Four Serious Songs, Op 121

Programme note

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
Vier erneste Gesänge (Four Serious Songs)
, Op 121 (1896)                                                                    

In 1890, having completed his second String Quintet, and with his close friends beginning to die around him, Brahms declared that he was finished with composing. Then in 1891, he heard the clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld perform. The magic of his playing re-inspired Brahms, and out poured four great works (the Clarinet Trio, the Clarinet Quintet, and two Clarinet Sonatas) for which clarinetists have ever since sunk to their knees and given thanks! But the re-awakened Brahms discovered he still had further things to say. He began contemplating the composition of more songs. The stroke of the one person who mattered to him most – Clara Schumann – on March 26th, 1896, precipitated what we now know as the Four Serious Songs. He finished them on May 7th (his 63rd and, as it transpired, final birthday). Clara died on May 20th. Neither she nor Brahms had any belief in an afterlife but that did not stop him from admiring Luther’s translation of the Bible into German. By 1896 even more of Brahms’s close friends had died, so it is no surprise to discover him in valedictory mood as he contemplates life without Clara. As it turned out, he himself would be dead of liver cancer in early April the next year.

He chose biblical texts from Ecclesiastes for the first two songs (3, 19-22 & 4, 1-3); Ecclesiasticus for the third song (41, 1-2) and, for the last song, the first letter of Paul to the Corinthians (13, 1-3 & 12-13). The result is a song cycle on death that is profoundly moving, though, unlike Bach, Brahms did not come to death with any sense of joy, but with bitter regret at life’s insubstantiality. So Four Serious Songs becomes an elegy to life.

In the opening song the accompaniment is like a funeral march in D minor with a bell tolling relentlessly on the dominant. Although the middle section moves to D major with rapid triplets, it remains starkly pessimistic.

In the next song, the accompaniment descends ominously into the darkness that represents Death. Da lobte ich die Toten, die schon gestorben waren (Wherefore I praised the dead which are already dead) says it all.

The magnificent O Tod, wie bitter bist du (O death, how bitter is the remembrance of thee) sets bitterness against acceptance (just as Brahms had done in his much earlier German Requiem).

The final song, however, breaks away both biblically and musically from the first three. This is more a pæan to love, even if it is unattainable.

Brahms composed powerful ‘symphonic’ piano parts for the Four Serious Songs that just cry out to be orchestrated. The version you will hear this evening uses the orchestration by Günter Raphael.

© David Gardner