 beat of the classic foot has to move in duple or quadruple time, because of the poetic image of walking and its musical equivalent. This is incorporated into the piano part, which duly begins with the vocal melody set walking in a separate prelude. When the nightingales' fluting mellows the melody into a different key, the piano's left‑hand accents, gentle though they are, have to be elided:

Ex. 6


only to reappear as the walking resumes in a sombre B flat minor, this time serving as an illustrative piano interlude. Next, the piano left hand has detached thirds for the dewy foliage (a typical Brahmsian expression) while the right hand makes a cooing duo with the voice for the billing doves. The left‑hand arpeggios of trance or dream (cf. Ex. 4) anticipate the longed‑for vision of the last verse, and therefore sound dramatic and tragic. Canonic imitations signify a parting of the ways at the voice's recitative 'I turn away', while at the following phrase 'and seek darker shadows' the music reverts to the darkness of E flat minor, always a sombre key in Brahms as in Schumann. There the hollow unison of voice and piano re‑echoes and stresses the feeling of personal isolation, again a very Brahmsian expression. It moves to tears; and for the first time the quavers flow uninterruptedly in the right hand, with a sharp semitonal clash on the word 'Tranen'. There follows a dramatic pause as the piano dwells lingeringly on the dominant seventh; and this focuses the emotive radiance of the music thus far on to the burning question ‑ why? The answer coincides with the return of the opening melody, and the singing vision of un­returned and unreturning love. This time (again very typically) the accompaniment is given added rhythmic interest; the pulse of the music and of the singer quicken together. Again the tears flow, with the same poignant dissonance as before, this time even more readily and explicably in conformity with the sense of the words. The crying climax comes on a chord of the flat supertonic which always conveys a special sense of tragedy and loss in a Brahms song. The piano postlude continues its walking movement, in which the depressed mood of tears and sighs is matched by flattened sevenths, flattened sixths; the music goes weeping away into the dark.

      If one likes romantic verse heightened and intensified by music, here is its perfect expression. But despite all its subconscious yearning and intuitive art this music contains much conscious device. All the formal effects had to be closely and deliberately calculated. For example Brahms aims at a basic ABA form; so one stanza out of four has to be omitted. He reasons that his music need say only once that (to borrow the equivalent phrases of an English late­-Romantic, Francis Thompson):

I walk, I only,
Not I only wake;
Nothing is, this sweet night,
But doth couch and wake
For its love's sake.

      This leaves three stanzas with three different ideas: (i) loneliness, (a) togetherness, (3) lost love. The last of these ideas, in contrasting with the second, explains the first. So the musical material equates (i) with (3) and contrasts each with (a); the perfect ABA form.

      In other ways too the constructional problems are solved with superb eloquence. The first verse began by saying 'bright moon­light'; the second ended by saying 'and I weep'. The music of that first phrase is repeated at the words 'when shall I see her smile again'; of the second at the words 'and the tears flow faster yet'. This gives each repetition a double force, contrasting bright presence with bright absence and adding tears to tears. Again, the whole song is given logical and constructional unity by the left­hand minims and right‑hand quavers, moving in solemn progres­sion through the quiet night. Yet this idea is heard in only sixteen bars out of fifty‑one. Elsewhere the accompaniment rhythm, figuration and texture are constantly varied and refined, stressing and underlining the words without ever distracting attention from the forward movement of the song as a whole.

      Such variation is a Brahmsian fingerprint. It is often hard to detect because the surface texture of the music has been so care­fully joined and polished. Thus in the dovetailing here from lone bush to shared nest the quaver accompaniment passes from right hand to left in the smoothest of transitions. Soon afterwards comes a return to the shadows; and again a minimal change of texture and register (left‑hand arpeggios) alters the whole complexion of the accompaniment. Then, as the song flows imperturbably on, the repeated chords in which the doves duet in the dew are gradually reabsorbed into the texture of the music, as that memory fades again into the surrounding darkness. This ceaselessly changing variety packs the music full of ideas, making it sound through­composed, bar by bar. The basic simplicity of melody, harmony and form is worked and developed into living complexity. We can hear the organic process, in one sense, just as Brahms described it ‑ like the germination of seed‑corn, to use his own simile. But the ground also had to be tilled and nourished with unremitting toil; and this too is often audible. The good grain sustains and delights all Brahms‑lovers; the palpable effort inherent in its cul­tivation is what his detractors hear and hate. He became and remained a master by being the servant, indeed the slave, of his art; and his songs are 'works' in the most meaningful sense. They present a fine likeness of the man; and they contain some of the world's finest masterpieces in the genre.

      One would expect from a composer of Brahms's stature that all his themes and their developments, verbal and musical, should grow and mature with the years. The contrary view is perhaps more widely held. Frank Walker and Walter Legge go so far as to say (in their perceptive notes to the famous Kipnis record album made for the Brahms Song Society formed in 1936) that 'unlike Schubert and Wolf, Brahms as a song‑writer did not develope materially in style as he grew older .... The style is essentially the same in the songs of Op. 3 or 7 as it is in the closing years of his life; there is virtually no discernible difference in manner of mental approach or technical handling between the products of the Brahms of twenty and the Brahms of sixty.' This, if true, marks him firmly down as a minor master of the Lied, on a par with Franz and Jensen. Certainly the case is a strong one, not easily rebutted. Brahms's songs do give exactly that impression. But the argument may sit more comfortably the other way round. Thus ‑ he was a great song‑writer; therefore his art developed; therefore if any of his late songs sound like early ones, a plausible explanation is that they in fact are early ones. This would require as a corollary some evidence that the songs were often drafted and then retained for polishing and further reflection, often for very long periods. Exactly this, on overwhelming evidence, was typical of Brahms in his songs as in all his work. Nothing short of perfection would do, whether it took twenty minutes or twenty years; or even if it had to be finally destroyed, as many a song was. His song‑writing, even more than his normal compositional processes, was exacting and time‑consuming, and he usually had some larger‑scale work on hand, which demanded priority. For all these reasons, Brahms at sixty was certainly publishing work written mainly in his forties or even in his twenties; and in these circumstances he could hardly fail to create the impression of lack of development.

      One sees what is meant by that criticism. The music flows always in the same channels. But these are worn not merely smoother but wider and deeper over the years, as can perhaps be shown by a series of chartings and soundings. The next two chapters seek to trace Brahms's song‑writing back to its technical and emotional sources in his musical influences and personal affections, and to follow its course up to the emergence of his mainstream song‑style. Thereafter the interest lies more in the changing landscape and climate of chosen poem and matching music; so the works of each successive song‑writing phase are considered in the following order. First come the artefacts, i.e. songs constructed from, or containing, music already written; it is in these that Brahms the craftsman is best observed. Then come the love‑songs grave or gay; these are the heart of the music, and they tell us much about Brahms the man. The serious love‑songs seem to be mainly linked with Clara Schumann in their musical or poetic themes; and their prevailing mood is one of tender reverence. But even they pass through a phase of sensuality; and there is always a continuing strain of ironical or worldly songs. Gravity and gaiety alike lead through frustration and despair to the same sad final outcome, in disillusion or dissolution. Hence there is a third category of songs where words and music alike sing of escape and release, whether into the realms of nature, nostalgia, or death.

       Of course the prevailing emotional climate changes with the year and the season. Naturally too the proposed classifications are not exclusive; the music is often at its most intense when two or more of these ideas coincide. Similarly they vary in their modes of presentation, from the salon song to the folksong. But these categories if not exclusive are exhaustive. Each original song Brahms wrote for solo voice and piano will occur at least once in such an analysis. Thus presented, they seem to tell in both words and music a clear story of youth, manhood, maturity and age, illustrative of progressively keener insights, deeper feelings, finer craftsmanship.

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