The songs of Op 32 are relatively often heard these days as a complete cycle in the concert hall, and this is partly because of a present-day tendency to search for the ‘concealed cycle’ in most song composers’ work. Op 32 also enjoys a chronological proximity with Die schöne Magelone
, Op 33, the story of Peter of Provence and the beautiful Magelone in fifteen mighty songs; modern tenors or baritones prefer an ‘all or nothing’ approach in presenting these, often with interpolated readings from the original story by Tieck. There is no such narrative thread in Op 32 and, somewhat confusingly, the work is shared between two poets, Platen and Daumer, utterly different individuals and writers, yet both influenced at one time or another by the medieval Persian poet Hafiz—sometimes mournful, sometimes celebratory in mood. In fact, the two Bavarian poets (Daumer four years younger than Platen) met briefly in 1819 in Erlangen where they both studied oriental literature—although it is unlikely that Brahms knew this fact. The Magelone cycle, faux-medieval in background, Western rather than Eastern (although incorporating an Eastern sub-plot), is a saga of difficulties surmounted and true love eventually triumphant. If Brahms identifies with a hero of this monumental piece it is perhaps only with the pianist slaving on the sidelines (his own role in early performances) rather than with the charismatic Peter of Provence. Perhaps this is why Peter remains an idealized character rather than flesh and blood in the here-and-now. On the other hand, the composer’s self-identification with the nine songs of Op 32, which feature lost love, isolation, nostalgia and amorous self abasement, seems far clearer; his careful selection and dovetailing of five Platen settings and four Daumer, is very much a personal statement. Although these songs have been sung separately in many a recital (particularly Nos, 1, 2, 6 and, above all No 9), and despite the fact there is no recorded instance of Brahms himself performing these songs as an entity (or asking them to be thus presented), there is a strong case for thinking of them as a kind of latter-day Dichterliebe
, or rather Komponistenliebe
None of the lyrics set in this set were given titles by their respective poets; the composer therefore simply adopted their first lines as his song titles.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 2015