Two Songs for Alto, Viola, and Piano, Op. 91
In 1863 violinist Joseph Joachim married the distinguished mezzo-soprano Amalie Schneeweiss. Both were important musical partners for Brahms, as well as close personal friends. They later had a son, named Johannes in honor of Brahms. The composer wrote an enchanted cradle song (“Geistliches Wiegenlied,” Sacred Lullaby) for his namesake, which Amalie could sing with Joseph playing the viola, Brahms’ favorite string instrument.
But the marriage became troubled by Joachim’s paranoid delusions about an affair he imagined Amalie had with Fritz August Simrock, Brahms’ publisher. Hoping to bring them together, Brahms reworked the lullaby and wrote a new song, “Gestillte Sehnsucht” (Stilled Longing). Blissfully domestic as the song was, it failed to repair the rift, and when Brahms testified on Amalie’s side in the subsequent divorce proceedings brought by Joseph, the violinist extended the broken relationship to include Brahms as well.
Brahms published these songs in 1884 as his Op. 91. Images of wind in trees – calming in “Gestillte Sehnsucht,” alarming in “Geistliches Wiegenlied” – unite the two songs. Musicologist and Brahms biographer Karl Geiringer suggests that Brahms might have been influenced by Bach here, if only in the use of an obbligato instrument.
Friedrich Rückert’s “Gestillte Sehnsucht” was the kind of nature poem to which Brahms was very partial, with woods and birds and winds summoned to whisper the world – and yearning desires – to sleep. Brahms gives the viola an independent tune, which the voice then uses as a refrain, with rustling broken chords in the piano supporting the whole. Desires, always stirring “sonder Rast und Ruh” (without rest and peace), are presented in the urgent minor-key middle section, then quelled by nature in the return to the initial material.
Despite its spontaneous feeling, “Geistliches Wiegenlied” is quite cleverly constructed. It begins with the viola alone offering the melody of the well-known medieval Christmas carol “Joseph, lieber Joseph mein.” (Brahms wrote the words under the tune, probably as a hopeful nudge to Joseph Joachim’s familial instincts.) The voice comes in with an entirely different melody (other than the initial outline of the tonic triad) and a different text than the one the viola had clearly suggested. (It is from a poem by Lope de Vega in a German translation by Emanuel Geibel.) As with the first song, the middle section of this three-part song shifts to agitated minor mode for suffering and pain, and here even changes meter. Mary’s pleading remains consistent, however, and peace returns, with the viola giving the old carol again as a final benediction.
— John Henken is Director of Publications for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.