Liebeslieder Walzer (1869)

By. David Brodbeck, University of Pittsburg, Contributor, The Compleat Brahms

Written for the concert The Other Voice of Johannes Brahms, performed on Nov 30, 1997 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Brahms’s three sets of waltzes celebrate a predominantly Schubertian heritage. Indeed, each of these works–Op. 39 for four-hand piano, as well as the Liebeslieder Walzer, Op 52, and Neue Liebeslieder Walzer, Op. 65, for piano duet and vocal quartet–plays an integral role in a kind of “Schubert project” that occupied the composer during his first decade in Vienna. Brahms edited a number of Schubert’s unpublished compositions at this time, including, among other works, one book of 12 Ländler in 1864 (D. 790) and a second of 20 Ländler in May 1869 (D. 366 and 814). To each he quickly responded with a cycle of his own making–the Op. 39 Waltzes in January 1865 and the Op. 52 Liebeslieder (marked, tellingly, “Im Ländler-Tempo”) in August 1869. Two years later Brahms considered editing a third group of Schubert dances. Although this project came to nothing, the composer’s imagination was once more sparked, and by 1874, the Neue Liebeslieder–some of which date back to the time of Op. 52–had been completed.

For all their Schubertian background, however, the two sets of vocal waltzes reflect a more contemporary source of influence as well. From time to time Brahms drew inspiration from the Waltz King himself, Johann Strauss Jr. Thus, “Am Donaustrande, da steht ein Haus,” Op. 52, No. 9, seems indebted to the beloved “Blue Danube” Waltz, not only for its essential imagery, but perhaps for certain musical details as well.

Although Brahms conceived of the Liebeslieder as pieces of genuine Hausmusik–he described them as such when sending the manuscript of the first book to his publisher Simrock in the summer of 1869–he nevertheless teased the latter with the possibility of adapting some of the numbers for “small choir and orchestra” and so (in the manner of Strauss) making some “pretty concert numbers.” It was not until January 1870, however, owing to friendly pressure from Ernst Rudorff of the Berlin Hochschule, that Brahms actually set about orchestrating some of the pieces, joining eight dances from Op. 52 with a ninth that would later appear in Op. 65. Rudorff performed the suite with great success in Berlin on March 19, 1870, employing a quartet of solo singers (as Brahms had now requested) rather than a small choir (as the composer had originally conceived). Reporting to Brahms on this triumph, Rudorff encouraged his friend to take up his pen once more and to publish the entire Op. 52 cycle in a purely orchestral dress. For his part, Brahms not only had no inclination to do so, but after trying out the suite himself in Budapest with both soloists and choir, lost interest in the orchestral version altogether, which remained unpublished until 1938.

In view of the large number of dances contained within the original Op. 52 set, it is not surprising that Brahms struggled over matters of order and arrangement. Surviving manuscripts and other documents show that in some cases the question of the sequence of the eighteen dances and even their keys remained unsettled until it was time to go to press, and that at once time or another Brahms considered releasing the collections in either two or three separate books before finally settling on an undivided plan. Still, most adjoining dances are in closely related keys, and some waltzes share significant harmonic and motivic material. Brahms’s arrangements thus yield continuity between adjacent dances, coherence within larger units, and closure for each complete cycle. These features are apparent, too, in the shorter orchestral suite. On the basis of both mood and character and tonal relationships, the nine dances cohere into three groups: 1) Op. 52, Nos. 1, 2, 4, 5; 2) Op. 65, No. 9 and Op. 52, No. 11; and 3) Op. 52,Nos. 8, 9, and 6. (At some later point, the suite was reordered slightly, with the removal of Op. 52, No. 9 to a position between Op. 52, Nos. 4 and 5.) Rudorff clearly sensed this latent tripartite form, and in his Berlin performance, as he explained to Brahms, he made pauses only after the fourth and sixth numbers.

The texts of the Liebeslieder are East European folk poems in translations by Georg Friedrich Daumer. As we might expect, Brahms’s settings are hardly the “trifles” described by their self-effacing composer in a note to Simrock. True, the first piece (“Rede, Mädchen”) begins simply, with “oom-pah-pah” vamping. But the music rapidly becomes more sophisticated, as Brahms eschews literal repetition–a hallmark of popular Music–in favor of continual variation. Most striking, perhaps, is the return of the original tune in free inversion twice later in the piece, with corresponding changes in the counterpoint of the accompaniment. The first waltz thus contains within itself a striking contrast between popular and art music, and throughout the rest of the work these opposing forces are played out with a sure hand.

The Liebeslieder Walzer, in short, are quintessential Brahms. Though their charm may derive in part from the contrast in which they stand to his work as a whole, their eternal freshness stems from technique refined in larger forms. As Ernest Newman, the British critics and Wagner biographer put it, “had Brahms never been stretched to the tension of such works as the C-minor Symphony and the Requiem, he could never have relaxed to the charm of the waltzes.” This image tells a familiar story–of an uncompromising composer who brought the highest artistic sensibilities to every expression of his muse.