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From the time when, in his twentieth year, he introduced a folksong air into his first published work, the pianoforte sonata in C major, he returned again and again to the German folksong: in the years 1850–59, 38 times; 1860–69 , 39 times; 1870–79, 50 times; 1880–89, 24 times; and 1890–94, 56 times … As a source for German folksongs Brahms used for the most part the collections of Friedrich Nicolai, Andreas Kretzschmer and August Wilhelm von Zuccalmaglio.
Herein lies the problem with Brahms as a student and exponent of folksong: he lived rather too early to benefit from real, disciplined scholarship in this field, and he trusted his various sources to be as truthful and reliable as he himself would have been. There were obviously a considerable number of melodies and texts that were indeed gathered from authentic folksong sources, but at a time when there was a vogue for this kind of music, and a market that allowed and encouraged a romanticized view of the form that went back to the Des Knaben Wunderhorn anthology, it was easy for someone like Zuccalmaglio (who clearly had a knack for pastiche) simply to invent folksong-like ditties and pass them off as age-old material. Brahms was completely fooled by this, and on several occasions lovingly lavished his attentions on what he imagined were genuine folksongs and were in fact Zuccalmaglio’s original compositions. It is little wonder that composers of a later age who used folksong material tended to trust the melodies most that they had gathered for themselves.
Brahms was particularly proud of the 49 folksong settings with piano accompaniment—42 solo songs and seven songs with solo singer and chorus (SATB)—published in 1894. He regarded this as the crowning achievement of his life’s work, a body of work that had a connection with the soil of the country and his reply to the output of Wagner who had created works around old German sagas. The practitioners of the so-called music of the future, such as Liszt, Berlioz and Wagner, had no interest in genuine folk music. With the arrival of the new century, and composers like Bartók, Kodály, d’Indy, Vaughan Williams and Grainger, Brahms’s earlier enthusiasm for folk material makes him something of a pioneer; his admiration of Antonín Dvorák was enlightened for the time in Viennese terms and was inextricably connected with that composer’s absorption in the folksong of his own country. It is interesting that there was no great composer in the more modern German tradition who attempted to broach this repertoire and arrange it with greater authenticity. Instead the Knaben Wunderhorn settings of Mahler created an even more sophisticated simulacrum of folk music tinged with humour, and irony—a palimpsest of sources old and new, genuine and fake, where so-called authenticity ceased to be an issue of importance or interest. Perhaps the question of authenticity mattered less with a dominant language and culture like German, than with those languages like Hungarian and Czech (and to an extent English) that were struggling to achieve their independence from the very German tradition that Brahms represented. Nevertheless, when it comes to folksong in Germany there is no composer before or since who has done as much as Johannes Brahms and this may have something to do with the fact that he always identified himself deep down, and with considerable contrariness, as a working-class, rather than a middle-class, artist.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 2010
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