In the Fünf Gesänge
Op 104, all but one of which were composed in 1888, beauty of sound and relaxed mastery of medium combine with texts of almost uniformly nostalgic import to produce one of Brahms’s most exquisitely despondent works. The poems tell us that no loving heart opens to the poet’s heartfelt whispers; that spring turns to autumn; that youth is fled; that hopes remain unfulfilled; they also link night, and surrender to sleep, with the acceptance of death. At once resigned and ravishing, this set of Brahms partsongs raises these regrets to the status of high art. The first three of them are cast for six-part choir, which Brahms again deploys in male/ female polyphonic exchanges. There is little direct word-painting (an exception is the horn and echo imitations in the second of the two Rückert settings called Nachtwache
that open the set) but instead a very close correlation of mood with musical movement, and a wonderful richness of vocal colour, especially in these glowing Rückert nocturnes and in the highly concentrated Letztes Glück
, an autumn-twilight evocation. Contrast to the generally slow pace is found in the fourth number, Verlorene Jugend
(‘Lost youth’, a Bohemian poem, set for SATBB), which alternates two tempos, one vigorous and canonic for the heedless days of youth, the other slower and more Romantically homophonic for the piercing sense of their loss.
The culmination of Op 104 (and indeed of Brahms’s secular choral writing) is a powerfully depressive SATB chorus written two years before the others, in 1886: a strophic C minor setting of the achingly nostalgic poem Im Herbst (‘In autumn’), by his friend Klaus Groth. Brahms treats it with great chromatic intensification of the harmony. The second verse duplicates the music of the first, but the third transfigures it into an equally chromatic C major, recasting the harmony to match the miasmal exaltation of Groth’s last lines. (In fact the partsong was originally composed a third lower, in A, with an even darker effect.) In this notable opus Brahms shows himself eloquently unreconciled to the fact of growing old.
from notes by Calum MacDonald © 2009