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Brahms & Schumann: Voices of the Night

The Songmakers' Almanac
Download only
Label: Hyperion
Recording details: November 1981
Unknown, Unknown
Produced by Martin Compton
Engineered by Antony Howell
Release date: January 1989
Total duration: 50 minutes 0 seconds

Cover artwork: Alnwick Caslte, Northumberland by J W M Turner (1775-1851)


‘A very special experience’ (The Daily Telegraph)

‘Immaculate … delicious’ (Hi-Fi News)

‘Outstanding. A delightful record’ (BBC Kaleidoscope)
In November 1828 when the eighteen-year-old Schumann heard that Franz Schubert had died in Vienna, he wept. It is said that the sound of his sobbing could be heard during the night through the thin walls of his Leipzig lodgings. He had never been to Vienna, much less had he actually met Schubert, but he knew enough of his music to realise the world had lost someone irreplaceable. It was to be another twelve years before the 1840 song explosion which proclaimed Schumann the inheritor of Schubert's song-writing mantle. In concert programmes ever since, if the two composers share a recital, Schumann's songs have followed Schubert's at a respectful chronological distance.

But what of recitals where, instead of keeping decorously to themselves, great composers rub shoulders? In the case of this record and the Lieder of Schumann and Brahms, the interweaving of their music is more than fanciful programme planning, it is a reflection of a unique relationship. Brahms's personal ties with the Schumanns means that his hero-worship of an older composer at a distance turned into hero-worship face-to-face, which was extended to both husband and wife as a family unit. In this sort of close friendship denied to Schumann and Schubert twenty years earlier, there was both happiness and grief. The happy side of the story is that the presence of Brahms was a joy to Schumann in the last period of his life. This least jealous and most generous of colleagues immediately recognised Brahms's enormous gifts; when Johannes came to play to him for the first time on 30 September 1853, Robert called his Clara into the room to listen. There could have been no higher personal accolade nor a more symbolic gesture for the emotional unheavals of the future.

It was all too apt that Schumann had found a musical heir: it would be only a few years before the happy household where Brahms felt so much at home would disintegrate. Right to the end of Schumann's story (the suicide attempt, the years in the asylum) it was Brahms who took on the role of eldest son and who constantly visited the slowly dying composer. Robert in his lucid moments was lovingly grateful to Johannes for his kindnesses to Clara. Part of his kindness was the cruel duty of reporting all the medical ups-and-downs to the distraught Clara who was forbidden to see her husband for long periods by psychiatric theories of the time. It also fell to this young man in his early twenties to be man-about-the-house in a home which was suddenly without a breadwinner and where there were seven small mouths to feed. Brahms responded well to the practical challenges for it was a central stumbling block in his life that if he was a good son to the ailing Robert his relationship to Clara had the complexities of Oedipus and Jocasta without the tragedy (or release) of consummation. It is fairly clear that Johannes was in love with Clara well before Robert's death, that she was not insensible to his affections, and the two spent holidays together which, as far as they could be, were idyllic. After Schumann's death, when an acknowledged love would have been legally possible, it is probable that neither could fight against the combined forces of guilt, propriety (she was fourteen years older), the legendary status of Clara as Schumann's widow, and the constant memories of Robert for whom both felt loyalty and devotion. What might have been between them was not to be. Despite occasional friction and unhappiness (Brahms never really got over his love for the woman who was both his personal and musical Madonna) their friendship lasted until the end of their lives.

An evening of Schumann and Brahms Lieder is thus not a question of one mantle-wearer succeeding another in orderly sequence; rather is it a family gathering where young and old mix freely, aware of their common lineage, and where men of different generations ail pay homage to the wife and mother, young lover and old matriarch, inspiriting muse and performing genius—who are all miraculously the same woman. In Eric Sams's writings on Schumann and Brahms he has shown how Clara dominates both of their song outputs, woven as she is by thought and even musical cypher into the heart of their music. For both composers she was representative of all that was best in German life and art—all that was worthwhile and deeply felt, where pianistic virtuosity eschewed the glitter of a Liszt and where musical profundity came from classical and not Wagnerian sources. What Schumann and Brahms had in common was symbolised by Clara and it had ail sorts of musical consequences. The category of night music, for example, is dear to all German romantic composers, but the voices of Schumann and Brahms stand out together quite distinct from those of, say, Mendelssohn, Wolf or Strauss. In this succession of night songs there is laughing, weeping, fear and consolation; sometimes it seems that the two composers sing a duet, sometimes there is an echo where the same words are sung in a different way. What is certain is that these night voices resound from the same part of the Lieder landscape. It is true that the two composers did not share exactly the same hearth and home; sons grow up and go their own way in later life after all. They had different allies. Benjamin Britten, for example, loved Schumann and disliked Brahms. Nevertheless Robert and Johannes were close neighbours and they remain more closely linked than any other two composers in Lieder literature. If they could have foreseen the gramophone they would rather have shared a disc with each other than with anybody eise. And Clara would have thoroughly approved.

The songs: Eine grosse Nachtmusik
Night poems and night music are an indispensible part of the German romantic period: between the 'Little Night Music' of eighteenth-century Mozart and twentieth-century Sondheim there is an inexhaustible treasury of nineteenth-century night imaginings. The words set to music on this record have been arranged to comprise a small anthology of the poetry of the German Lied. A good number of the poets beloved of the composers of German song are represented here, whether in sustained lyrical outburst inspired by nocturnal beauty or in tantalising glimpses where shadowy figures take part in night games both innocent and evil.

Der Abend (Brahms/Schiller) sunsets the scene and frames it within lofty Grecian porticos. Schiller the storyteller and playwright is seen here in classical mood. The words use so much exalted imagery that music could have been the whole sound exaggerated and pompous. Brahms's quartet setting softens the mythological grandeur with the shades of twilight; all is measured, noble and gravely beautiful. Singet nicht im Trauertönen is from Goethe's Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre, a work which includes the famous character Mignon and which Goethe finally finished thanks to the younger Schiller's friendly encouragement. The words are sung in that novel by the fly-by-night actress Philine (and Wolf's rival setting of 1888 goes under that name). A girl of somewhat easy virtue, Philine expresses preoccupations that would have brought a blush to the cheeks of the good German girls who played 'Frauenliebe und -Leben' to the life.

Käuzlein (Schumann/Des Knaben Wunderhorn) is a slight contribution from a major collection of real and ersatz folk poetry which was to be a rieh vein of inspiration to composers, reaching its apotheosis of influence with Mahler. The setting shows Schumann's genius for writing not so much for children, but about their world. The set from which it comes (Lieder-Album für die Jugend, Op 79) is a toy cupboard full of good songs which have not been played with by adults because simplicity is easy to mistake for childishness. Another neglected set of songs is Schumann's Op 36 to texts of Robert Reinick who was also a painter and illustrated his poems with his own woodcuts. Schumann's Ständchen from this set is a perfect little vignette with an elegance and poise which seems to look forward to the world of Wolf's Italian Song Book. The Brahms duet Vor der Tür is old German folk poetry set to music with the intricate sophistication of a nineteenth-century neo-Gothic engraving. The song has a 'popular' feel about it but the bolt of the door separating the lovers has not been oiled by any old village locksmith. This is music that is related in key and mood to parts of Brahms's Op 8 piano trio in B major. That was Clara-music and both composers' settings of Mondnacht (Eichendorff) also relate to Clara. This is a poem of bridal rapture, the mystic union of heaven and earth, and Schumann's supremely beautiful song marries words to music; it is unequalled in its capturing of the essence of Eichendorff's nature poetry. In setting Mondnacht fourteen years later Brahms did not attempt so much a rival version as rather a deliberately Schumannesque song made in homage, just as a student painter might make a copy of his master's work.

No Schumann evening could be complete without the poetry of Heinrich Heine. Tragödie is an exquisite little trilogy, all the more poignant because the outline of two lives ruined by misfortune is so laconically sketched. Schumann had asked Clara to elope with him very much in the mood of the first song, which is a short but mighty outburst of passion: with the second, Schumann has invented a folksong and it was at one time taught as such in German schools: in the third section Schumann experiments with combining the soprano and tenor voices in an eerie duet that suggests the whispering of lovers' ghosts in the evening breeze. The music is not frightening but has a major-key sadness which suggests tragedy softened by a long passage of time. Der Gang zum Liebchen is a representative of poetry from the further reaches of the Hapsburg empire—the translation of the Slavonic poem was made by Josef Wenzig. The poem was set to music twice by Brahms. The version here is not the well-known waltz-like solo setting (Op 48 No 1) but the more reflective, less impatient quartet version.

Dreams and nightmares are also very much part of night activity—or rather inactivity. In Nächtens (Brahms/Kugler) the composer creates an atmosphere of foreboding and unease; the music is in 5/4 time which makes everything seem unsettled and uncertain, the shivering waves of sound insinuatingly seep under doors and into the unconscious. Walpurgisnacht (Brahms/Alexis) is Grimm fantasy and a party piece for two excitable ladies. At the end the mezzo mother is unveiled as a witch—and also incidentally as a soprano in disguise!

Nachtwandler (Brahms/Kalbeck) is a grown-up somnabulent version of the Wiegenlied (Brahms/Des Knaben Wunderhorn). In both songs the rocking accompaniment lulls and soothes while the vocal lines spin magic in long canopied phrases. The words of the Wiegenlied are ideally suitable for their purpose; Nachtwandler illustrates Brahms's inclination to set his friends' poetry to music—in this case his admirable biographer, Max Kalbeck. The two Venetianische Lieder are hybrids—Italianate miniatures with poems originally in English by the Irishman Thomas Moore, translated by the ingenious Ferdinand Freiligrath. In this anthology they represent the importance of English-speaking poets on the German romantic movement—Byron and Scott, after all, were avidly read by Goethe. Another example is Schumann's duet Unterm Fenster which has a text by Robert Burns which is rather more audacious in the original ('I fear ye'll bide till break o' day; indeed I will, quo, Finlay') than the translation. What is wonderful is that the suitor is successful in the end which is more than can be said for the poor wretch who sings under the window in Brahms's celebrated Vergebliches Ständchen. This is probably Brahms's most famous song after Wiegenlied and the rebuttal it depicts goes all too easily with our image of the composer as a man who has had the door of love slammed in his face (it is known however that Brahms was greeted like an old associate by the 'ladies' of Vienna in the later years of his life and was at ease and comfortable in their company). Mein schöner Stern! (Schumann/Rückert) on the other hand is a song of the highest idealism and the woman placed on the pedestal is undoubtedly Clara. The vocal line reaches high in aspiring to portray her exalted position, but retires abashed and adoring. The song, one of Schumann's most beautiful, is part of his late Minnespiel cycle.

The record closes with the Brahms quartet Abendlied, to words by Friedrich Hebbel. Those who are beset by the pains of living and loving are released by the advent of night. Whatever has happened by day is dissolved in consolation of lullaby and constellation of melody. When it is in this magical mood (and how often it rises to such heights remains one of the miracles of musical history) the German Lied is able to rival Night itself in its ability to bring peace to the troubled breast.

Graham Johnson © 1982

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