Johannes Brahms (1833–97)
Vier Quartette (1884)
O schöne Nacht
“Brahms’ contributions to an unrestricted musical language will enable the opera composer to overcome the metrical handicaps of his libretto’s prose. ... [The singer] will be a singing instrument of the performance.”
— Arnold Schoenberg (1933)
“Only one composer rivals [Brahms] in the advanced nature of his rhythmic thinking, and that is Stravinsky.”
— Michael Musgrave (1985)
What to make of Johannes Brahms? Many listeners, 19th- as well as 21st-century, considered Brahms a solid traditionalist, even a bit backward-looking. Brahms did, in fact, have great respect and curiosity about his own musical heritage. He kept a marble bust of Beethoven nearby, envied Mozart’s creative drive, collected first-edition scores, and studied Bach very closely, amazed at the counterpoint. Brahms was already a major musical figure in the late 1870s when his Symphony No. 1 premiered, but he was still considered a traditionalist. Conductor Hans von Bülow suggested that Brahms’ first symphony could pass for Beethoven’s Tenth.
Yet by the mid-20th century, critics and composers were coming to a new understanding of Brahms. Arnold Schoenberg, who arranged Brahms’ Piano Quartet No. 1 for orchestra, considered Brahms a model. In a 1933 essay, “Brahms the Progressive,” Schoenberg looked beyond Brahms’ deceptively traditional melodies and themes and identified a refreshing approach to rhythm and a new harmonic language. Brahms did have significant influence on subsequent composers, including Dvořák, Schoenberg (and through Schoenberg, Alban Berg), Gustav Mahler (who ranked Brahms ahead of Bruckner), Anton Webern, Max Reger, Hubert Parry, and Edward Elgar, who once remarked, “I look at the Third Symphony of Brahms, and I feel like a pygmy.”
Brahms’ vocal compositions — he published 31 volumes of songs for solo voice, six for duets, five for quartets, and much more for chorus — often highlight an affinity between text and music. Phrases of varying length, words that settle comfortably into underlying rhythms — it all creates an experience that honors the natural rhythm of speech and the nuance of literary style. Brahms often sets verse that is highly symbolic (nightingales singing in the lilacs), with settings that suggest strong emotional undercurrents (forests, moonlight, meadows at dusk) and moments that stimulate insight and clarity.
His Vier Quartette is a case in point. Although Brahms chose verses from four different poets and composed the four pieces separately in a span of years before their publication in 1884, the entire work presents highly charged natural settings, reflecting the emotional power of nature. The moon, stars, dew, and nightingale benignly encourage young love in “O schöne Nacht” by Georg Friedrich Daumer, whose verse Brahms set more than any other poet’s. Hermann Allmers’ “Spätherbst” notes the dreary gray autumn fog and the impending death of flowers, as if all of nature were weeping. Fits of joy and sadness, like the eternal struggle of night and day, form a sort of natural lullaby in Christian Friedrich Hebbel’s “Abendlied.”
Brahms reserves the last word for Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, whose “Warum?” inquires about the fundamental purpose of human singing. The whole idea behind songs that rise to the heavens, say Goethe and Brahms, is to draw down a divine benediction in the form of the natural world: twinkling stars, moonlight, and warm summer days.
Der graue Nebel tropft so still herab
auf Feld und Wald und Heide,
als ob der Himmel weinen will
in übergroßem Leide.
Die Blumen wollen nicht mehr blühn,
die Vöglein schweigen in den Hainen,
es starb sogar das letzte Grün,
da mag er auch wohl weinen.
2. Late Autumn
The gray fog drops down so quietly
upon the field, wood, and meadow
as if heaven wants to weep
in overwhelming sorrow.
The flowers will bloom no more,
the birds are silent in the groves,
and the last bit of green has died;
heaven should indeed want to weep.
Friedlich bekämpfen Nacht sich und Tag;
wie das zu dämpfen, wie das zu lösen vermag.
Der mich bedrückte, schläfst du schon, Schmerz?
Was mich beglückte, was war’s doch, mein Herz?
Freude wie Kummer, fühl ich, zerran,
aber den Schlummer führten sie leise heran.
Und im Entschweben, immer empor,
kommt mir das Leben ganz wie ein Schlummerlied vor.
3. Evening Song
Night and day are engaged in peaceful struggle
as if they have the power to dampen or to dissolve.
Are you asleep already, Grief, who depressed me?
Indeed, what was it, my heart, that made me happy?
Both joy and sadness, I feel, flowed away
but quietly they introduced the slumber.
And, while evermore floating upward,
life itself appears to me like a lullaby.
Warum doch erschallen
himmelwärts die Lieder?
Zögen gerne nieder Sterne,
die droben blinken und wallen,
zögen sich Lunas lieblich Umarmen,
zögen die warmen, wonnigen Tage
seliger Götter gern uns herab!
Why then do songs ring out
toward the heavens?
They would draw down the stars
that twinkle and sparkle above;
draw down Luna’s loving embrace;
draw down the warm, blissful days
of the blessed gods toward us!