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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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This is the only text by Otto Gruppe set by Brahms (it is the fifth in a long sequence of poems entitled Das Mädchen spricht) and its newly wed happiness provides a welcome foil in the context of a set of Mädchenlieder that seems to contain a preponderance of tormented songs. Birdsong is always of interest to the great Lieder composers, and Brahms is no exception. This particular song is tailored to swallows and their rambling warble of trills and twitters (Schumann wrote a duet in his children’s album about these birds—Die Schwalben Op 79 No 20). The piano music of the opening, as joyfully hectic as a dawn chorus, glides downward in the most enchanting manner and settles on a tree to begin its conversation. The musical figurations combined here for the accompaniment (quaver + two semiquavers in the right hand and dotted quaver + single semiquaver in the left, or vice-versa) form as perfect a depiction of the unpredictable, jerky movement of birds, as they flit from branch to branch, as has ever been achieved in music. Indeed, the bar of piano music after ‘Sag, was zwitschert ihr’ sounds almost uncannily like the twittering of swallows in the right pair of hands. The vocal line, far better suited to a soprano than a lower female voice (the song’s most celebrated interpreter was Elisabeth Schumann), requires similar vocal agility to that required of the pianist. Brahms’s rather strait-laced friend Elisabeth von Herzogenberg heartily disliked the colloquialism of Gruppe’s line ‘Ist’s dein alter Mann’, words which she perhaps found ugly in themselves, but which also rather salaciously joke about the promiscuous life of birds and ‘last year’s mate’. There is indeed an aspect of the song (‘pillow-talk’ as Sams described it) which is somewhat risqué. But Brahms, always fascinated by the confidences exchanged between mothers and daughters, was clearly enchanted by the thought of two girls from different species, one in the air and one on dry land, comparing notes regarding their recently initiated domestic bliss. Listeners ever since have been similarly delighted.
This can be a far more powerful song in performance than its two-page simplicity might suggest. Fischer-Dieskau used to end an all-Brahms recital programme with this little piece and it worked wonderfully as a kind of signing off, in a suitably enigmatic but rather blunt manner, from the entire world of this composer’s pain and loss. The folksong aspect of the music has a type of faux simplicity that masterfully mirrors the poem’s understatement and compressed emotion. The message of the poem in its two short strophes of three lines may be reduced to two words—‘Now’ and ‘Then’. The May catkins, extraordinary flowerings that resemble balls of cat-fur, have been broken off a branch to adorn the singer’s hat as a badge of spring. This is the ‘Now’ of the story, if such a terse little poem may be considered a story at all. All is well and good in this innocuous narration; the slightly doleful, but hardly tragic, melancholy that is to be heard in the following piano interlude will soon be explained.
In the second verse the May catkins have clearly greeted a much earlier spring. This distancing into the past of ‘Then’ is unmistakably accomplished by a flattening of the harmony on the words ‘erster Gruß’, now elongated as if stretching back in time and evoking a powerful nostalgia quite out of proportion to the simplicity of the musical means. The addition of ‘Einst’ (‘Once’) and the change of the present tense ‘breche’ to the past tense ‘brach’ are unexpectedly heartbreaking, as is the retention of the major key. This music may be tinged with a trace of harmonic regret, but any temptation to slide into the minor tonality of self-pity is resisted. The song is sung by a stoic who may still choose to pin a May catkin on his hat, but who has far too much dignity to wear his heart on his sleeve. A whole story of gallant love and painful loss, perhaps bereavement, is recounted in few words and sparse musical gestures, an economy of means entirely different from the emotional effulgence of many a Brahms song. We may very well detect here a musical portrait of the gruff North-German Liliencron, who detested sentimentality. The postlude is also remarkable: we may first imagine a drift into a mist of tearful reminiscence, and ruefully descending right-hand quavers seem to be leading into these regions for two bars. And then a planned surprise: two loud chords, almost brutally simplistic in their progress from dominant to tonic, and rolled for good measure, bring the proceedings to a peremptory close. ‘Such is life’, they seem to say, ‘and there is nothing much anyone can do about it.’
This is probably one of the most famous of all Brahms songs. The poem appears in Heyse’s Gedichte, the first of ten Mädchenlieder in that volume, but the composer would have long known the text from the Schumann setting, composed in January 1852. Both of these songs are in B minor. Is it only the strangest of coincidences that Schumann’s work is his Op 107 No 4, and that Brahms has numbered his setting of almost the same words Op 107 No 5? Eric Sams points out that the opening phrase of the vocal line contains the Clara motif, typically in B minor (C sharp, B, A sharp, B). If these pieces are bizarre numerical sequels, nothing much had happened in the thirty-six years between the composing of the two songs, not at least as far as the disciplined life of Clara was concerned. She had never remarried after the death of Robert Schumann, and had toiled ceaselessly at the piano, a spinning wheel of sorts, to provide for her large family, her hopes for loving companionship gradually extinguished within a life of iconic celebrity and maternal duty. Although equating village girl to great pianist may be too fanciful, it is unarguable that Brahms’s thoughts at this time frequently turned to the health and happiness of his beloved old friend Clara, and that his late piano pieces, miniatures playable by an ageing pianist, were conceived in part to give her pleasure. In terms of simplicity masking great compositional skill, this song is typical of the composer when he is pretending to be a simple folklorist. The spinning wheel motif in the piano, and the way the girl’s vocal line weaves in and out of it, sometimes following, sometimes diverging, provide the warp and woof of the song. This kind of interplay dates back to the threads of sadness woven by Schubert’s Gretchen. In the second strophe the smooth work routine is interrupted by hints of emotional turmoil. This precipitates falling tears in the mezzi staccati of the piano-writing: after the words ‘übers Gesicht’ four large teardrops come to life in an eloquent little interlude. The forte outburst on ‘Wofür soll ich spinnen?’ is heartrending and incorporates a hemiola whereby the loud piano chords cut the phrase into three sections of two notes each. Such longings, we realize, disrupt the rhythm and equilibrium of life and here the girl must somehow pull herself together and continue her work. The calm resignation of the closing vocal phrase together with the postlude (which descends to the bottom reaches of the piano) is one of the most extended and plaintive sighs in the Lieder repertoire—but by the closing bars of the song the wheel of the girl’s misfortune is spinning once again, and eternally.