The seven songs of Op 48 are rarely heard as a complete opus on the concert platform. At first glance the sequence appears to be a rag-bag—songs by different poets composed at different times in Brahms’s career, and seemingly put together in a bundle simply to facilitate publication. There may be some truth in this—by the time this opus was issued in 1868 the composer was sufficiently famous for the appearance of his songs in print to be awaited with impatience by singers, and there did not have to be any clever incentive to be built into the planning of the work in order to encourage sales. And yet there are two unifying themes in this collection that are buried beneath the surface and which may, or may not, have been the result of deliberate planning. The first of these is homage to the past, both musical and poetic: the opus opens with a work (Der Gang zum Liebchen
) that summons up the pianistic spirit of Chopin and closes with one that pays deep and deliberate tribute to Franz Schubert (Herbstgefühl
). There are two numbers (Der Überläufer
and Vergangen ist mir Glück und Heil
) which delve into the German musical world of the sixteenth century, and two songs taken from that classic collection of folk-poetry Des Knaben Wunderhorn
. In later years Brahms would issue volumes of folksong settings of his own. The single Goethe setting Trost in Tränen
is written as an impeccable strophic song in the old style, a tribute to yet another old German musical tradition, and this too owes something to Brahms’s veneration of Schubert.
The other possible unifying theme is to do with a reading of the texts where everything is to do with fear of betrayal (Nos 1 and 2), suffering as a result of a doomed love affair (Nos 3, 4, and 5), or an overwhelming sense of permanent exclusion and icy isolation (Nos 5, 6 and 7). Whether the composer deliberately planned this collection to capture these moods, or whether he simply responded more readily and more regularly to poetry of this kind, is a moot point.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 2010