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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.
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Ach, könnt ich, könnte vergessen sie, Ihr schönes, liebes, liebliches Wesen, Den Blick, die freundliche Lippe, die! Vielleicht ich möchte genesen! Doch ach, mein Herz, mein Herz kann es nie! Und doch ists Wahnsinn zu hoffen sie! Und um sie schweben Gibt Mut und Leben Zu weichen nie. Und denn, wie kann ich vergessen sie, Ihr schönes, liebes, liebliches Wesen, Den Blick, die freundliche Lippe, die? Viel lieber nimmer genesen!
Johann Gottfried Herder (1744-1803) after Thibault de Champagne (1201-1253)
Ah, could I, could I forget her, Her fine, loving, lovely nature, Her look, her friendly lips, ah them! I might perhaps be healed! Yet ah, my heart, my heart can never! And yet to hope for her is madness! And to hover around her Gives zest and courage To waver never. And then, how can I forget her, Her fine, loving, lovely nature, Her look, her friendly lips, ah them! Much better never to be healed!
The original literary source for this poem was a collection of Chansons choisies, a three-volume anthology of French romances with attached airs that was edited by Monnet and published in Paris in 1765. This was the collection in which the young Mozart, dallying in Mannheim with two pretty sisters, found the texts for songs composed to impress them, Oiseaux, si tous les ans and Dans un bois solitaire, K307 and K308. Over one-hundred-and-fifty years later, Francis Poulenc found in the supplementary fourth volume of the same set (for sale in the eighteenth century under the counter in Paris and Ispahan) the scabrous and erotic poems for his Chansons gaillardes (1926). Brahms owed the text of his Sonett (though hardly a sonnet at all) to the fact that Johann Herder took an interest in the poem written by Thibault, Count of Champagne and King of Navarre, which is printed at the beginning of the first volume (‘Las! si j’avais pouvoir d’oublier sa beauté, sa beauté, son bien dire et son très-doux, très-doux regarder’) and translated it for his Stimmen der Völker in Liedern (published in 1773, and of which Brahms owned the 1827–30 reprint).
The poem with its subtitle (‘from the thirteenth century’) has prompted the composer to find a musical solution that suggests the venerable provenance of the text. The accompaniment is four-part writing of rigorous restraint (at least in the beginning), not a medieval pastiche, but sufficiently archaic-sounding to suggest the epoch of courtly love. It is curious that thirty-six years later Gabriel Fauré, in Une sainte en son auréole, the opening song of his cycle La bonne chanson, conjures an identical musical texture of flowing quasi-contrapuntal crotchets, and in the same key, to evoke an imaginary chatelaine in her tower in the time of Charlemagne. Brahms was to use this kind of time-travel again for his Magelone poems inspired by courtly love and Minnesang, a musical equivalent of the Nazarene painting—allusively medieval but not genuinely so of course—that was very much in vogue at the time.
The vocal melody is hymn-like and ardent in the extreme, the flowing crotchets in the inner voices of the accompaniment pull at the heart strings, the strength and masculinity of the vocal line constrained by the etiquette of the bar line, heroic passion suppressed in favour of gallantry. But such feelings can only be contained for so long—a marking of Poco più animato allows the voice off its leash as it climbs higher and higher in describing the divine madness that affects the suitor. And then a dominant pedal for thirteen bars in which the vocal line, now crestfallen and intent on obedience, attaches itself to the piano’s right-hand chords weaving a dance of attendance on the beloved in a sarabande of devotion. The high note on ‘nie’ denotes undying, unswerving service with no thought of reward. This passage sets up the return to A flat major, more or less the same as the opening of the song, except for the passionate and masochistic outburst at the end (‘Viel lieber nimmer genesen!’). The singer in his closing bars is first vehement then downtrodden, leaving nothing for the piano to do but provide a solemn ‘Amen’. This vocal cri de cœur exceeds the otherwise courtly boundaries of the piece; it is here that we can perhaps detect the subjective voice of the twenty-five-year-old Brahms, already a veteran of the non-love affair with Clara Schumann, and now unhappily involved with Agathe Siebold in a courtship both intense and eventually doomed. The song praises a matchless madonna on a pedestal, perpetually unavailable, especially for a heart-injured young man from the lower classes, no matter how he might try to disguise himself as a knight. It also permits us an early glimpse of a recurring pattern in the composer’s life when dreams of reciprocated love (permitting the sweetness of painful longing) were shattered as soon as they threatened to turn into reality, seemingly the last thing that Brahms felt he deserved.
Gut Nacht, gut Nacht, mein liebster Schatz, Gut Nacht, schlaf wohl, mein Kind! Daß dich die Engel hüten all, Die in dem Himmel sind! Gut Nacht, gut Nacht, mein lieber Schatz, Schlaf du, von nachten lind.
Schlaf wohl, schlaf wohl und träume von mir, Träum von mir heute Nacht! Daß, wenn ich auch da schlafen tu, Mein Herz um dich doch wacht; Daß es in lauter Liebesglut An dich der Zeit gedacht.
Es singt im Busch die Nachtigall Im klaren Mondenschein, Der Mond scheint in das Fenster dir, Guckt in dein Kämmerlein; Der Mond schaut dich im Schlummer da, Doch ich muß ziehn allein!
Good night, good night, my dearest love, Good night, sleep well, my child! May all the angels in heaven Guard thee well! Good night, good night, my dear love, Sleep sweetly through the night!
Sleep well, sleep well, and dream of me, Dream of me this night! So that when I too fall asleep, My heart shall stay awake for you; And think of you continually, Consumed with pure love.
The nightingale sings in the bush In the clear moonlight, The moon shines in at your window, Peeps into your little bedroom; The moon sees you there asleep, But I must set out on my lonely way.
Brahms took the text from the second volume, p.465, of Zuccalmaglio (already a favourite as early as 1858) where he was not afraid of changing words. In the song’s opening line, for example, ‘allerliebster’ becomes simply ‘liebster’ the better to suit the composer’s rhythm. And rhythm here is the main driving force. The young Brahms, already a creator of extraordinarily accomplished chamber music, clearly conceived this song in instrumental terms. One might imagine that the Ländler-like lilt of this kind might have turned up as a trio section of a scherzo movement in an instrumental sonata. This is an enchanting moto perpetuo, somewhat in the manner of Mendelssohn, or Schubert’s Die Sterne D939; in that famous song there are similar twists and turns, explorations of unexpected harmonic byways, but those tonal shifts, unlike the excursions in Ständchen, are prompted by verbal nuances. In any case, it is perhaps unfair to compare late Schubert with early Brahms. There is little in this Brahms song where the words themselves make a real difference (apart from the generalized geniality and teasing affection that is built into the music itself). The delicately chugging rhythm with its staccato articulations is culminative in effect—the longer it continues the more one is drawn into a Bewegung that becomes almost foot-tappingly hypnotic as the three verses progress. The word ‘von’ set on a strong downbeat minim (verse 2, bar 13) would have been studiously avoided by others, but the experienced performer will attempt to disguise this fault in Brahms’s prosody. This weakness is not entirely untypical of the composer who was inclined to brush aside such details as long as the vocal line remained attractive; he was disinclined to specify the minute rhythmic adjustments of a composer like Wolf. This evocation of guitar music was conceived for a piano from the mid-nineteenth century rather than a present-day instrument. The pianist of today should not be afraid here of creating a lighter and drier texture than the pedalled and opulent texture which is a trademark of the later Brahms.