To play the media you will need to either update your browser to a recent version or update your Flash plugin.
Welcome to Hyperion Records, an independent British classical label devoted to presenting high-quality recordings of music of all styles and from all periods from the twelfth century to the twenty-first.
Hyperion offers both CDs, and downloads in a number of formats. The site is also available in several languages.
Please use the dropdown buttons to set your preferred options, or use the checkbox to accept the defaults.
The text is about the difficulties of the creative process as experienced by the poet Klaus Groth, although the opening line suggests, wrongly, that he is describing a specifically musical struggle. Eric Sams quotes Karl Kraus in this connection, a writer who was also afraid that his best ideas would be demolished by the banality of the inadequate words with which he sought to frame them—‘Art must be fought for’ warns Kraus sternly. Groth admits that his initial inspirations are like melodies, something for him that cannot be put down on paper (after all, he is not a composer); these are ideas that seem to flower lyrically within him but they disappear all too easily in perfumed evanescence. In the second verse the poet has to go about finding actual words, his stock in trade after all, that can pin down the expressive nature of the imaginary fancies that have already gone through his head like music. He fears that mere words will not be up to this task, and that they will somehow destroy the delicate nature of the primary inspiration. The third verse explains that after hard work and the polishing of his poem Groth hopes that a residue of that initially wordless and musical inspiration will remain deep within these verses. During its painstaking gestation the finished poem has hopefully become infused with hidden music that will touch its readers’ hearts, not only their minds. The poem thus acknowledges that a poet’s aim is to create a musical lyric (not necessarily a lyric for music) with the power to bring a tear to its readers’ eyes, with a vestige of the same power that music exerts over its listeners. Thus the poem, in acknowledging the primacy of musical inspiration, seems to be intended by Groth as a tribute to Brahms himself.
The composer almost certainly took it as such. In this song it has always seemed easier for performers to imagine another, less abstract, scenario whereby it is Brahms himself, rather than the poet, who is the narrator: first comes his great tune (first verse), to which are added the poet’s words (‘Doch kommt das Wort’, second verse), resulting in the final work of art where lied-text and lied-melody are combined to make a masterpiece. Even if this is not at all what the poem actually says, it is an interpretation which seems far more straightforward to singers and pianists. It also suits the strophic nature of the song whereby three stages of creativity seem conveniently outlined—the appearance, one by one, of two participant muses, and their eventual conjunction. It is usual for this last strophe to be performed with a fuller tone as if the combination of music and poem has brought about a quiet artistic triumph. That music came first, on this occasion at least, is underlined by the melody having been part of the opening Allegro amabile of the A major Violin Sonata, Op 100, also composed in the summer of 1886, almost certainly before the song.
The word-melodies that Groth had heard, the musical threads that set his brain aglow with poetic inspiration, are surely metaphors for long-cherished memories. Brahms accordingly composes music that seems rich with autumnal nostalgia and gentle regret in the major key. Especially memorable are the third and fourth lines of the second strophe where the phrases ‘Wie Nebelgrau erblaßt’ and ‘Und schwindet wie ein Hauch’ seem to dematerialize in the modulations descending to a hushed F sharp minor. At this point all seems lost, like inspiration vanished into thin air, but the return to the home key after two bars of D minor figurations conjures a miraculous solution: the reappearance here of the home key of A major at ‘Und dennoch ruht im Reime’ charts a journey—an artistic challenge surmounted with lateral harmonic thinking and ingenuity. Just like Komm bald, and not altogether to the delight of Brahms’s older muse Elisabet von Herzogenberg, this song was destined for the contralto Hermine Spies. The depth of that singer’s range is to be heard in the final vocal bars of the song. The four-bar postlude, a reflection on all that has gone before, is one of the composer’s most touching.
This is another masterpiece of concision where we encounter, in telescoped form, the dramatic mixture of recitative and aria to be found in the great oratorios. Windswept pianism—arpeggios landing on icy minim chords, a barren musical texture, these denote a stormy day in a god-forsaken cemetery, inspired by Brahms’s visit to a run-down Swiss graveyard (as he recounted to Kalbeck). The reading of the partially effaced epitaphs on the old gravestones, and the stooping and peering necessary to do so, are all marvellously suggested in the dovetailing interplay of voice and piano. There are two appearances of the storm motif, the second of these sections ending with a stentorian, downwardly plunging setting of ‘Gewesen’. For the poem’s two final lines (after a Schubertian key-change from minor to tonic major, cf Gute Nacht from Winterreise) there is a chorale in calm crotchets that offers comfort and consolation. Kalbeck informs us that this is the melody that Bach harmonized as ‘O haupt voll Blut und Wunden’ in the St Matthew Passion. Sams believes that Brahms was thinking of the same Leo Hassler melody when it reappears (also in the St Matthew Passion) as ‘Wenn ich einmal soll scheiden’, words that made the composer ponder the manner of his own future death, rather than the Crucifixion. Like O Tod, wie bitter bist du from the Vier ernste Gesänge, Op 121 No 3, death’s healing (here signified by an imagined ‘Genesen’ written on the tombstones) has nothing to do with redemption or an afterlife. The source of the poem is Adjutantenritte und andere Gedichte by that great Hugo Wolf admirer, Detlev von Liliencron, the title of his first poetry collection an indication of his military background. Both poet and composer were non-believers with conventionally religious upbringings. Their knowledge of sacred texts was such that they were able to produce works that avoided any outright declaration of atheism, while subverting the prevailing orthodoxy with an irony and pessimism often unperceived by the general public.