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Eichendorff was one of the favourite poets of Brahms’s youth. Five of his six Eichendorff solo settings (there are twelve works in all if one includes a duet and choral items) were composed in 1852-53. Although he owned a copy of the poet’s Gedichte (the second edition of 1843) the younger composer seems to have taken the text of Mondnacht directly from Schumann’s musical setting—the tell-tale sign being Brahms’s replication of Schumann’s ‘nur’, instead of ‘nun’, in the fourth line of the first strophe. The substitution here of ‘Räume’ for the original ‘Lande’ in the last strophe cannot be laid at Schumann’s door; perhaps Brahms, having crafted his music to reflect lofty, wide-open spaces, had changed the word without realizing it.
Challier’s Lieder-Katalog of 1885 lists forty-one composers who set this lyric, but none of these mostly forgotten names had a comparably special relationship with Schumann. For the young Brahms, setting this lyric seems to have involved a curious mixture of paying homage to his mentor and the need to compete with him. Mondnacht was one of Schumann’s most famous and beautiful songs, and Brahms seems to have set out to compose something that was also heart-stoppingly beautiful, but in a deliberately different way.
Despite this almost Oedipal competitiveness, the song is a success in its own right. Almost anyone knowing Schumann’s Op 39, and hearing the Brahms for the first time, is charmed rather than irritated by this youthful reverence-cum-hubris. Voice and piano are here knitted together with a slightly more robust twill than the threads of Schumann’s unearthly music, but Brahms already knows how to create an atmosphere with an individual weave. Instead of the older composer’s hypnotic repetitions of a key phrase (the voice first ascending the stave on a precarious tightrope, and then inexorably descending to find repose in an ornamented cadence on the dominant), Brahms goes for something less self-contained and far less dangerous for the singer. Even if the words ‘still geküßt’ similarly settle onto a luxurious dominant, the repeat of the fourth line of each strophe allows for an expansiveness and heightened tessitura; there is an open-hearted nostalgia on ‘träumen’, even if unimportant words like ‘ihm’ and ‘nur’ are each allocated dotted crotchets—the kind of potentially lugubrious prosody so detested by Hugo Wolf in Brahms’s songs.
In the third verse the melody assigned to the voice in the preceding two strophes is now heard in the accompaniment while the voice (at ‘spannte / Weit’) provides an obbligato. The home key of A flat makes a plagal foray into D flat major, as if the spreading of the poetry’s wings constitutes a kind of holy blessing. Then, turning on the enharmonic axis of F flat–E natural, we float into A major, thence to F sharp minor which, thanks to another enharmonic sleight of hand, returns to the flat keys. We are thus taken on a tonal journey that matches the poetic imagery of a homeward flight, albeit with magical diversions. A slight stringendo helps the song take wing before the voice lands forte on a G flat on ‘nach Haus’ and stays there, in mid-air for four bars, poised above oscillating semiquavers. In this moment we seem to survey the earth from the vantage point of floating clouds. With the repeat of ‘Als flöge sie nach Haus’ the A flat seventh chord softens and melts, clearing the way for a murmuring return to the moon-kissed earth and the unencumbered tonic.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 2020
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