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Wie Melodien zieht es mir – Johannes Brahms

Brahms-M-5Songs_105_1

Wie Melodien zieht es mir

Leise durch den Sinn
Wie Fruhlingsblumen bluht es
Und shwebt wie Duft dahin
Doch kommt das Wort und fasst es
Und fuhrt es vor das Aug’
Wie Nebelgrau erblasst es
Und schwindet wie ein Hauch
Und dennoch ruht im Reime
Verborgen wohl ein Duft
Den mild aus stillem Keime
Ein feuchtes Auge ruft

-Johannes Brahms

It moves like a melody

Like melodies it is moving
softly through my mind.
It blossoms like spring flowers
and wafts away like fragrance.

But when words come and capture
it and bring it before my eye,
it grows pale like grey mist and vanishes
like a breath.

And yet there rests
in rhyme a well-concealed fragrance,
which is gently called forth
from the silent bud by a moist eye.

“‘Wie Melodien’ is one of Brahms’s most popular songs. The tender lyricism of the principal melody alone could account for this popularity. Indeed, when considering the success of ‘Wie Melodien’, it can seem convenient to ignore the text (as Brahms himself appears to have done when he reworked the same melody in his A major Violin Sonata op. 100). Elisabet von Herzogenberg, one of Brahms’s closest friends and most perceptive critics, commented on the abstract nature of Klaus Groth’s poem. The exact meaning of the poem is elusive (an elusiveness that is, paradoxically, hard to capture in English): to what exactly does ‘es’ [it] refer? Like the perfume and mist the poem describes, the meaning seems to ‘waft away’ just when the reader is close to grasping it, and Brahms renders this sensation perfectly through the varying erosions of the tonic at the end of each strophe. But in this elusiveness lies an important clue. The poem is self-reflexive – it is a poem about poetry itself: much is lost in the process of transferral from the mind of the poet to the word on the page, but the sensitive and sympathetic reader (the ‘moist eye’) will still perceive the essence of the poet’s meaning. In the very act of selecting and setting this particular poem to music, Brahms adds another layer to the self-reflexivity of the poem. The melodies that move gently through the narrator’s mind are now audible, and the poem and music together seem to evoke the process of Lieder writing: melodies (Brahms’s) are captured by words (in this case Groth’s), but still it is only the ‘moist eye’ that will be capable of retracing the process and fully appreciating the composer’s intention.

   Since Brahms completed ‘Wie Melodien’ in 1886, there have been a vast number of attempts by sensitive musicologists and performers to interpret the song and discern Brahms’s intentions. Few, if any, of these readings take into account the songs Brahms published with ‘Wie Melodien’ – the other four songs of op. 105. While ‘Immer leiser’ (op. 105/2) rivals ‘Wie Melodien’ in popularity, followed closely by ‘Auf dem Kirchhofe’ (op. 105/4), these songs and their two rarely heard companions (‘Klage’, op. 105/3 and ‘Verrat’ op. 105/5) are scarcely ever performed together. Similarly, musicological discussions of op. 105 typically focus on issues raised by individual songs (the modified strophic form of ‘Wie Melodien’, for example) and seldom, if ever, consider the group as a whole.

   Yet consideration of the group as a whole is precisely what Brahms appears to have intended. In a conversation with Alwin von Beckerath in 1883 (just three years before he composed ‘Wie Melodien’), Brahms is reported to have talked at some length about his song collections and implied that there is an element of coherence in his groupings:

Brahms complained to me that most singers, male and female, grouped the songs together completely arbitrarily, according to how they suited their voices, and totally ignored the trouble he would always take to group his songs together like a bouquet [Bouket]. In fact, he was very justified in this complaint. Where does one find a singer who performs complete song books by him, with the possible exception of the Magelone songs? With what fine tactfulness and poetic sensitivity he has bound his song bouquets [Liedersträusse] together. It is thus also regrettable that Ophüls tore these bouquets apart so cruelly in his book of Brahms Texts, in order to publish them ordered according to poet. This was undoubtedly the reason why Ophüls had to wait so long to have his arduous work acknowledged by Brahms.

      My father once had to remind Brahms of this. Brahms replied that he would have been happy to read through the texts as he had grouped them, and to be able thus to recall the music. He spoke of floral bouquets [Blumensträussen] that Ophüls had plucked apart, and added that ‘he is happy when he finds earthworms’. The individual songs profit immeasurably from their groupings. The famous singer von Zur-Mühlen mostly sang the Lieder this way, in the groups in which they had been placed.

   The complaints Brahms voices through Beckerath could have been made today, for most performers and musicologists continue to ‘pluck apart’ not only op. 105, but also the majority of Brahms’s more than thirty other ‘song bouquets’. With the exception of the Magelone Romanzen op. 33 and Vier ernste Gesänge op. 121 (works that are, indeed, ‘exceptional’), recordings of complete song sets by Brahms are largely confined to encyclopaedic ‘complete Lieder’ sets. The song bouquets have fared only slightly better with musicologists. Brief articles by Imogen Fellinger, Ulrich Mahlert and others, as well as passing references in the more extensive studies of Max Harrison, Lucien Stark, Michael Musgrave and Malcolm MacDonald, offer glimpses of the implications of Brahms’s comments to Beckerath, but recent literature indicates that the standard frame of reference is still the individual song: Eric Sams’s Brahms’s Songs discusses individual Lieder, democratically numbered from 1 (op. 3/1) through to 204 (op. 121/4), and in examining motivic correspondences Sams is concerned with demonstrating coherence across Brahms’s entire oeuvre rather than with revealing connections which may pertain within particular collections. Jonathan Dunsby’s article on ‘The multi-piece in Brahms’ has done much to increase our appreciation of the forms of coherence that might exist in Brahms’s sets of piano pieces, yet he offers little direct encouragement to extend such consideration to Brahms’s song collections – indeed, he states somewhat dismissively that Brahms ‘was disinclined to write song-cycles despite all the precedents’.

   A cursory glance at op. 105 as a whole might lead us to question whether we should attempt to apply the concept of the multi-piece to Brahms’s song collections, and whether Brahms really was, as Beckerath puts it, ‘very justified in this complaint’ about the plucking apart of his song bouquets. Brahms did not conceive the songs as a group, and the first references to op. 105 as a set only appear when Brahms began approaching his publisher about them almost two years after ‘Wie Melodien’ had been composed. Not surprisingly, given that the Lieder appear to have been conceived as independent entities, there are no obvious thematic connections between the songs. There is also no immediately apparent significance in the sequence of keys – something that would have been relatively easy to arrange at a later date – and when Brahms sanctioned a transposed edition he made no effort to preserve the tonal sequence. The poems are from five different sources and produce some strong stylistic juxtapositions: the collection encompasses the folk style of ‘Klage’, the ballad ‘Verrat’, and the abstract subtlety already observed in ‘Wie Melodien’. Similarly, there are conflicts of narrative voice, which would seem to prevent the whole being read as a single narrative sequence: the dying girl of ‘Immer leiser’ (no. 2) who waits for a final visit from her lover is almost impossible to reconcile with the unfaithful girl of ‘Verrat’ (no. 5), whose new lover is murdered by the old. Moreover, the narrators of these two poems are of different genders, which creates perhaps the greatest challenge yet to Brahms’s declared desire that his bouquets be performed complete: ‘Immer leiser’ seemingly demands to be sung by a woman, while the vocal line of ‘Verrat’ is in the bass clef. Finally, there is no evidence that all five songs were performed together in Brahms’s lifetime, and references in the correspondence of Brahms and his circle make few if any connections between the songs of op. 105.

   However, a cursory glance is always going to be inadequate when Brahms’s music is the subject. Brahms once said to Clara Schumann that if she did not like the text of a poem on first reading she should reread it closely to appreciate its subtlety. And Brahms valued the loose connection that is discernible only with careful study, as quotations he copied into notebooks of citations and maxims (his ‘Schatzkästlein’) suggest:

What is holy? That which binds many souls together, even if only gently, as the rush binds the wreath.

   You are not to penetrate the artwork at first glance. Where it appears dim to you, probe with cheerful diligence.

   The aim of this book is to probe Brahms’s op. 105 grouping and other ‘song bouquets’, to investigate the nature of the ‘rush that binds [these] wreaths’, and to ascertain the extent to which Brahms’s complaints to Beckerath are justified. Each of the problems posed by op. 105 will be addressed in turn as we, in effect, retrace the process described in ‘Wie Melodien’: after an examination of the possible generic models and aesthetic frameworks available to Brahms in the creation of ‘song bouquets’, we follow op. 105 and other collections from conception and publication, to performance and reception, and investigate the implications of each stage for textual and musical coherence. I cannot promise that my investigation will always be characterised by objectivity or ‘cheerful diligence’, but nor do I apologise for this fact. As Groth suggests in ‘Wie Melodien’, the ‘well concealed’ meaning may sometimes best be discerned by the ‘moist eye’ of the more subjective recipient. It is, I suggest, in the nature of the song bouquet that the meaning must to some extent be constructed by the recipient, and in the final chapter I examine the implications this has for the relationship between meaning and the composer’s intentions”

Cambridge University Press
978-0-521-83558-9 – Brahms’s Song Collections

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