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Vier ernste Gesänge, Op 121

composer
completed on 7 May 1896; published in July 1896

 
Brahms composed his Vier ernste Gesänge, Opus 121 in 1896, the year before his death aged 65. These were his first songs for ten years, if one disregards his settings of German folksongs assembled in 1894, though most of those were composed previously. For the Four serious songs Brahms turned to Luther’s Bible, as he had done in choosing texts for his German Requiem of 1865-68. He composed these sometimes painfully honest songs against the background of personal tragedy—the death of his dear Clara Schumann—as well as his own cancer of the liver. Again, his essential atheism/agnosticism led him to select passages of undogmatic character, three from Ecclesiastes and the other from 1 Corinthians. He avoided the title Four sacred songs in favour of 'serious'. The opening song, Denn es gehet dem Menschen (For that which befalleth the sons of man befalleth beasts) begins with a dignified and rather funereal Andante. For the middle section (Allegro) the time-signature changes from 4/4 to 3/4, with agitated triplet figuration and many repeated notes in the left hand, like a tolling bell. After a recall of the opening section, the Allegro returns briefly, its figuration receding into oscillations of adjacent notes, before the two emphatic final chords.

The second song, Ich wandte mich, und sahe an (I turned, and saw all the injustice that is done under the sun), is more deeply pessimistic in character. The pain evoked by the melisma in quavers (at the repeat of the word 'Tränen'—tears—in bar 21) is acute. Such extreme pathos is rarely encountered in Brahms’ music. The Alto Rhapsody comes to mind, though the quite different source of bitterness there was probably unrequited love. Although in the coda Brahms turns from G minor to G major, any sense of comfort is negligible.

O Tod, wie bitter bist du (O death, how bitter is the remembrance of thee) begins in E minor and 3/2 before moving into the relative warmth of E major and a more expansive 4/2. Brahms’ fondness for falling thirds, as at the beginning of his fourth symphony, is evident here, though the tone here is more declamatory. This is among Brahms’ profoundest and most powerful songs.

Wenn ich mit Menschen (Though I speak with the tongues of men and angels) marks a significant departure from the first three songs. The theme of St Paul’s sermon is charity, but the Lutheran Bible translates the original 'caritas' as 'liebe' ('love', not 'charity') and here Brahms clearly exults in love as the only quality which can surpass the power of death. The song begins with striding rhythm and impressive grandeur but St Paul’s text warns against spiritual emptiness ('I would be like sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal'). An adagio section in B major brings tender lyricism, with dolce triplets in the accompaniment. The contrast here makes the grandeur of the opening section seem relatively hollow. A return to the principal key of E flat, with the faster tempo of the opening, eventually leads to the triplet-accompanied, achingly beautiful and serene close (Sostenuto un poco). Apparently, in Wenn ich mit Menschen Brahms drew upon music from earlier songs which, it has been suggested, were linked with his feelings of unrequited love for Elisabeth von Herzogenberg, a pianist who had briefly studied with Brahms.

While compiling this disc, Julian Bliss and James Baillieu looked for something less predictable. Julian has arranged other songs including some by Rachmaninov, but for this Brahms CD the performers chose the Four serious songs because of their dark, death-related character, also because they date from just after the two clarinet sonatas. The only difference in the melodic line is the upward octave transposition. Among other instrumental arrangements of these songs is one recorded by the great cellist Daniil Shafran.

from notes by Phillip Borg-Wheeler © 2021

Recordings

Brahms: Clarinet Sonatas & Vier ernste Gesänge
Studio Master: SIGCD671Download onlyStudio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads available
Brahms: The Complete Songs, Vol. 4 - Robert Holl
CDJ33124
Schubert: Schwanengesang; Brahms: Vier ernste Gesänge
Studio Master: CDA68288Studio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads available
Wolf & Brahms: Lieder
Studio Master: SIGCD369Download onlyStudio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads available

Details

No 1: Denn es gehet dem Menschen
author of text
No 1: Ecclesiastes 3: 19-22; No 2: Ecclesiastes 4: 1-3; No 3: Ecclesiasticus 41: 1-2; No 4: 1 Corinthians 13: 1-3, 12-13

Track 15 on CDA68288 [4'41]
Track 21 on CDJ33124 [4'50]
Track 12 on SIGCD369 [4'17] Download only
arranger

Track 5 on SIGCD671 [4'20] Download only
No 2: Ich wandte mich, und sahe an alle
author of text
No 1: Ecclesiastes 3: 19-22; No 2: Ecclesiastes 4: 1-3; No 3: Ecclesiasticus 41: 1-2; No 4: 1 Corinthians 13: 1-3, 12-13

Track 16 on CDA68288 [4'20]
Track 22 on CDJ33124 [4'16]
Track 13 on SIGCD369 [4'11] Download only
arranger

Track 6 on SIGCD671 [3'49] Download only
No 3: O Tod, wie bitter bist du
author of text
No 1: Ecclesiastes 3: 19-22; No 2: Ecclesiastes 4: 1-3; No 3: Ecclesiasticus 41: 1-2; No 4: 1 Corinthians 13: 1-3, 12-13

Track 17 on CDA68288 [4'04]
Track 23 on CDJ33124 [3'52]
Track 14 on SIGCD369 [3'57] Download only
arranger

Track 7 on SIGCD671 [3'19] Download only
No 4: Wenn ich mit Menschen- und mit Engelzungen redete
author of text
No 1: Ecclesiastes 3: 19-22; No 2: Ecclesiastes 4: 1-3; No 3: Ecclesiasticus 41: 1-2; No 4: 1 Corinthians 13: 1-3, 12-13

Track 18 on CDA68288 [5'10]
Track 24 on CDJ33124 [6'01]
Track 15 on SIGCD369 [4'39] Download only
arranger

Track 8 on SIGCD671 [5'05] Download only

Track-specific metadata for SIGCD671 track 7

O Tod, wie bitter bist du
Artists
ISRC
GB-LLH-21-67107
Duration
3'19
Recording date
9 May 2019
Recording venue
Snape Maltings, Suffolk, United Kingdom
Recording producer
Nicholas Parker
Recording engineer
Mike Hatch & Tom Lewington
Hyperion usage
  1. Brahms: Clarinet Sonatas & Vier ernste Gesänge (SIGCD671)
    Disc 1 Track 7
    Release date: May 2021
    Download only
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