Pianist Michael McMahon is the preferred partner to many of Canada’s finest singers. He has performed regularly throughout Canada, in Europe, Japan and the USA with singers such as Catherine Robbin, [...]
They spoke about it
Throughout his life, Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) cultivated the Lied like a private garden growing around the edges of his great symphonies, concertos, chamber works and piano pieces. Months and even years might go by between the composition of a song and its publication, during which time Brahms would reflect on its merits and make refinements. When it finally came time to publish a collection, he took great care in the songs’ order, as if arranging flowers in a bouquet; he even referred to them as “bouquets of songs.”
The first collection appeared in 1853; Brahms had just turned 20. The last was published in 1896, just a few months before his death. During the intervening 43 years, he offered 33 collections to the public—some 190 songs in all. However, these probably represent only part of Brahms’ output in the genre, many others likely being rejected and destroyed.
Because his settings were mostly of minor, fashionable poets rather than greats such as Goethe, Heine, or Rückert, Brahms has often been criticized for his choice of texts. Yet Brahms hardly lacked culture or literary taste; rather, he felt that the poems of the masters were of such perfection that music could add little. On the other hand, among the poets he did set, Brahms—the lonely figure tormented by unattainable love who takes consolation in nature—found themes that echoed his own feelings and material that could be transcended by music. In society and in song, Brahms could be light and joyful, good-naturedly employing the populist medium. However, most of his Lieder evoke his deep, inner sentiments: the ache of unrequited love, the loneliness of the human condition, the inescapable finality of life, but also the comfort offered by nature.
Lieder, Op. 69 and 86
The Opuses 69 and 86 of this recording are wonderfully representative of these “Brahmsian bouquets.” For example, Op.86 begins with a poem in which Brahms probably heard a wistful echo of Clara Schumann’s attitude when, nearly twenty years his senior, she was faced with his declaration of love. “Why do you look at me so?” asks a mature woman with amusement of a young man in Therese (No.1, Theresa). “The wise would reply with silence to the question in your eyes. […] Take the shell upon the cabinet and bring it to your ear.” With these last words, a sublime modulation to the minor translates the young man’s sudden disappointment at being spurned, this gesture toward nature his consolation. In opposing the moods of the two characters, Brahms creates an effect worthy of the greatest minimalists. It is often said that the Lieder of Op.86 are among the most inspired of the Romantic repertoire. The careful progression created by the songs’ order is worth noting—the beloved’s refusal in the first, leading through various wanderings, and finally to Yearning for death (No.6, Todessehnen).
Lieder, Op. 91 and 121
Opuses 91 and 121 stand out both in the choice of texts and in their musical treatment. Finalized in 1884, Op.91 contains only two songs, but they are songs in which two alto “voices”—one human, the other instrumental—perform a dialogue above the piano accompaniment. The songs were composed nearly twenty years apart. The older one, Geistliches Wiegenlied (No.2, Sacred lullaby), is set to a poem of Lope de Vega translated by Emmanuel Geibel.
Brahms composed the song in 1864 for the baptism of the son of his best friend, violinist Joseph Joachim, whose wife’s beautiful contralto voice inspired the idea of uniting alto voice and viola in song. In the song’s introduction, the viola plays the theme of a 16th-century Christmas carol, a lullaby for the baby Jesus that opens with the words, “Josef, lieber Josef mein” (Joseph, my dearest Joseph)—a disguised dedication to the Joachims. Then, wrapped around this old carol, an original melody set to the text of Lope de Vega unfolds in the voice part. Twenty years later, Brahms found another text that lent itself to this game, a poem by Rückert, Gestillte Sehnsucht (No.1, Longing eased), in which “the whispering wind lulls the world to sleep,” but also the narrator’s longing. Viola converses with voice, at times wrapping it, like a soft breeze, in a wreath of delicate ornamentation.
Vier ernste Gesänge, Op. 121
Brahms began Vier ernste Gesänge (Four Serious Songs, Op. 121) in early May 1896 after learning that Clara Schumann had suffered a stroke that would likely prove fatal. She died before the month was out, and Brahms would survive her by less than a year. But in the interval, Brahms always publicly denied that he was thinking of his longtime friend—and the unattainable love of his life—when he composed what was to become his swan song. To confuse the issue, he dedicated Op.121 to the painter Max Klinger, who had recently lost his father. Both the biblical texts that Brahms chose and the contrapuntal and orchestral flavour of the piano accompaniment recall the German Requiem.
The first three songs, excerpts from Ecclesiastes, evoke different aspects of death. The third opposes the fearsome visage of death for those overly concerned with the secular with the liberation it represents for those who can detach themselves from earthly matters. As this third song, having begun in a sombre minor key, modulates to a grand, expressive major for the vision of liberation, the piano sounds the motif C–B-flat–A–G-sharp–A, (in German: C–B–A–G#–A)—the figure Robert Schumann associated with his wife’s name. And finally, with the famous passage on charity from the Epistle of Saint Paul to the Corinthians in the fourth, Brahms gives us his ultimate song of hope.
© 2004, Guy Marchand for Traçantes, the music research, text-writing and translation service of the Société québécoise de recherche en musique. Translation: Peter Christensen.