Johannes Brahms (1833–1897) Song of Destiny Op. 54
“Ye move up yonder in light” – Urtext after the Brahms Complete Edition of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Vienna [mix ch,orch] duration: 12' Text: Friedrich Hölderlin
choir: SATB – 184.108.40.206. – 220.127.116.11. – timp – str
Brahms told us that early that morning he had found Hölderlins poems in the bookcase, and had been deeply moved by the Schicksalslied. When, later in the day we sat down on the shore to rest, we discovered Brahms at a great distance, sitting alone on the beach and writing. These were the first sketches for the Song of Destiny, which was published shortly thereafter. (Albert Dietrich, Summer 1869)
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The conductor Hermann Levi, a friend of Brahms, prepared a piano-vocal score of the work in 1871, prior to the works publication. Brahms revised it upon receiving it. He wanted a symphonic sound from the piano part; what he created fully corresponds to the monumentality of the Song of Destiny.
Piano Vocal Score by Hermann Levi und Johannes Brahms. New Edition with a preface by Ulrich Mahlert.
Johannes Brahms’ Schicksalslied (Song of Destiny) op. 54 is a large-scale setting for chorus and orchestra of the eponymous poem from Friedrich Hölderlin’s epistolary novel Hyperion oder Der Eremit in Griechenland (published in 1797 and 1799). Hyperion, the major character in the novel, sings the song found in the Second Book of the Second Volume. He informs his friend Bellarmin: “I remained on the shore and gazed silently at the sea, one hour after the other, weary from the pangs of departure. My spirit recounted the painfilled days of slowly ebbing youth, and capricious like a beautiful dove, it hovered over what was to come. To steel myself, I took out my long-forgotten lute to sing myself a song of destiny that I had once repeated after my Adamas [i.e. Hyperion’s wise teacher] in the blissful ignorance of youth.” The poem that follows consists of three stanzas with metrically free, nonrhyming verses of various lengths:
[I] You wander in the light up high / On welcoming ground, blessed spirits! / Divinely shimmering breezes / Touch you gently / Like the fingers of the artist / On sacred strings.
[II] Unburdened by fate, like a sleeping / Infant, the immortals breathe. / Chastely guarded / In modest buds / Their spirit blooms without end / And the eyes of the blessed / Gaze upon tranquil / eternal clarity.
[III] But to us it is given / That there is no place to rest; / We vanish, we fall, / We, suffering mortals, / blindly from one / Hour to the next / Like the spray of water / On cliff after cliff / And year after year we descend into the Unknown.
Brahms seems to have first come across the poem in a context extraneous to the novel. In his memoirs, Brahms’ friend Albert Dietrich describes an excursion to Wilhelmshaven undertaken with Karl Reinthaler in summer 1869: “On our way there, our friend, who was usually so lively, was quiet and serious. He told us that early that morning (he always rose at dawn) he had found Hölderlin’s poems in the bookcase, and had been deeply moved by the Schicksalslied. When, later in the day […] we sat down on the shore to rest, we discovered Brahms at a great distance, sitting alone on the beach and writing. These were the first sketches for the Schicksalslied, which was published shortly thereafter. […] He hurried back to Hamburg to plunge into his work.” Brahms presumably later studied the poem within the context of the novel as well. He completed a first version of the work in May; the final version was released (with full score, piano-vocal score, choral and orchestral parts) in December 1871 by N. Simrock in Berlin.
Brahms struggled for a long time to find a close to the Schicksalslied whose concept he could fully agree with. The three-part form he ultimately chose is clearly articulated and combines the first two stanzas of the poem into a calmly flowing section that is to be performed “slowly and longingly.” The entreaty to the heavenly beings (“blessed spirits”) in the first stanza is linked with the description of their transcendental essence in the following stanza. The music for the perception of the otherworldly bliss awaiting us intertwines with that of its unattainability. Contrasting with this large section in E flat major is an emotionally stirring Allegro in the parallel key of C minor, which represents the ceaseless and inescapable suffering of mankind depicted in the third stanza. As if it had exhausted itself, the music of this section, which “descends into the Unknown,” closes with emphatically ascending gestures that echo the first section (m. 364ff.) and the sighing figures derived from them (m. 372ff.). Brahms then appends a tranquil orchestral epilogue that reprises the ductus of the first section. It guides the C minor of the middle section back towards C major, and radiates peace and serenity as an instrumental Adagio farewell. For a certain time, and in connection with this closing section, Brahms had even considered having the chorus repeat the first two verses of the poem, with the plea to the spirits. He also thought about a textless vocalise for the chorus. (“What I would like the most is for the chorus to sing only ‘ah,’ in a kind of humming voice.” This was transmitted by Brahms’ friend and biographer Max Kalbeck.) To a certain extent, the final version honors the wish that inspires Hyperion to sing the song in Hölderlin’s novel: “To steel myself […].” This is achieved through absolute music: there is no text to lay down the meaning of the closing section; it is up to the listener to interpret it. To this day, the aesthetic quality of this close is still controversial and an ever-present object of discussion in Brahms literature. Until the work’s printing, Brahms himself remained uncertain as to whether the solution he decided upon for the close of the work was right. “[…] I say something that the poet does not say, and it would obviously be better if what is missing had been the main point […].” (letter to Karl Reinthaler, Vienna, ca. 24 October 1871)
The conductor Hermann Levi, a friend of Brahms, prepared a piano-vocal score of the work in 1871, prior to the work’s publication. Brahms revised it upon receiving it and wrote to Levi on 27 September in his self-ironic manner: “The piano reduction has been intentionally changed, not improved. I wanted to make it more difficult, so that it would be the fault of the pianist – and not mine – if the work did not go well in concerts, if everything sounds clear and bores the audience, etc., etc. – seriously now!” Brahms wanted a symphonic sound from the piano part; what he created fully corresponds to the monumentality of the Schicksalslied.
Berlin, Fall 2013