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Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
Liebeslieder: Nine waltzes from Op 52 and Op 65
Brahms’s musical personality had its relaxed, fun-loving side. He soaked up the music of the gypsy bands he heard in Vienna’s cafés and restaurants, and he greatly admired Johann Strauss II (when Strauss’s step-daughter asked him to sign her fan he wrote the opening bars of the main theme of his ‘Blue Danube’ waltz, adding “unfortunately not by Johannes Brahms”).
The eighteen Liebeslieder (Love Songs; 1868-69) and the fifteen songs that comprise the follow-up Neue Liebeslieder (New Love Songs; 1869-74) were conceived in that spirit. They are scored for four solo voices (soprano, alto, tenor and bass), and piano duet, though they are occasionally sung by a chorus. They were composed between 1868 and 1869, towards the end of the decade in which he made his first visit to Vienna and found himself increasingly involved in the city’s musical life. The first complete performance was given in Vienna the following January, with Brahms and Clara Schumann playing the piano duet part.
The texts are by one of Brahms’s favourite poets, Georg Friedrich Daumer, from his collection Polydora, published in 1855, which he designated a ‘song-book of world poetry’. Based on Russian, Polish and Hungarian originals, they deal with stock situations of happiness, longing and dejection, combined with appropriate nature imagery.
The eighteen Liebeslieder may well be a reflection of his feelings for Clara Schumann’s daughter, Julie. These were probably no more than romantic fantasies, and Julie does not seem to have felt the same towards him. All the same, the announcement of her engagement to an Italian count in the summer of 1869 came as a considerable shock to him, prompting the anguished, gloomy work generally known as the Alto rhapsody, the score of which Brahms presented to Clara either on the day of Julie’s wedding or shortly after (authorities differ as to precisely when). He later claimed that it was an epilogue to the Liebeslieder.
As a work conceived primarily for domestic performance, the songs have an element of play-acting, or charades, about them. The waltz rhythms, and the extraordinary range and variety – expressive as well as rhythmic – that Brahms draws out of them, add a lightly ironic tone to these vignettes of treacherous or loving eyes, despondent, entreating or contented lovers, and ambivalent feelings. Brahms uses them to explore the poems’ world while keeping it at arm’s length.
In the winter of 1869-70 Brahms responded to a request from his friend, the conductor Ernst Rudorff by making a selection of nine songs which he scored for voices and small orchestra. It consists of eight numbers from the Liebeslieder plus one, No 6 in the selection, which became the ninth song of the Neue Liebeslieder. Rudorff conducted the first performance of this version in Berlin in May 1870.
© Mike Wheeler