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
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