The Other Voice of Johannes Brahms

By Leon Botstein

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

As the centennial year marking the death of Johannes Brahms comes to a close, it is to be hoped that our appreciation for the remarkable range of Brahms’s character and music has deepened, as well as our understanding of his complex and changing role in the history of Western music. During his own lifetime, Brahms was maneuvered into a position as the antipode of Wagner, when in fact Brahms was among Wagner’s most earnest admirers. He was profoundly impressed by Wagner’s genius and craft. Indeed, Richard Heuberger, composer, critic, and disciple of Brahms, reported that Brahms held two works of dramatic music in particular regard: Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro and Wagner’s Die Meistersinger. Brahms’s objection to Wagner was more directed at the cult, the personality, and the man, than at the composer. Two works on this afternoon’s program, Rinaldo and Triumphlied, hint at Brahms’s awareness of Wagner’s musical influence. However, Brahms’s admiration for Wagner’s dramatic music did not stop him from being cast as the arch-conservative and the proponent of so-called “absolute” music.

Before World War II, Arnold Schoenberg wrote a seminal essay entitled “Brahms the Progressive,” which inspired a new direction of interest in Brahms. He was heralded as the prophet of modernism and given credit for extending the techniques of classical style–particularly in the transformation and elaboration of thematic material–in ways which served as models for the innovative strategies of the Second Viennese School. The Wagnerian path, in which music was subordinated to a narrative framework and where repetition thinly camouflaged by the magic of extended harmonies led to a musical aesthetic of lavish neo-Romanticism, was unfavorably contrasted to the economy, density, and essential integrity of Brahms’s music.

More recently, a third image of Brahms has come into being. Modern scholars see Brahms as mirroring the deepest paradoxes of the nineteenth century. In many ways, Brahms was terrifyingly conscious of the weight of history. In him we may see an artist who responded with intense self-doubt to the facile claims of progress that marked nineteenth-century politics and historical theory. If Reinhold Brinkmann, writing in the 1990s, has linked Brahms to the idea of melancholy, the German critic and pedagogue Louis Ehlert made precisely the same point in 1880. It is one of Brahms’s singular achievements that his music can seem to satisfy those content with sentimentality as well as those in search of a Mahler-like recognition of the bittersweet and ironic. Our contemporary image of Brahms is of the philosophical musician, in whose works we hear, as the composer Mauricio Kagel once noted, the spirit of the Tragic Overture and the Academic Festival Overture simultaneously. Affirmation and doubt stand side by side in a way that is singularly compelling to a modern sensibility in which faith and sincerity seem extinct.

All of these images of Brahms contain some, but not all, of the truth; they demonstrated how resistant he has been historically to definitive assessments. Today’s program therefore seeks to complicate his legacy further by considering yet another aspect of Brahms’s life and achievement. Of all nineteenth-century European composers, Brahms was perhaps the most intensely curious and well-read. For all of Wagner’s penchant for writing prose works and delivering himself of opinions in writing, a cursory glance at the library of Brahms inspires awe and wonder. He once boasted as a young man that he spend all his money on books. The worlds of literature, philosophy, and art history were dear to him. In Brahms the composer, therefore, one always encounters Brahms the reader, and while few of his works carry an overt program, it is rewarding to consider what Brahms was thinking about in matters literary and philosophical when he wrote music. If indeed the two towering figures in late nineteenth-century music were Brahms and Wagner, perhaps the greatest contrast lies in Brahms’s personal integrity, his resistance to anti-Semitism, his determined association with progressive voices in his own time, particularly in Vienna, as opposed to the dishonest, spiteful, and racist fulmination of Wagner the poseur, that object of Nietzsche’s vitriolic reassessment.

Of Brahms’s often performed music, the most familiar is his chamber music, where intimacy, subtlety, and spiritual complexity are perhaps most appropriately expressed. The symphonies and concertos which are part of the standard repertory have been properly judged as works of chamber music writ large. Their scale emerges as the outgrowth of smaller constituent elements and gestures. There is very little in Brahms that is overtly theatrical, grandiose, or pretentious. Even the allure of Ein deutsches Requiem, for example, rests in Brahms’s ability to transform the evident monumentality of the sound into an intimate experiences for each listener. The works on this afternoon’s program are no different in this sense, but they have not shared the same popularity or favor as the composer’s other works.

But the rarity of these works in no way reflects upon their artistic value. Brahms’s acute self-criticism led him to destroy a great deal of unpublished music about six years before his death. Unlike other major figures in the history of music, there is probably no second-rate Brahms; in fact one suspects that Brahms was perhaps too rash. It is therefore not entirely accurate to identify these works as “lesser” Brahms, despite their relative obscurity in his canon. All three works date from the late 1860s, after Brahms permanently moved to Vienna. Although he lived in the city for over thirty years, he never identified himself with Vienna the way its native-born citizens did. He remained an outsider, a north German and a Protestant who was viewed with suspicion by many Viennese intellectuals, politicians, and musicians. He enjoyed the popular music of the city and he developed a close friendship with Johann Strauss the younger, whose music Brahms loved and admired. (There is a famous anecdote about Brahms’s writing out on a fan the opening notes to the “Blue Danube” Waltz with the phrase, “Alas, not by Brahms”.) Brahms’s alienation was further defined by political events. The Prussian victory in the Franco-Prussian War and the creation of a German empire, for example, was not an entirely welcome event in the Habsburg Empire, since Austria had been defeated in 1866 by the Prussians. Yet Brahms was delighted, as Frank Wedekind (a devoted admirer and author of Lulu) later immortalized in a 1909 play. Furthermore, in an age of burgeoning nationalism, sections of the German-speaking population of the multi-national Habsburg Empire began to dream of breaking away and becoming part of an All-German empire under Prussian leadership. From 1870 on, the political climate in which Brahms lived and worked in Vienna became increasingly divisive and strident.

The Song of Triumph is less known not because of its failings as a work of music, but because of its synthesis of political and religious sentiments. In the wake of two world wars, it is understandable that an unabashed celebration of a militarily powerful and unified Germany as a act associated with a Protestant theology would fall on unsympathetic ears in the English-speaking world. Likewise, Rinaldo is a text twice removed from the consciousness of audiences in America and England. Tasso’s and Ariosto’s epic romances have not been widely read in America or England since the eighteenth century and Goethe’s reworking has had no place in his English-language canon, insofar as there is one beyond Faust. Furthermore, the sound of Rinaldo–the reliance on male choir and solo tenor–has associations with the male choral societies of nineteenth-century Europe and America, a forgotten tradition closely related to German musical culture. At the beginning of this century the German-speaking men’s choral association in Buffalo proudly held the same toot as the prestigious Vienna men’s choral society: “Free and loyal in song and deed.” The Liebeslieder Walzer are of course among the most well-known of Brahms’s works, but are rarely performed in this arrangement by the composer. The orchestration of the waltzes is a fine example of how Brahms can easily retain the integrity of the scale of the waltzes while making elegant use of the wide range of sound available in a full orchestra.

The reception of works of music should not remain frozen in history; it takes time to vindicate works of music, to allow neglected masterpieces to emerge from the weight of historically contingent prejudices. The failure of Triumphlied and Rinaldo to become as well known and popular as they deserve can be largely attributed to matters of politics. The fin de siécle generation already in Brahms’s lifetime–not to speak of the generation that came of age at the turn of the century–found what they regarded to be the ideology of these works to be either foreign or unattractive. Additionally, a work like Rinaldo, Brahms’s closest effort at operation and dramatic music, complicates the neat polarity between Brahmsian absolute music and Wagnerian programmatic music. The anomaly of Rinaldo as well as the politics of the Triumphlied made these works increasingly obscure as the twentieth century wore on. But as the century finally draws to a close and we enter a second hundred years of engagement with the music of Brahms, these two neglected major works ought to take their rightful place. We may now take the opportunity to discover the power and beauty of these works, if only to enhance further our picture of this great musician and thinker to whom so many concerts have been dedicated in 1997.

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.

Rinaldo (1869)

By John Daverio, Boston University, 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.

Rinaldo is among the largest of Brahms’s works for vocal and orchestral forces. Indeed, only Ein deutsches Requiem surpasses it in length and breadth. Conceived early in the summer of 1863 as an entry in a competition sponsored by the Aachen Liedertafel, the cantata was not completed until June 1868. Although details regarding its genesis are sadly lacking, we can infer from Brahms’s correspondence that after a period of intense absorption in the project his interest waned. Moreover, the closing chorus seems to have given him some difficulties; most probably he drafted an earlier version all traces of which have vanished.

For his text Brahms turned to Goethe, whose Rinaldo dates from 1811 and was intended from the start as a dramatic scena for musical setting. Goethe in turn drew upon an episode from Tasso’s heroic-allegorical epic of the Crusades, Gerusalemme liberata, in which the knight Rinaldo is spirited away to the enchanted isle of the sorceress Armida. As Tasso recounts this adventure, the knight’s comrades set off to retrieve their friends, and, after exorcising Armida’s magical spell, they witness the enchantress’s vengeful destruction of her luxurious domain. Goethe picks up the narrative thread at this juncture, but in his poem Armida’s magic is not quite dispelled; it remains a potent and nagging force in the memory of the hapless Rinaldo, who rejoins his fellow knights only after persistent coaxing. The tale had obvious autobiographical resonance for Brahms, whose painful break with the young Agathe von Siebold in 1859 brought to the surface a conflict between love and duty that persisted throughout the 1860s.

To judge from the reaction of the musical press, the Viennese premiere of Rinaldo on February 28, 1869, with the composer conducting, was a success. Not every listener, however, was enthusiastic. Clara Schumann, for one, doubted whether the new cantata was a worthy successor to the Requiem. Reviewing an 1833 performance, Eduard Hanslick found Brahms’s musical portrayal of the title character devoid of passion. Nor has posterity been kind to Rinaldo: it has been shunted to the periphery of the Brahms canon. In part, the work’s inability to obtain a stronghold in the repertory can be ascribed to the vagaries of reception history. An informed reaction to the cantata is predicated not only on an understanding of its text, but also on a familiarity with the sixteenth-century epic on which Goethe based his poem; while Brahms may have assumed that at least some among his elitist, bourgeois audience knew the earlier text, such an assumption cannot be made today.

Even more crucial for our understanding of the work is a sense for the context in which it was written. For some writers, Brahms’s contacts with Wagner and the members of his circle in the early 1860s constitute a significant aspect of this context. Hanslick was not alone in drawing a connections between Rinaldo‘s enthrallment to Armida and Tannhäuser‘s languishing in the arms of Venus. Later commentators have also noted a Wagnerian quality in the declamatory passages of Rinaldo‘s two arias and in Brahms’s placement of the motivic substance in the orchestra during these passages. But Brahms proved to be a highly imperfect Wagnerian. Rinaldo owes just as much to Beethoven’s Fidelio and Schubert’s incompletely preserved cantata Lazarus as it does to Wagner.

Rinaldo should also be viewed against the background of the aesthetic of opera that Brahms evolved during his frustrating search for a suitable operatic subject, a search extending from the late 1860s through the early 1880s. It is clear from his letters and comments to friends that the Mozartean number opera represented something of an ideal, and that depth of musical content meant more to him than mere theatrical effect. Yet it may come as a surprise that many of the texts Brahms considered for operatic treatment–including Carlo Gozzi’s Love for Three Oranges–place supernatural or magical elements in bold relief. These qualities in turn resonate with the textual themes of Rinaldo.

Finally, Brahms’s attitude toward the musical realization of epic-dramatic texts was decisively shaped by Schumann. Throughout his career he maintained only the highest regard for his mentor’s settings of seven scenes from Goethe’s Faust and his melodramatic treatment of Byron’s Manfred. In these works Schumann’s approach was guided by two chief concerns: fidelity to the original literary source, and the musical reflection of the text’s dramaturgy. These factors figure prominently in Brahms’s Rinaldo.

As we have observed, Goethe gave a new slant to his poetic source. The struggle between duty to a cause and sensual pleasure in Tasso’s poem is enriched, in Goethe’s retelling, by a pair of interrelated themes: the notion that memory could be powerful enough to call up a vision of what Baudelaire later called an artificial paradise, and the conviction that the recognition of this vision as a chimera would result in a striking transformation of character. In keeping with his Schumann-inspired aesthetic, Brahms responded sensitively to both themes.

He projects the allurements of Armida’s artificial paradise through a variety of textural and tonal means. Rinaldo’s hallucinatory vision of the enchantress’s realm is associated with orchestral colors dominated by the upper winds and at times supported by pizzicato strings. The otherworldliness of this vision is further underscored by the often tortuous chromaticism of Rinaldo’s vocal lines, and by the fluid modulations by thirds that pervade his arias. In contrast, Brahms characterizes the “real” world of the knights through mellow brass sonorities, chorale-like or imitative textures, and a predominantly tonal idiom.

Equally compelling is Brahms’s reaction to the intertwined themes of memory and transformation, poetic conceits that find musical complements in the techniques of motivic recall and elaboration. The cantata’s principal musical idea, a finely spun-out line presented at the outset, accrues referential meaning only gradually. When heard in conjunction with Rinaldo’s opening words (“Ihr ward so schön”), it functions as a sonic metaphor for the image of Armida and her realm preserved in the hero’s memory. But when, in the concluding section of his second aria, Rinaldo sees the enchantress as a she-devil and her artificial paradise as a wasteland, his hallucination calls forth a stunning series of transformations in the musical idea: E-flat major is displaced by C minor; instead of pastoral winds we have the storm and stress of angry orchestral outbursts; and wrenching chromaticism imparts a gruesome character to the gentle dips and curves of the original melody. The melodic alterations of the main theme have a counterpart in the harmonic reinterpretations that articulate the moment of dramatic reversal, when Rinaldo views the image of his moral decay as reflected in the diamond shield. The auratic quality of the passage is ensured by distant brass fanfares and a long-held D sharp fanned out over four octaves in the strings. Rinaldo, however, “misreads” the pedal tone as a C sharp, causing the music to shift from the prevailing D flat tonality to a languid F-sharp minor.

This tonal dislocation is am emblem for the pain experienced by the her as he passes from a dream-state to consciousness of the harsh realities of the actual world. Rinaldo’s pain persists in varying forms until the end of the work: it can be heard in the plangent strains of his second aria and, soon thereafter, in his minor-mode echoes of the chorus’s consoling phrases (“Unglücklicher Reise! Unseliger Wind!”). The wounds acquired through the destruction of an illusion, Brahms seems to say, are never entirely healed.

Triumphlied (1871)

By Daniel Beller-McKenna, University of South Carolina, 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 composed this “German Te Deum” in 1870-71 during the patriotic fervor of the Prussian military victory over France and the subsequent establishment of a long awaited Kaiserreich under Prince Wilhelm I of Prussia. Like Ein deutsches Requiem, the Triumphlied is a multi-movement setting of biblical texts for chorus, soloist, and orchestra, and the two works form a distinct pair in Brahms’s sacred music. Brahms drew the text of the Triumphlied from Revelation, Chapter 19, the principal apocalyptic book of the Bible. By choosing this text-source to celebrate the apocalyptic turn of events of 1871, Brahms connected Op. 55 to a central vein of German thought since the French Revolution. Infused with a new religious enthusiasm in the early decades of the century and coupled with a generation of Romantic thinkers who were steeped (and often trained) in theology, Germans came to anticipate the arrival of a unified German nation along biblical, apocalyptic lines. In the aftermath of the French reign of terror and Napoleon’s conquest of Europe around the turn of the century, the re-establishment of a German Reich was anticipated as a messianic arrival. All of these events fit perfectly within the eschatological framework of apocalyptic writing in the Bible. According to such thinking at that time, the State was the ultimate and positive manifestation of the new Kingdom.

If the Requiem subtly represents an individually centered Germanic mode of expression, the Triumphlied is its public counterpart, bringing any nationalistic undertones in the earlier work completely to the surface. A gradual emergence of the public voice can be traced through the works for chorus and orchestra with which Brahms occupied himself from the time he completed the Op. 45 in 1868 to the completion of Op. 55 in 1872. In between, the Alto Rhapsody, Op. 53 (1869) once more displays an individual perspective epitomized by the solo voice, while the Schicksalslied, Op. 54, is decidedly communal and (much more than his sacred works per se) “universal” in expression. Perhaps it is the blatant expression of what can only be sensed in the Requiem that has consigned the Triumphlied to second-class status among Brahms’s works. For despite the disfavor into which the Triumphlied has fallen in this century, the work was very well received and continued to be performed regularly during Brahms’s lifetime, often in the presence and to the great satisfaction of its composer. Most observers, including those in the Brahms circle, recognized Op. 55 as a sister work to Op. 45, as a Deutches Te Deum to match Ein deutsches Requiem. Brahms premiered the first movement (at that point the only one completed) on Good Friday, April 7, 1871, in the Bremen Cathedral along with the first complete, seven-movement performance of the Requiem there, conditions that were certain to draw parallels between the two works. Moreover, this concert consisting of Brahms’s Requiem and what at that time was labeled “Sacred Song of Triumph” was held “in memory of those who fell in the war,” a designation that automatically linked the two pieces and cemented their national significance. The reaction of critics to Op. 55 are especially interesting in this respect. In addition to lauding the work’s musical characteristics, they frequently cite it as an example of “Christian” art, a positive counterpart to Op. 45, while barely mentioning its relevance to current political events. Thus, our modern understanding of the Triumphlied strictly as an “occasional” piece ought to be tempered by its initial reception as a primarily religious work.

There is no evidence to suggest that Brahms pre-selected or pondered the text of the Triumphlied as he had for the Requiem, and as he would for all of his later biblical settings. Rather, it is likely that the passages from Revelation 19 were compiled spontaneously following the beginning of the Franco-Prussian war. Thus this work began as a reflexive act of patriotism and exposes Brahms’s core affinity to the political and military agenda of Bismarck’s Germany.

In Op. 55, Brahms produces not only the massive sounds one would expect in a national celebratory work of art, but also an aura of populist democracy that nineteenth-century commentators commonly associated with Handel’s oratorios (in direct comparison to the more individualistic utterances of Bach). And by extension, the choral writing in the Triumphlied sounds more Beethovenian than any other Brahms choral work, a similarity that probably owes to Beethoven’s own high esteem for Handel. Although the Beethovenian sound of Op. 55 is not grounded in quotation or allusion per se, the acceleration into the animato closing section in the D major first movement (mm.183ff.) with its strong syncopations and resounding unison A’s illustrate its affinity with the D major conclusion of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Likewise, in the middle of the Triumphlied‘s third movement (mm.71ff.), the ascending diminished-chord arpeggios at the words “and he trampled the winepress of almighty God’s fierce wrath” evoke the sprech leise passage in the Prisoners’ Chorus from Act I of Fidelio.

As with works like Beethoven’s choral symphony and opera, Brahms’s Triumphlied probably requires the visceral effect of a live performance to be fairly judged and appreciated. Given the work’s disfavor in this century (a circumstance that merely accentuates the work’s poor reputation, deserved or not), listeners are fortunate this afternoon to have such a rare opportunity.