Program Notes | O schöne Nacht – Romantic Songs of Love and Nature

Johannes Brahms, Vier Quartette, Op. 92

Composed in the summer of 1884, these four short, beguiling lyrics are suffused with imagery of nature and love. The prevailing mood is mellow and benign; only the second piece, “Spätherbst” (Late autumn), hints at the ineluctable decay that awaits us all. That song’s brooding E-minor tonality overshadows the lustrous E major of “O schöne Nacht” (Oh lovely night), even as its gloomy text foreshadows the poet’s allusion to “pain that oppress’d me” in “Abendlied” (Evening song). In “Warum?” (Why?), Brahms answers Goethe’s peremptory interrogation of the purpose of human life with a lilting paean to the stars and the gods. Brahms was reportedly “in the best of spirits” after hearing the Vier Quartette (Four quartets) premiered by the Krefeld Singverein in January 1885. A contemporary memoirist painted an idyllic picture of the composer’s outing to the Lower Rhine with a group of friends: “In the village street that follows the river’s course, children were playing and Brahms delighted them with candies that he magically produced out of his coat pocket… . The concert had been very successful and the lovely sun-drenched countryside delighted these lovers of nature.” 

To be sure, nature wasn’t the only thing on the fifty-one-year-old Brahms’s mind that midwinter day. Before visiting Krefeld, he had spent Christmas in Leipzig with his long-time artistic confidante Elisabet von Herzogenberg and her husband. Brahms’s soft spot for “Lisl” was an open secret, though a mutual friend, the British composer Ethyl Smyth, insisted that his attitude toward his former piano pupil was purely “reverential, admiring, and affectionate, without a tinge of amorousness.” Lisl had once chided Brahms about setting off-color texts that were suitable only for folk songs. In the manuscript of “O schöne Nacht,” beside the words “The boy steals quietly to his beloved,” the flirtatious composer penned a mischievous riposte: “Stop, dear Johannes, what are you doing! At best one may speak of such things in ‘folk songs,’ which you have unfortunately forgotten again!” 


Clara Schumann, Drei gemischte Chöre

A great pianist as well as a distinguished composer, Clara Schumann led the stressful double life that was the common lot of gifted women in her day. Equally devoted to her family and her music, she managed to rear eight children even as her brilliant but increasingly erratic husband, Robert, slowly succumbed to mental illness. In the 1840s, when the Schumanns lived in Dresden, Clara volunteered her services as pianist for the local choral society that Robert directed. Although he encouraged his wife’s work as a composer, it was on the tacit understanding that his career took precedence over hers. Indeed, the Drei gemischte Chöre (Three mixed choruses) of 1848 were among the last pieces she wrote; a brief, final spurt of creative activity was cut short by Robert’s death in 1856. Like most of Clara’s music, the choruses were neither published nor widely performed until long after her death.

Schumann’s interest in vocal music had deep roots. In addition to her early training as a pianist, she studied with the renowned tenor and singing teacher Johann Aloys Miksch, and her love of Lieder—she published her first art song at age fifteen—helped cement the bond with her future husband. Written as a thirty-eighth-birthday present for Robert, the three choruses celebrate both the Christian virtues of piety, faith, and perseverance and the worldly, sensual pleasures of young love. The hymnlike strains of “Abendfeier in Venedig” (Evening celebration in Venice) and the invigorating march rhythms of “Vorwärts” (Onward) make an effective foil to the seductive, triple-time lilt of “Gondoliera” (Gondola song). All three poems are by Emanuel Geibel, Germany’s foremost lyricist in the mid-nineteenth century; his Spanisches Liederbuch was later set to music by Hugo Wolf.


Fanny Hensel, Gartenlieder, Op. 3

Long eclipsed by her brother, Felix Mendelssohn, Fanny Hensel has belatedly come to be recognized as an estimable composer in her own right. Unlike Clara Schumann, who subordinated her career to that of her husband, Fanny produced a steady stream of works both before and after her marriage to the Prussian court painter Wilhelm Hensel in 1829. The fashionable musical salon that she established at the family home in Berlin provided a venue for performances of her music, sheltered from the harsh glare of publicity. The fact that Fanny brought out her earliest songs under Felix’s name—in the Mendelssohns’ social circle it was considered unseemly for a married woman to pursue a professional career—fostered a lingering perception of her music as derivative. Yet the intimate emotional bond between sister and brother was fortified by mutual respect. As Fanny put it, Felix “has no other musical adviser than me, and he never commits anything to paper without showing it to me first for my examination.” 

Composed in 1846, the six part-songs that comprise Hensel’s Gartenlieder (Garden songs) exemplify a musical genre beloved of Mendelssohn, Schumann, and many other nature-worshipping German composers of the nineteenth century. The very title of the set suggests performance in the open air, or possibly in the frescoed garden room behind the Mendelssohns’ mansion, where Fanny held her celebrated Sunday musicales. The brevity and intimacy of the Lied suited Hensel, who confessed that she lacked “the ability to sustain ideas properly and give them the needed consistency.” The musicologist R. Larry Todd describes Gartenlieder as a miniature song cycle that charts a “trajectory from night to day, from dreamlike recollections of spring to the erupting arrival of the season.” With their simple, mostly syllabic word settings and clear, uncomplicated homophonic textures, the songs abound in unpretentious felicities. Listen, for example, for the sudden switch from triple to duple meter in “Schöne Fremde” (Beautiful foreign land), signaling a return from reverie to reality; or for the sopranos’ billowing melisma on the word Rauschen (rustling) in “Im Wald” (In the forest). 


Robert Schumann, Vier doppelchörige Gesänge, Op. 141

Robert Schumann’s contribution to the Lieder genre is widely known, his choral music less so. Yet he wrote a substantial body of part-songs in the 1840s and 1850s, most of it arising from his activities as choral conductor in Leipzig, Dresden, and Düsseldorf. The Vier doppelchörige Gesänge (Four songs for double chorus) date from late 1849, which Schumann considered the most fruitful year of his entire career. In a burst of euphoria, he wrote to the editor of Germany’s leading music magazine: “I fail to see the nonrecognition from which I am supposed to suffer. Appreciation often falls to my lot in full measure; your journal provides many instances. Another practical but very convincing proof is offered by the publishers, who show a certain desire for my compositions, and pay high prices for them.” Then, perhaps wary of tempting fate, he added: “Where is the composer whose fame is universal? Where is the work—were it even of divine origin—universally acknowledged as sacred?”

Compared to cosmopolitan Leipzig, Dresden—where the Schumanns lived from 1844 to 1850—was something of a musical backwater. Apart from the court opera, led by a young firebrand named Richard Wagner, it boasted few musical institutions of note, and its solidly bourgeois, Biedermeier culture favored the production of amateur-grade Hausmusik. Schumann probably wrote his Opus 141 for the community choir he formed soon after arriving in the Saxon city. Each of the first three songs addresses a familiar Romantic trope: the promise of heavenly peace (“An die Sterne,” [To the stars]), love-death (“Ungewisses Licht” [Uncertain light]), and the restorative power of love (“Zuversicht” [Assurance]). Schumann treats the two four-voice choruses as distinct entities, by turns alternating and massing them to vary the musical rhetoric and texture. The religious theme of “Talismane” (Talismans) elicited a different response from him. Schumann had previously set Goethe’s poem as a solo song but evidently felt he had more to say, for the choral setting is significantly longer and more complex. Each of the three verses receives a distinct musical treatment, culminating in an intricate fugue that describes the erring soul’s return to the path of righteousness.


Johannes Brahms, Liebeslieder-Walzer, Op. 52 

Buoyed by the success of his popular keyboard waltzes, Op. 39, of 1865, Brahms followed up with two sets of Liebeslieder-Walzer (Love-song waltzes) between 1869 and 1874. The first, Opus 52, was an unabashedly commercial enterprise. Although Brahms scored the eighteen waltzes for one to four voices and four-hand piano, his publisher cannily advertised the vocal parts as optional in a bid to boost sales. Musically, Brahms’s point of departure was the waltzes of Schubert and Strauss, but it’s his attachment to the Schumanns’ twenty-four-year-old daughter that provides the emotional subtext of these miniature love songs. When Clara told him that Julie was engaged to an Italian count in the spring of 1869, the composer stormed out of the house and plunged into a prolonged sulk. Later he made his feelings for the young woman clear in his deeply felt Alto Rhapsodie, which he described as a “bridal song” but Clara recognized as “neither more nor less than the expression of his own heart’s anguish.”

Brahms gleaned the texts of the Liebeslieder-Walzer from an anthology of folk poetry edited by the philosopher-poet Georg Friedrich Daumer. The subjects represent variations on the theme of requited and unrequited love, a tried-and-true formula that Brahms invests with a freshness of feeling undoubtedly born of his own experience. Despite the formal simplicity of the waltzes—all but number 6 are in binary song form (ABA)—Brahms’s treatment of harmony, phrase lengths, and rhythmic and melodic structure is as sophisticated as his piano accompaniments. He and Clara Schumann shared keyboard duties at the premiere of the Op. 52 set in Vienna on January 5, 1870.


Notes © by Harry Haskell

A former performing arts editor for Yale University Press, Harry Haskell is a program annotator for Carnegie Hall in New York, the Pierre Boulez Saal in Berlin, and other venues, and the author of several books, including The Early Music Revival: A History and Maiden Flight.