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Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)

Tor Aulin (1866-1914)

 

Brahms deeply cherished German and Austrian folk songs. He arranged folk songs throughout his career, and they influenced much of his own approach to lyric setting. The 49 German folk songs that Brahms published in 1894 (without an opus number, hence the WoO indication) form his largest single collection, one that he began in the 1850s. For the most part they are simple strophic settings, often without any introduction at all, although most do let the piano end the setting with a brief postlude. Brahms does add subtle harmonic variations to his accompaniments, however, and his bass line is always notable for its relationship to the melody. (“Jungfräulein, soll ich mit euch gehn” is exceptional in that Brahms alters the accompaniment radically for different verses.)

“Ach, und du mein kühles Wasser” shows how Brahms set a folk song text with original music, in this case in an unusual 5/4 meter with a piano introduction and interlude of rippling two-against-three figuration to suggest the water. The text comes from an influential collection of folk poems translated by the Czech poet Siegfried Kapper. (The original Serbian lyrics were collected and anthologized by Vuk Karadzˇic´.) Many of Brahms’ contemporaries relied on it, including Dvorˇák. The Swedish composer Tor Aulin is another, although he used translations by the Finnish poet Johan Ludvig Runeberg for his Four Serbian Folk Songs, the first of which is the somber “Till en ros,” with its murmurous invitation to carpal tunnel syndrome in the pianist’s right hand.

Although piano sonatas took Brahms’ first two opus numbers, the songs of Opp. 3, 6, and 7 are his earliest published music, composed before he was 20 years old. Certainly the leaping joy of “Juchhe!” (text by Robert Reinick) is youthfully forthright, despite the minor mode deflection in the third verse and its slippery vocal fade-out. More stereotypical of Brahms would be a late song such as “Auf dem Kirchhofe” (1888, on a text by Detlev von Liliencron), a compact distillation of High Romantic themes and text setting, with changes of meter and mode to contrast the storms of life against the peace of the grave.

Brahms enjoyed nature and the countryside personally, particularly in the controlled form of summer vacations, and the nature imagery and metaphors of Romantic poetry appealed to him strongly. He often preferred to set relatively minor poets, but “Es schauen die Blumen alle” and “Sommerabend” are on texts by Heinrich Heine. The two-against-three figuration that water images often suggested to Brahms accompanies the former almost completely, but turns up in the latter only with the third verse. “Sommerabend” is a good example of the subtle intricacy with which Brahms supported his miniature masterpieces. The summer evening settles into night with the falling vocal line, and the paradoxical combination of transformation and stasis is accomplished with chromatic syncopation over pedal tones. For the first verse, Brahms adds a countermelody in the middle of the piano part, which supplies the basis for the new vocal line for the second verse, which temporarily changes key and mode. The initial vocal melody returns for the third verse, but now with triplets in the bass and that countermelody moved up to the top part of the accompaniment.

Brahms grouped songs in sets that might be organized thematically or by purely musical connections. The 15 romances of Die schöne Magelone (on a faux-medieval love story by Ludwig Tieck), however, form a true song cycle, albeit one of reflective comment rather than dramatic narrative. “Ruhe, Süssliebchen” (No. 9 in the cycle) is a big lullaby, if that is not a contradiction in terms, cloaked in the unsettled harmonic “haze” and offbeat rhythmic pulse for which Brahms was famous.

In addition to around 300 solo songs, Brahms also composed about 60 vocal quartets for the very lucrative domestic music market, including the two famous sets of Liebeslieder Waltzes. In 1888 he published eleven gypsy songs (German translations by Hugo Conrat of traditional Hungarian songs) in quartet settings as his Op. 103, with the first seven and the last also arranged for solo voice and piano the following year. These inhabit the same zesty world as his instrumental Hungarian Dances, though without as much quotation of actual urban gypsy music.