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Vier ernste Gesänge, Op 121

Vier ernste Gesänge, Op 121

composer
May 1896; published in July 1896
author of text
No 1: Ecclesiastes 3: 19-22; No 2: Ecclesiastes 4: 1-3; No 3: Ecclesiasticus 41: 1-2; No 4: 1 Corinthians 13: 1-3, 12-13

Image details:
Autograph of the first page of Brahms’s Vier ernste Gesänge, Op 121
 
This set of songs, Brahms’s last, is seldom heard in recital as anything other than a complete opus, although the third song, by far the most famous, is sometimes performed separately. When writing this music (completed in May 1896) the composer was already suffering from liver cancer—it was a painful illness that would eventually kill him eleven months later. Brahms was sixty-three on 7 May and he claimed that he regarded the songs as a birthday present to himself; with deliberate irony he called them ‘Schnaderhüpfl’, a genre of popular harvest ditty from Bavaria or Austria. Eric Sams observes that even this joke was partly serious, that the composer was ‘contemplating his own lifetime’s harvest of accomplishment’. The death of Clara Schumann, also in May 1896, a heartbreaking loss, is undoubtedly part of the genesis of this dark and powerful work for the end of an era, the end of Clara’s life, and premonitions of the end of the composer’s.

Brahms was an atheist, sometimes inclined to borderline agnosticism, but his knowledge of the highways and byways of the Bible was unparalleled among song composers. With great resourcefulness he assembled four biblical texts reflecting his own beliefs and lack of them: love in its Christian sense is of paramount importance in life, work is ennobling and necessary for the dignity of the spirit, and extinction and non-existence are all that are to be found the other side of the grave. Nevertheless, a fear of blasphemy seems to have remained with Brahms, perhaps a residue of his upbringing; he apparently doubted at first whether such ‘godless’ songs could be published at all and took various opinions on the matter. He seems to have half-expected the sky to fall on his head, or at the very least a slew of critical attacks. Relatively few people, however, were subtle enough to see the way in which the composer had subverted the Bible to write songs that he himself described as ‘anti-dogmatic, also in part unbelieving’; most listeners simply noted where the texts came from and reasoned that the songs were unimpeachably religious. This has resulted in thousands of performances in memorial services throughout the world as congregations listen respectfully to this music, convinced that Brahms must have been a very godly man; in point of fact he was, but not in a way to appeal to conventional Christians. This seems entirely typical of the composer’s relationship to the world—he was never exactly what people thought him to be. The songs, and his reasons for setting them, are often beset with obfuscations whereby the superficial are denied access to the composer’s inner world. The Vier ernste Gesänge, ‘pitiless in word and tone’ according to Julius Otto Grimm, are certainly not the religious effusions they first appear to be (and here German texts have long worked wonders in suppressing any potential religious disquiet in English-speaking lands). Honesty, however, is a Christian virtue and here Brahms scores; these songs are the culmination of a lifetime where he has attempted to speak the truth as he sees and understands it.

from notes by Graham Johnson © 2012

Recordings

Brahms: The Complete Songs, Vol. 4 – Robert Holl
CDJ33124

Details

No 1: Denn es gehet dem Menschen
Track 21 on CDJ33124 [4'50]
No 2: Ich wandte mich, und sahe an alle
Track 22 on CDJ33124 [4'16]
No 3: O Tod, wie bitter bist du
Track 23 on CDJ33124 [3'52]
No 4: Wenn ich mit Menschen- und mit Engelzungen redete
Track 24 on CDJ33124 [6'01]

Track-specific metadata for CDJ33124 track 22

Ich wandte mich, und sahe an alle
Artists
ISRC
GB-AJY-12-12422
Duration
4'16
Recording date
29 September 2010
Recording venue
All Saints' Church, East Finchley, London, United Kingdom
Recording producer
Mark Brown
Recording engineer
Julian Millard
Hyperion usage
  1. Brahms: The Complete Songs, Vol. 4 – Robert Holl (CDJ33124)
    Disc 1 Track 22
    Release date: September 2012
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