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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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Students of the much more famous song Die Mainacht, another setting of Hölty, may notice that this poem is written in the same metre. These intractable Asclepiads would make difficulties for any song composer, and the result is a vocal line that is extremely challenging—the singer is scarcely permitted to pause for breath (the first rest assigned to him is after sixteen bars, and then it is a only a snatched quaver). The music itself is beautiful, but the young composer is less considerate in terms of tessitura, and placing difficult vowels on high notes, than he would become in later years. Der Kuss is performed on a kind of vocal trapeze, all very well as a reflection of the lover’s ethereal mood, but not exactly encouraging to the prospective performer who usually avoids the challenge by moving on to another song in the volume. The depiction of fiery emotion that courses through the narrator’s soul with a sudden and awkward high A at ‘Mir durch Mark und Gebein’ is another idea that is better in theory than in vocal practice. As in the previous song, written at the same time in Göttingen, Brahms seems to have treated the voice here first and foremost as a stringed instrument, capable of providing a legato line at any speed (the marking is too slow for practicality) and at any height. The composer’s response to a text about a stolen kiss certainly comes from Brahms’s developing relationship with Agathe Siebold. The rapturous wafting of a vocal line supported by sylvan horn calls, euphonious thirds and sixths, depicts a kind of moonstruck ecstasy, as well as the floating image of himself that the singer believes he sees in the eyes of the beloved. The final phrase with its plea for cooling quietus, a wistful lift of a third, is also to be found, in rather more sophisticated form, at the close of a later song on this disc, In Waldeseinsamkeit. Brahms used the 1804 edition of Hölty’s poetry which incorporates the amendations of Voss, not always to the advantage of the poem; Schubert had used the same revised edition over forty years earlier.
For a simple folksong-like text by Ludwig Uhland, Brahms, as is so often the case, has invented his own folksong-like melody. Or perhaps it is only the accompaniment with its rippling quavers that gives an initial impression of simplicity. Brahms takes delight in hiding his own craftsmanship: he is a master of sophisticated music that masquerades as something elemental, a composer of art songs that pass themselves off as something age-old and belonging to the people, when they really belong to him and his most secret emotions. There is something rough-hewn about the way the vocal line begins on an ascending arpeggio and then dips and rises again in intervals of fourths and fifths; this volatility suggests a desperation that is held somehow in check by the regularity of the bar-lines, but it is still the visceral emotion of the peasant (or Brahms’s portrait thereof) rather than the refined and controlled behaviour of the beau monde in whose company the composer felt perennially uncomfortable. The marking (‘Not too slow and with strong expression’) counsels against an elegiac or reflective mood; it is as if the singer continues to hope until the last moment that the parting will not actually take place. From the narrative standpoint it seems the lovers can scarcely let each other go, but the relentless impetus of the piece denies these embraces any sense of comfort or permanency; this is a relationship inexorably on the move.
As is often the case in Brahms songs, it is the protagonist, the song’s mouthpiece, who is being abandoned, while the other lover, invisible and silent, will walk away leaving the narrator with a world of broken promises and emotions. Mahler’s bitterly merry song of the same name (with a text from Des Knaben Wunderhorn) underlines the fact that parting is a sad occasion for some, and a reason for jubilant celebration in others, an event that heralds release and freedom. Mahler drives home the liberated glee of the scenario with relish. Brahms, on the other hand, gives voice to the lover who has been inexplicably abandoned; the vocal line roams the stave in search of quietus (without finding it), and the pianist’s left-hand arpeggios rise and flow through the stave as if representing waves of feeling passing through a vulnerable frame—Brahms depicts a simple soul adrift in a sea of tormented emotions.
The marking (‘The same tempo’), as well as the recurring tonality, accompaniment and vocal line, makes clear that the composer has here created a song diptych whereby Scheiden und Meiden and In der Ferne are fused into a unity (he does this again with the two Heine songs Sommerabend and Mondenschein Op 85 Nos 1 and 2). That Brahms achieves this with a poem in a different metre from the preceding song (four-bar rather than three-bar phrases in the vocal line) is a measure of his determination. The poems are printed as Nos 2 and 3 of Uhland’s Wanderlieder, a cycle of nine poems that appears within his Gedichte, and which was set in toto by Schubert’s contemporary Conradin Kreutzer, who had composed ninety-two Uhland songs by the end of 1825. The poems suggest a narrative sequence, and Brahms has every right to imagine a storyline whereby the same person who has said goodbye to her (or his) lover in Scheiden und Meiden rests under a tree and imagines that the singing birds are messengers of love. In this gently unhinged scenario Uhland anticipates the sad deterioration of the traveller’s sanity in Wilhelm Müller’s Winterreise, and Brahms, in his change from D minor to D major in bar 13, echoes Schubert in his great cycle where moments of looking back into idylls of the past are signposted by shifts into the major key. Also prophesied here by the Janus-like Brahms, with the same alternation between D minor and D major, is Mahler’s Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen with another Des Knaben Wunderhorn text. Thirds and sixths in the accompaniment of in In der Ferne, and a mood of faux-folksong simplicity, anticipate Mahlerian pathos by some forty years. The Mahler song is a matter of life and death, and one senses that Brahms’s song, though understated, hints at a similar veiled finality. The Uhland cycle continues with six more poems, but Brahms telescopes his story into two parts. The line ‘Will ruhen hier an des Baches Rand’ suggests the drowning of the miller boy in Die schöne Müllerin. In the second half of the song, the oscillating D major sextuplets, exactly as in Schubert’s Novalis setting Nachthymne D687, cradle the vocal line as the soul prepares for a journey into more ethereal regions; the musical effect is one of transformative ecstasy. Uhland’s title refers to the travelling singer as being far away from the scene of his or her initial pain; the poem refers to the former lover’s messages coming from far away (‘Aus der Ferne’). But the undulating momentum of Brahms’s second verse suggests a journey with a more unfathomable destination. The postlude, where triplets cede to distant horn-calls in thirds and fifths within a diminuendo, allows the music, gently elegiac although in the major key, to evaporate ‘in der Ferne’—into the unknown distance.
A girl sings of her pride in her blacksmith-lover in ‘Der Schmied’; it is one of Brahms’s most popular songs, and with reason. The vocal line swings back and forth in imitation of the man’s swinging hammer, while the rhythmic pattern in the accompaniment gives us both the initial blow and the immediate rebound. In two short strophes, Brahms conveys enormous energy and rustic vitality.
Angelehnt an die Efeuwand
Dieser alten Terrasse,
Du, einer luftgebornen Muse
Fange wieder an
Deine melodische Klage!
Ihr kommet, Winde, fern herüber
Ach! von des Knaben,
Der mir so lieb war,
Und Frühlingsblüten unterweges streifend,
Übersättigt mit Wohlgerüchen,
Wie süß bedrängt ihr dies Herz!
Und säuselt her in die Saiten,
Angezogen von wohllautender Wehmut,
Wachsend im Zug meiner Sehnsucht,
Und hinsterbend wieder.
Aber auf einmal,
Wie der Wind heftiger herstößt,
Ein holder Schrei der Harfe
Wiederholt, mir zu süßem Erschrecken,
Meiner Seele plötzliche Regung;
Und hier—die volle Rose streut, geschüttelt,
All ihre Blätter vor meine Füße!
Eduard Mörike (1804-1875)
Leaning against the ivy-clad wall
Of this old terrace,
O mysterious lyre
Of a zephyr-born Muse,
Your melodious lament!
Winds, you come from afar,
Ah! from the fresh green mound
Of the boy
Who was so dear to me.
And brushing spring flowers along the way,
Saturated with fragrance,
How sweetly you afflict this heart!
And you murmur into these strings,
Drawn by their sweet-sounding sorrow,
Waxing with my heart’s desire,
Then dying away once more.
But all at once,
As the wind gusts more strongly,
The harp’s gentle cry
Echoes, to my sweet alarm,
The sudden commotion of my soul;
And here—the full-blown rose, shaken,
Strews all its petals at my feet!
Brahms’s response to this great poem predates Hugo Wolf’s wonderful setting by exactly thirty years but it has very little to fear by comparison. The Wolf has a broader emotional range and a more lavish piano part, and few things can compete with its other-worldly postlude, but Brahms is here inspired to write his first great song—if the definition of a great song is a wonderful lyric matched by equally wonderful music. It is here that he shows the world, perhaps for the first time, that he has right of entry, alongside Schubert and Schumann, to the royal enclosure of Lieder composition. (Wolf was later to claim his place in the same elite company.) The opening recitative (‘Angelehnt an die Efeuwand’) is supported by nine bars where semibreves provide the minimum of understated harmonic support. It is only on the word ‘Geheimnisvolles’ that the music, now marked a tempo, stirs into life with mezzo staccato chords, crotchet triplets, that throb high in the treble, star-like, for the next fourteen bars. These magical pulsations signify the rustling of the wind through the instrument, a wooden box with sounding board and strings. Aeolian harps were usually placed near an open window, or were designed to hang outdoors where they would produce random sounds depending on the strength of the breeze. When the strings are tuned to different notes the instrument produces chords, and in stormy weather the disembodied sounds can sometimes be mistaken for human cries. It is this strange characteristic that astonishes Mörike at the heartrending climax of his poem.
As in the Wolf setting the first section of the poem is a recitative, an extended upbeat to the main aria-like part of the work. The phrase ‘Deine melodische Klage!’ is the magical entry-point to the heart of two very different songs. The rapturous rise and fall of Brahms’s setting of these words, an inspired bridge passage, exceeds Wolf’s in eloquence. At ‘Ihr kommet, Winde’ the younger composer makes use of the full scope of the piano keyboard, hands far apart, but Brahms elects—somewhat uncharacteristically—to restrict both hands, modestly and sweetly, to the treble stave for twenty-six bars of music of the greatest ethereal beauty, the vocal line plaintive, the piano-writing wafting in triplets and duplets. After this the bass clef is deployed and the arpeggio triplets are transferred to the left hand. The stirrings of emotions matched by this strange outdoor music become gradually more intense as the poet’s grief and longing harmonize with the fragrances of spring, and with memories of his recently dead brother. It is this young man, and his fresh-greening burial mound, that are referred to in the lines ‘Ach! von des Knaben, / Der mir so lieb war, / Frischgrünendem Hügel’. Eric Sams makes the point that it is unlikely that Brahms knew this biographical information concerning Mörike, and that he might have assumed the narrator of the poem to be a girl, deserted or bereaved. If this is so, perhaps Brahms imagined her to be related to the abandoned servant girl, Das verlassene Mägdlein, one of Schumann’s settings of the poet which Brahms would have known well.
Perhaps this accounts for the essential modesty and restraint, one might even say fragility, of a setting that lacks the more dramatic sweep of the later Wolf, particularly at the phrase ‘Aber auf einmal, / Wie der Wind heftiger herstößt’. Here Brahms prefers to revert to recitative and to play down the shock of the phrase ‘Ein holder Schrei der Harfe’. For this we return to the treble-clef modesty where the voice expresses regret and sorrow in a far less dramatic way than the searing manner employed by Wolf. But we have to remind ourselves that this composer was twenty-seven years younger and writing in a post-Wagnerian world; the poet Mörike himself, devoted musician that he was, would almost certainly have preferred the classical containment, the almost shy gentleness, of the Brahms song.
There is one more wonder to be savoured in this setting: for the words ‘Und hier—die volle Rose streut, geschüttelt, / All ihre Blätter vor meine Füße!’ Brahms marks the music poco più lento, a winding-down that serves as a kind of concluding benediction. The duplet chords high in the treble gradually waft their way down the stave supported by the left hand’s undulating triplets. This is a perfect tonal analogue for nature’s sad ceremony, the strewing of rose petals, albeit in slow motion, as if they were floating slowly through the air before settling. The etiolated postlude, gradually evaporating into silence, permits us to imagine the narrator, momentarily shattered by a surge of painful emotion, regaining his composure in a convergence of happy and sad memories. We hear in this resolution the acceptance of his loss, as well as his gratitude for a combination of sensations, chiefly aural, that have enabled him to gain access, if only for a moment, to a happier past—a Proustian epiphany avant la lettre. And for capturing the essence of that inward journey, and for writing a great song about the power of music to evoke the hinterland of vanished happiness, the listener feels similarly grateful to Brahms.