The Songs of Johannes Brahms, Yale 2000

Yale, 2000, [pp. xii, 370; ISBN 0 300 07962 1]

Foreword by Graham Johnson

This is the most eagerly awaited book on lieder to be published in recent times. For twenty years there have been rumours of a 'Brahms' to complement the Sams Wolf and Schumann; indeed, it was beginning to seem a chimera as elusive and legendary as Proust's long-promised chef-d'oeuvre. 

There was a tantalizing foretaste in the shape of a BBC Music Guide of 1972, but this was a summary of the plot rather than the complete novel. The question 'Aimez-vous Brahms? Sag an' was left hanging in the air ... Here is the answer at last, a resounding 'yes' from op. 3 to op. 121, and well worth the wait. It is enough to say that the book is a fit companion for the others; like those masterpieces (it was Gerald Moore who described The Songs of Hugo Wolf as such in his preface of 1961) this study will systematically open up a great composer's song-output to the deeper understanding of countless music lovers. And the book's long gestation has turned out, in the end, to be for the best. Twenty years ago Brahms still suffered from many an anti-Victorian put-down (I heard Walter Legge refer to him as 'Holy Joe' and Benjamin Britten once called him 'Silly old Brahms'). Since then, new scholarship (one thinks of Malcolm MacDonald and Styra Avins) has given him back his rightful stature in the English speaking world; this book appears as a timely and important part of that continuing re-evaluation.

    The writing welcomes the enthusiast without excluding the beginner, a kindliness which is typical of the author, despite his uncompromising integrity and intellect. These latter qualities, whilst indispensable, have led to many a didactic disquisition on this subject which is dry as dust. Dry is hardly the word for this beautifully flowing and playful prose, ever-allusive because that is what the lied itself is. And dry is not the word for Sams himself who is never ashamed to shed a tear with the music, and who is at one with the public in their amazement at a musical miracle. There is no one-upmanship in Eric Sams the writer on lieder (he reserves his battling for the skirmishes of Shakespeare studies); simultaneously 'Germanist' and English patriot, he is our most knowledgeable guide at the enchanted nineteenth-century crossroads where word intersects with music, but he is not much taken by present-day geography. 'What he loves, with an affection unsullied by modern-day reality, are the enchanted realms of Märchen and yes, Lieder. Sams's Germany is untouched by twentieth‑century conflicts, and the reputations of his composer‑heroes are impervious to the fluctuations of the Frank­furt stock exchange. Thus, despite his fathomless knowledge of another language and literature, his feet remain securely on English‑speaking soil; he understands how his fellow music‑lovers may be drawn to this music, heart and soul, without being able to quote chapter and verse. And here he helpfully intercedes, never at a loss as a gentleman‑prophet with, now, three books which constitute the lieder lover's Bible. The wisdom therein is various: it is lucid enough for the layman, and detailed and challenging enough for the most seasoned scholar.

    The Songs of Johannes Brahms is cunningly organized so that singers, ever in a hurry, may consult one song at a time for a quick fix, while the serious Brahmsian can explore with relish the notes after each song (these are the fruit of a lifetime's gathering of knowledge), the admirable poets' appendix, or the bibliography. For me, the two prefatory chapters are the purest and most valuable Sams. As in his book on Schumann, he adumbrates a list of motifs ‑ tonal analogues for verbal ideas, which shows how the mind of the composer worked when it came to find­ing appropriate and apposite music for the poets' imagery. This section may at first seem over‑fanciful, or heavy‑going; you can ignore it and still learn more here about the Brahms songs than anywhere else. But I am convinced that Sams's reputation as a great song scholar will not rest solely on the felicities of his descriptive prose: here is an ordered attempt to get inside the very mind of a great composer and to understand how the Brahmsian creative process, just like that of his mentor‑model Schumann, was governed by the magic of what Schumann, in his Carnaval, called 'Lettres dansantes'. This section of the book, and its equiva­lent in The Songs of Robert Schumann, are nothing less than spell‑binding: here are the secrets behind the various alchemies (decoded by Sams after decades of thought) used by those masters to help them to release words from the printed page and transform them into tones both golden and significant.

    When we listen to the music of Brahms we often hear in it a depth of emotion which seems too profound to explain; it takes the mind of a Sams to lay bare the layers of secret meaning which make up the complex weave of these great songs. The deciphering of each palimpsest in sound is accompanied by a profound and imaginative sympathy for Brahms's own buried feelings; where else but on page twenty of this very book would we read of a documented incident where the composer, in conversation with a friend, identifies the notes on which frogs croak, followed by Sams's observation that those very notes constitute the musical letters of the composer's name, and that in certain works the lonely composer, like the fairy‑tale prince, is trying to tell us that he, too, had long croaked unkissed? This scholarship is fabelhaft in every sense of the word.

    The inter‑relationship of word and tone is a discipline that confuses both the musicologists pur sang, and the literary scholars. Thus it is that the skills of an Eric Sams or of a Susan Youens, which seem to me outrageously under‑rewarded, are hard to place within conventional academe. On the concert platform, however, they are the very breath of life; an understanding of why and how that text goes with this music releases, like nothing else, the communicative power of singer and pianist. The universities should have given Eric Sams a chair, but their loss hasbeen practical music making's gain. I hereby nominate him for a piano stool, an honorary seat at any concert hall he cares to visit, but even this is not really his milieu. Although he regularly supports his performing friends and colleagues, listening to recitals has never been at the core of Sams's song gathering. Home is where the art is, and the lied began in the home as a domestic form. Countless evenings in Surrey have been spent around the piano playing and singing songs so that his sons (especially the famous Jeremy) have a vast knowledge of everything from Schubert to The Geisha and Billy Mayerl. This juxtaposition is typical of the lack of pretentiousness that one only finds in the homes of the greatest experts. And throughout his life Sams has been amiably accessible to anyone who loves the same things - information, advice, translations have poured out of his home, and the enquiries of the great Walter Legge and of the most humble student have been treated with equal courtesy.

    In the early 1970s, at a party following a colleague's recital, I found myself talking to a man who seemed to be interested in my views on Wolf. I was a recent enough convert to the lied but counted myself well-informed. He seemed to want to know my opinion on this and that and, to my shame, I gave it. Then he asked me something about Wolf and Wagner, and at last I had to acknowledge my limitations - 'You'd have to ask Eric Sams about that,' I said. 'That's not very helpful' he replied 'You see, I am Eric Sams.' It was thus that I first met the man who has shaped my thinking about music as much as Gerald Moore, Peter Pears, Pierre Bernac and other masters at whose feet I have been privileged to sit. This does not mean that Eric and I have talked much over the years about pianistic or vocal technicalities, fingering, arm-weight or breath-control. Instead, we have endlessly discussed the ideas behind the music and the way that a handful of great composers was able to illuminate poetry with a truth and aptness that gives wings to the soul and brings tears to the eyes. We have cried together, and laughed even more, often uproariously. But each time I telephoned him I felt that I was taking him away from his 'Brahms'. I almost certainly was - that is if he was not engaged with Shakespeare who is a Samsian hero, I suspect, because he wrote plays with a mindset similar to that of a great lieder composer. So I (and the hundreds of others who knew they could always 'ask Eric') have an apology to make to the public for the delay of this book, among others. In the absence of a 'Schubert' (the next task, I hope) this 'Brahms' will do more than nicely.

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