Alto-Rhapsodie, op. 53

A facsimile of the autograph score, ed. by Walter Frisch; The New York Public Library


As his choice of song-texts shows, Brahms had a special fondness for mothers and daughters and their confidential conversations; he was also much obsessed with thoughts of isolation, exclusion and loneliness. At the confluence of all these highly personal feelings we find the Alto Rhapsody of 1869, inspired by his frustratingly divisive love for Clara Schumann and her twenty-three-year-old daughter Julie. Neither was for him; he always remained the longing loner, the sad outsider. To attain the intense verbal inwardness he needed; Brahms gutted Goethe's obscure elegy of ostracism Harzreise im Winter. The three stanzas thus arbitrarily excerpted are far more self-expressive than self-explanatory; their abrupt beginning, for example, "But who is this to one side?", must be music's most perplexing plunge in medias res. So here is a work much in need of commentary, with a manuscript long overdue for illumination. The only extant autograph belongs to the New York Public Library, which issued this facsimile edition as part of the 150th Brahms anniversary celebrations. Its forty-four clearly reproduced pages, with the various touches of pen, pencil and crayon well-defined and differentiated, are augmented by two sketch leaves from a Vienna collection and prefaced 'by a twenty-page account of the work's genesis, structure and sources, together with a technical description of the manuscript.

     Such publications make masterpieces doubly accessible, by reproduction and by commentary. They also provide a show-case for the display of modem musicology. Walter Frisch has provided an exemplary model of what needs to be said and how to say it. That makes the occasional slight blemishes all the more unfortunate. Goethe's text is inadequately translated (among other infelicities, "ward" is "became" rather than "was", and "vernehmlich" is just "audible", not "pleasing") and inaccurately punctuated. Commas may seem small points; but fifty dollars is a tidy sum. For that money, we might also have been told that not only the first four but the last four notes of "ach, wer heilet die Schmerzen" are a thematic transformation of the opening motif. Again, the adagio melody is not just used as the chaconne bass of the Neue Liebeslieder finale but also sung there, surely with a deliberate verbal and personal significance well worth elucidating. In genera[, though, the essential tasks of promulgation and exegesis are definitively discharged by this edition, which other learned libraries should follow in every sense.


Times Literary Supplement, Oct. 1984 (p. 1226) © the estate of eric sams