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ClassicsOnline Home » BRAHMS, J.: Choral Music (Wolak, Warsaw Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra, Wit)
Brahms’s first connection with choral music came in 1857, and his first appointment in Vienna, in 1863, was to conduct the Singakademie. He premièred A German Requiem in the city and wrote widely for choral forces, taking a variety of poetic source material. Begräbnisgesang (Funeral Hymn) evinces a great feeling of solemnity, whilst Schicksalslied (Song of Destiny) is an urgent, volatile work. Nänie was written as a lament for the death of the painter Anselm Feuerbach, and the Alto Rhapsody has remained one of the greatest works for contralto in the repertoire.
By William Kreindler
Johannes Brahms (1833–1897)
Alto Rhapsody, Op. 53 • Ave Maria, Op. 12 • Begräbnisgesang, Op. 13 • Schicksalslied, Op. 54 • Nänie, Op. 82 • Gesang der Parzen, Op. 89
Johannes Brahms was born in Hamburg in 1833, the son of a double-bass player and his much older wife, a seamstress. His childhood was spent in relative poverty, and his early studies in music, for which he showed a natural aptitude, developed his talent to such an extent that there was talk of touring as a prodigy at the age of eleven. It was Eduard Marxsen who gave him a grounding in the technical basis of composition, while the boy helped his family by playing the piano in places of entertainment.
In 1851 Brahms met the émigré Hungarian violinist Reményi, who introduced him to Hungarian dance music that had a later influence on his work. Two years later he set out in his company on his first concert tour, their journey taking them, on the recommendation of the Hungarian violinist Joachim, to Weimar, where Franz Liszt held court and might have been expected to show particular favour to a fellow-countryman. Reményi profited from the visit, but Brahms, with a lack of tact that was later accentuated, failed to impress the Master. Later in the year, however, he met the Schumanns, through Joachim’s agency. The meeting was a fruitful one.
In 1850 Schumann had taken up the offer from the previous incumbent, Ferdinand Hiller, of the position of municipal director of music in Düsseldorf. Now in the music of Brahms he detected a promise of greatness and published his views in the journal he had once edited, the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, declaring Brahms the long-awaited successor to Beethoven. In the following year Schumann, who had long suffered from intermittent periods of intense depression, attempted suicide. His final years, until his death in 1856, were to be spent in an asylum, while Brahms rallied to the support of Schumann’s wife, the gifted pianist Clara Schumann, and her young family, remaining a firm friend until her death in 1896, shortly before his own in the following year.
Brahms had always hoped that sooner or later he would be able to return in triumph to a position of distinction in the musical life of Hamburg. This ambition was never fulfilled. Instead he settled in Vienna, intermittently from 1863 and definitively in 1869, establishing himself there and seeming to many to fulfil Schumann’s early prophecy. In him his supporters, including, above all, the distinguished critic and writer Eduard Hanslick, saw a true successor to Beethoven and a champion of pure music untrammelled by extra-musical associations, as opposed to the Music of the Future promoted by Wagner and Liszt, a path to which Joachim and Brahms both later publicly expressed their opposition.
Brahms had a varied connection with choral singing. In short autumn seasons at the court of Detmold he had conducted a choir in 1857, 1858 and 1859 and in the last of these years he had established in Hamburg a women’s choir, the Hamburg Frauenchor, formed by enthusiastic members of the Akademie choir directed by his friend Karl Grädener. In addition to the regular Monday morning meetings of the larger Frauenchor, Brahms also involved himself with a smaller group, who held evening meetings. His first appointment in Vienna, in 1863, was as conductor of the Singakademie, reviving the fortunes of the choir in a repertoire that ranged from unfashionable music of the Renaissance to that of Beethoven and Schumann and compositions by Brahms himself. He was offered a three-year extension of his agreement with the Singakademie, but resigned in 1864. Nevertheless, in 1872 he took up the position of director of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde. This involved him in work with the most distinguished of the large choirs in Vienna. For three seasons he was able to offer a varied and innovative choral and orchestral repertoire, including some of his own major choral compositions, most notably his masterpiece, A German Requiem.
The setting made by Brahms of the Ave Maria, Op. 12, was composed in September 1858 at Göttingen, designed originally for women’s choir with organ accompaniment. He made use of it the following year in Hamburg at the Michaeliskirche, its performance marking the start of the Hamburg Frauenchor. It is a work of gentle simplicity in a lilting 6/8 Andante, with the traditional text abbreviated by the omission of the final phrase.
Brahms’s Begräbnisgesang (Funeral Hymn) was written in the same year and scored for five-part choir, soprano, alto, tenor and two basses, the second partnered by the bassoon where it diverges from the first bass part. Brahms had originally used lower strings, but the final version is for pairs of oboes, clarinets, bassoons and horns, with three trombones, tuba and timpani, scoring that allows the work to be performed outdoors. The sixteenth-century text is by Michael Weiße, a former Franciscan, who joined the Moravian Brethren, for whom he compiled a hymn-book. It has recently been suggested by Jürgen Neubauer that the opening bars conceal the letters of Clara Schumann’s name, in German letter notation C-[D]-Es-[D]-H (C-[D]-E flat-[D]-B). From a letter from Clara Schumann to Brahms it is clear that she took the work as a reference to her feelings at a time when she was mourning the death of her husband.
Clara Schumann was also deeply moved by Brahms’s Alto Rhapsody, written in 1869, after the completion of the German Requiem, and scored for contralto, male chorus and orchestra. The text is taken from Goethe’s Harzeise im Winter (Journey in the Harz Mountains in Winter) of 1777, setting the three stanzas that deal with a man’s dejection, apparently intended to comfort a young man called Plessing, who, in common with a number of his contemporaries, had been profoundly affected by Goethe’s Werther. The structure of the work follows the three stanzas, the first a form of recitative in C minor, the second, Poco andante, an aria, with use made of wide leaps in the vocal part, notably for the repeated word Menschenhass (hatred for men), and a C major conclusion, bringing a prayer for consolation, the soloist now joined by the four-part male chorus.
Hölderlin’s Schicksalslied (Song of Destiny) was published in the second book of his novel Hyperion, oder Der Eremit aus Griechenland (Hyperion, or The Hermit from Greece), published in 1799. In the novel the patriotic Greek hero Hyperion addresses these words to the ‘selige Genien’ (‘blessed spirits’). Brahms started work on his setting in 1868 and the first performance was given in Karlsruhe in 1871. Underpinned by the throb of a drumbeat, the E flat major orchestral opening, marked Langsam und sehnsuchtsvoll (Slow and full of yearning) suggests the world of the blessed spirits. There is a change of mood for the opening of the third stanza, a tempestuous Allegro in C minor which reflects the feeling of the text, with humanity given no place to rest, and marking, in particular, in abrupt chords, the final comparison of life to water flung from cliff to cliff. The work ends with a return to the tranquillity of the opening, now in a final C major.
Brahms’s last two works for chorus and orchestra, Nänie (Lament) and Gesang der Parzen (Song of the Fates), were completed in 1881 and 1882 respectively. The first, a setting of Schiller’s classical lament for the passing of beauty, was written in memory of the classical painter Anselm Feuerbach, who had died in 1880 at the age of fifty, and dedicated to the latter’s stepmother, Henriette Feuerbach. Comparisons have been made between Brahms’s version of Schiller’s hexameters and the setting by Hermann Goetz, who had died in 1876 at the age of 36, which had been performed in Vienna shortly after Feuerbach’s death. Brahms’s composition is in three sections, the third in a similar mood to the first, with its moving oboe melody and imitative entries of the voices, and a more passionate central section in F sharp major. The allusions in the text, which may nowadays need explanation, are to Pluto and the fate of Eurydice, at first freed from Hades and then called back, as Orpheus turned to see that she was following him. Other references are to Venus (Aphrodite) and Adonis, gored by a wild boar, and the death of Achilles at the gates of Troy, mourned by his mother, the sea-nymph Thetis. Orcus is synonymous with Dis (Pluto) and signifies the Underworld.
The text of Gesang der Parzen (Song of the Fates) is taken from the fourth act of Goethe’s play Iphigenie auf Tauris (Iphigenia in Tauris), a performance of which Brahms had recently seen in Vienna. Iphigenia, saved mysteriously from sacrifice at the hands of her father Agamemnon and given shelter in the realm of Thoas, King of Tauris, serves as a priestess of Diana. Her brother Orestes has made his way there, to expiate the murder of his mother, Clytemnestra, by bringing his sister back to her homeland. By the end of Act IV Iphigenia is in despair, confronted with a conflict between her duty to sacrifice Orestes and her desire to escape with him. At this point she expresses her predicament in the Song of the Parcae. Brahms set the text for six-part chorus and orchestra, using the structure of a rondo, its main theme, in the minor, framing two major key episodes. The opening section, marked Maestoso, sets the inexorable mood, to which the first major episode, Sie aber, sie bleiben / in ewigen Festen (But they, they remain / in unending feasting) offers a contrast. The original key of D minor returns with the awed repetition of the first words, Es fürchte die Götter / das Menschengeschlecht (The gods should be feared / by the race of mankind). The second episode takes the penultimate stanza, and the modified first theme returns with the final stanza, So sangen die Parzen (So sang the Parcae). The work was dedicated to the Duke of Sachsen-Meiningen.
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