At first it may seem as if there is very little Hungarian about this song: perhaps with this title the listener might expect something more zany and up-tempo, music more obviously temperamental. But there is more to Hungarian music than feisty Zigeunerlieder, and in 1854 Brahms noted down the melody of this song (with figured bass) in his own manuscript collection of folksongs under the rubric Ungarische Volksweisen. It is somewhat hymn-like, a love-struck chorale to the beauties of the fairer sex, and with this accompaniment it would have made a beautiful cello solo. The composer failed to keep clear blue water between art song and folksong and this is a good example of a Lied that may, or may not, have stemmed from an old Hungarian melody. This depends on whether the tune that Brahms noted down was originally his own composition anyway—a distinct possibility.
For a melody of this kind there had to be Hungarian words, and Brahms went in search of a suitable poem in the pages of Georg Daumer’s Polydora (the source of the Liebeslieder Walzer and other song settings) where there are poems that purport to be (and sometimes truly are, when not Daumer originals) from every corner of Europe. The poem describes the contemplation of a picture of a beautiful girl—as in Tamino’s aria ‘Dies Bildnis ist bezaubernd schön’ from The Magic Flute, or the Intermezzo (‘Dein Bildnis wunderselig’) from Schumann’s Eichendorff Liederkreis. For the accompaniment Brahms favours soft chords in the bass clef to signify hidden depths of emotion, or quavers that sidle up and down the stave, rocking reverently between the hands and hugging the vocal line as if the singer, feasting on the depicted beauty, can scarcely bear to tear his eyes away from such a satisfying sight. In the central verse (‘Herr mein Gott’) there are hunting-horn motifs in thirds and sixths; these add an outdoor note to music that otherwise seems candle-lit, or they may well refer obliquely to the joys of the chase. It is now the hunter who appears to be caught in a trap and who must submissively yield to his fate. With the exception of a passage in the middle of the song (‘Uns zu Jammer und zu Qual’) which is marked forte, the music is soft and ingratiating, lost in tender contemplation. As befits music of central-European inspiration there is a more than a tinge of resignation, even pessimism in this music, and this despite the major key. The combination of bright eyes and smouldering good looks brings on a mixture of contained elation and runaway depression, as if to ask, as the postlude descends into the depths of the bass clef, ‘what is the use of all this beauty if it can never be mine?’
Eine Schale des Stroms, welcher Vergessenheit
Durch Elysiums Blumen rollt,
Bring, o Genius, bring deinem Verschmachtenden!
Dort, wo Phaon die Sängerin,
Dort, wo Orpheus vergaß seiner Eurydike,
Schöpf den silbernen Schlummerquell!
Ha! dann tauch’ ich dein Bild, spröde Gebieterin,
Und die lächelnde Lippe voll
Lautenklanges, des Haars schattige Wallungen,
Und das Beben der weißen Brust,
Und den siegenden Blick, der mir im Marke zuckt,
Tauch’ ich tief in den Schlummerquell.
Ludwig Hölty (1748-1776)
A chalice of that stream which rolls
Oblivion through Elysium’s flowers—
Bestow it on him who languishes for love, O guardian spirit!
There, where the poetess forgot Phaon,
There, where Orpheus forgot his Eurydice,
Draw water from the silver springs of sleep!
Ah! I shall then immerse your image, coy mistress,
And your smiling lips brimming
With lute music, and your hair’s shadowy waves,
And the heaving of your white breast,
And the conquering gaze that pierces my frame—
I shall immerse them deep in the springs of sleep!
One hears this song very seldom in the concert hall. Brahms himself was convinced it was a failure until the great baritone Stockhausen sang it to the composer one morning and persuaded him to publish it after all; it thus belongs to that group of songs that need sympathetic performance, and this despite the fact that Eric Sams asserts that the complex construction of this music shows Brahms at his finest.
Forgetfulness, and the draught from Lethe that enables oblivion, is the merciful release offered in the underworld to those souls who would otherwise remain tormented and ensnared by their earthly obsessions. The ‘Genius’ mentioned in the poem is the friendly guardian spirit who will have the good grace to supply the necessary beverage. The cup or chalice that contains these healing waters is thus a very desirable and useful object for those on earth who find themselves tormented by a love that refuses to be extinguished, however hopeless it may be. The poet accordingly calls for this ‘Schale der Vergessenheit’, and the liquid it contains, to effect his own cure. Classical allusions abound here: Phaon is the handsome boatman of Lesbos with whom Sappho was supposedly in love to the point of suicide; the legend of Orpheus and Eurydice is a better-known example of a doomed, yet enduring, attachment. Both of these stories would have come to Hölty from Ovid, from the Heroïdes and Metamorphoses respectively. The poet compares his enslavement to his own ‘coy mistress’ to the plight of these classical characters who have died while in thrall to their passions. Until they have been handed the chalice that contains the waters that will bring longed-for oblivion, they will remain in torment; but having consumed this drink, their souls will be able to enjoy the endless felicity of Elysium. This absolution would seem to necessitate an initial visit to the Underworld—Lethe, pace Hölty’s opening assertion, runs through hell rather than heaven—before progressing to more salubrious living quarters upstairs. For the gods we must believe anything is possible.
Brahms’s musical solution to this poem, complex in every way, including metrically, is impassioned and turbulent. If he is writing water music to illustrate the poem’s opening imagery, the stream is made to roll and thunder through Elysium, but perhaps the composer is concentrating instead on the intensity of the poet’s desperation. If this loose-limbed poem in classical metre is to work as a musical entity it has to be welded into one piece by the composer’s will-power. The right-hand triplets appear to be shuddering tremolos, while the insistent E–D sharp in the bass for four bars (E–S in German notation) are the initials of Elisabet von Stockhausen (later Herzogenberg) on whom the composer had a crush—seemingly unsuitable and obsessional if Hölty’s poem provides a hidden clue to the situation. And here we perhaps uncover the real grounds for withholding the song from publication.
The second section of the song (‘Dort, wo Phaon die Sängerin’) is marked poco animato with a change of key from E major to A flat. At this speed we scarcely notice that the inessential word ‘den’ has been assigned an entire dotted minim. At ‘Ha! dann tauch’ ich dein Bild’ we revert to E major (and thus shuddering triplets) with an added animato to give the song an even stronger forward thrust as the poet goes into physical details regarding his uncooperative mistress. The song does not end with the poet imbibing the draught from Lethe; instead he chooses to dip his beloved’s hair and breasts, as well as her conquering gaze (or the idea of them at least), in the river. The pianist’s triplets, less hectic now, collaborate in this ritual submersion in search of quietus. The poco sostenuto eight bars from the end, and the unalloyed E major of the postlude, suggest that this ploy has achieved the required result without Hölty having to quaff the sulphurous waters that would have killed him if he had not been already dead. But what a tempestuous journey between heaven and hell it has been!
Geuß nicht so laut der liebentflammten Lieder
Vom Blütenast des Apfelbaums hernieder,
Du tönest mir mit deiner süßen Kehle
Die Liebe wach;
Denn schon durchbebt die Tiefen meiner Seele
Dein schmelzend Ach.
Dann flieht der Schlaf von neuem dieses Lager,
Ich starre dann
Mit nassem Blick’ und totenbleich und hager
Den Himmel an.
Fleuch, Nachtigall, in grüne Finsternisse,
Und spend’ im Nest der treuen Gattin Küsse;
Ludwig Hölty (1748-1776)
Do not pour so loudly the full-throated sounds
Of your love-kindled songs
Down from the blossoming boughs of the apple-tree,
The tones of your sweet throat
Awaken love in me;
For the depths of my soul already quiver
With your melting lament.
Sleep once more forsakes this couch,
And I stare
Moist-eyed, haggard and deathly pale
At the heavens.
Fly, nightingale, to the green darkness,
To the bushes of the grove,
And there in the nest kiss your faithful mate;
Fly away, fly away!
Hölty’s poem dates from 1772 and after the poet’s death was considerably changed by Voss; the second verse of the lyric of the poem as set by Schubert and Brahms is almost entirely an invention by Voss, who provided elegant and polished phrases to replace the darker and more unsettled inspiration of Hölty himself. Schubert, like Brahms, had only this Voss-improved version to go on but his unusually free and passionate setting of 1815 (D196), where the whole of the song’s first section rushes breathlessly to the first fermata, focuses on the mood of the authentic first verse and Hölty’s agonized reaction to the sound of the bird’s matchless singing.
Brahms’s music, on the other hand, reflects the Voss polish and soothes the pain as if in autumnal recollection. This song is a sublime example of his lieder style in mid-career with a structure like a mighty arc; the music begins gently but passion builds gradually and erupts at the heart of the music, as if deep in the memory and in the most hidden forest grove. Schubert had been less certain how to handle the poem’s tricky metre and had launched headlong into recitative. But Brahms makes a virtue of the broadening of metre in the indented lines that alternate with the longer ones; the change from crotchets to minims at these moments is one of the song’s glories, as if disparate strands of youthful emotion were being gathered together and smoothed into acceptance by an older and wiser hand. Thus the elongated setting of ‘Tonreichen Schall’ disdains to illustrate sonorous birdsong in favour of the composer’s muted and crestfallen reaction to it.
The accompaniment suggests ‘waving foliage’ (Sams), the left hand airily placed in the treble clef. Over this neutral background Brahms places one of his memorable melodies. We will hear this again at the beginning of the second verse—this is in essence a strophic song crafted and modified with ever-changing detail (including major key inflected to minor) whilst still permitting the listener to retain an impression of the music’s repetitive symmetry. The constant syncopations of the piano-writing gradually assert themselves and tug at the heartstrings, sforzato right-hand chords add stabbing moments of pain, and the left hand strays to the bass clef to provide emotional gravitas. A song that has begun in innocuous, almost childlike manner inexorably deepens in musical and emotional colour; for a moment the music threatens to overflow with ungovernable anguish, but never quite does so—typical Brahms, as is the underlining inherent in the climactic repeat of ‘Dein schmelzend Ach’. At the poet’s command, ‘Fleuch, Nachtigall’, the accompaniment is uncaged and released from its syncopations—triplets now gently descend the keyboard. Within this harmonic halo, a kind of musical blessing, the bird flies back to his ‘faithful mate’; there is no question that he will find one waiting for him. Here, as elsewhere in the song, the spontaneity and innocence of the animal kingdom are darkened by the shadows and complications of unluckier humanity. For Brahms, as for Hölty in this mood, admiration of nature, the source of a lighter heart in many another creative artist, comes at considerable emotional cost.