The fact that Johannes Brahms set some of the poetry of Hölty (among other songs Die Mainacht
, An die Nachtigall
—all first set by Schubert) could be seen as a both a homage to the earlier composer, and a tacit implication that Schubert had not made the most of the poems' expressive possibilities. In the same way Hugo Wolf challenged his great predecessor's reputation with different conceptions of Goethe's Ganymed
and Grenzen der Menscheit
because he saw that there was a new way to set these lyrics using a recently-minted harmonic vocabulary and a Wagnerian-inspired sense of prosody. It is undeniable that the Brahms Die Mainacht
has moved more people than the Schubert setting but, as always in matters of taste and style, we have to ask ourselves whether the broad appeal of a romantic Lied (and Die Mainacht
by Brahms is a quintessential product of late romanticism) makes for a better song, or simply a different one. Unlike Wolf, who was punctilious in matters of prosody, Brahms could not claim to treat poetry with more respect than Schubert: in Hölty's Die Mainacht
, for example, he cuts out the second strophe because in so doing he is able to build a powerful arched structure (ABA) with a contrasted middle verse and an extremely effective da capo destined to bring more than a single tear to many an eye. Brahms uses the poem in an autobiographical way to describe his own loneliness (as he often does in his confessional song diary) but it may be argued that the eighteenth-century sensibility of these verses cannot support the amount of portentous musical emotion thus invested in them. A fastidious minority of music- and poetry-lovers perhaps will take comfort in the Schubert setting, for Schubert does not make a music-drama out of Hölty's emotional crisis. On the other hand, after listening to the Brahms one can understand how Richard Capell came to write (even if one does not agree with him) that the Schubert song 'does not quite occupy the contemporary singer and it does not half occupy the pianist.'
In actual fact it is the tempo ('Ziemlich geschwind' in alla breve time) which shows how differently the two composers understood the poem. The Brahms is all spacious introspection, the atmosphere of his song takes its mood from the 'schlummerndes Licht' of the poem's second line. On the other hand, however asleep the light, Schubert feels that his protagonist is far too unhappy and restless to melt into a soporific background of nature at rest. There is an urgent dactylic rhythm in the piano's left hand which propels his search for a mate forever onward—there is more than a touch of impatience in his quest. After two lines the music modulates into the relative major (a minuscule change of direction of the accompanying figure in the piano's right hand achieves this in a manner both simple and audacious), only to return to the minor key for the last three syllables of each strophe. It is most felicitous that at the opening of the third verse the cooing of doves is beautifully suggested in the piano's left hand by the dactylic figure where two staccato crotchets underpin theÿonomatopoeic rolled double r of the word 'girret'. Schubert was becoming such a sophisticated composer of strophic songs that it is possible that a detail in the third verse came to his attention first; perhaps this was his original inspiration for the accompaniment figure on that May day in 1815.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1992