The anguish of the Romantic Artist beautifully expressed in Brahms’ Alto Rhapsody

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)

As I work my way through the history of Western classical music (I have written before how I dislike the phrase classical music but enough of that for now), I welcomed in 2011 the other day with my own new year celebrations for reaching, musically, 1871.  1870 had been dealt with pretty promptly as it was a bit of a barren period  – except if you are an enthusiast for the ballet music of Leo Delibes or the also-ran symphonies of Joachim Raff. The big event of that year was the first performance of Brahms’ Alto Rhapsody, written in 1869. Brahms was 36 and still anguished over his growing belief that he had to devote his life to his art even if that meant sacrificing love. His despair might have been made worse because he may have been repressing and over-simplifying something psycho-sexual that he wanted to hide.  The young Johannes Brahms may have been sexually abused by the prostitutes that worked the bars where the child pianist played for money. If that is true it might explain why, throughout his life, he made a separation between the women whom he adored platonically and the prostitutes that he paid for sex.

By 1869, he could see that he might never be happy in any relationship so he was ripe to pour his feelings into one of his first truly great masterpieces – the Alto Rhapsody, a setting of part of a poem by Goethe for mezzo-soprano, male chorus and orchestra. The score of which he apparently kept under his pillow at night for the rest of his life.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832)

The poem, Harzreise Im Winter (A Winter’s Journey In The Harz),  concerns that great image from German Romanticism, the Wanderer. In the poem and in the music, this wretched man is sent into extremes of depression and pain by some unspecified experience with love. Brahms writes what could be a scene from an opera – the nearest he ever got to operatic passion.

The piece is for me the first of Brahms’ works that I would not be able to live without and it heralds the fact that he was about to write his first symphony and to claim his throne as the greatest composer of the late Nineteenth Century.

Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840)

I spent some of the Christmas holidays playing with my new computer and trying to work out how to edit pictures to music. Nothing seemed more appropriate than to have a go at illustrating the Alto Rhapsody with some of my favourite 19th. century paintings – here the mystic landscapes of Casper David Friedrich and the outrageously narcissistic self-portraits of Gustave Courbet.

Gustave Courbet (1819-1877)

Goethe’s German poem is printed below with an English translation so don’t be like a friend of mine who says that she doesn’t listen to vocal music very much because she can’t be bothered to read the text or its translation. Great words and music come together in this piece to inspire anyone who takes the time to listen.

Christa Ludwig (born 1928)

The recording, still available on CD,  is an inspirational 1962 performance with the German mezzo-soprano Christa Ludwig (one of the greatest 20th. Century singers) with the Philharmonia orchestra conducted by the incomparable Otto Klemperer who was twelve years old when Johannes Brahms died.

Otto Klemperer (1885-1973)

If anyone enjoys this, I might do some more to illustrate the music that I am studying. Let me know.

Alto Rhapsody
Aber abseits, wer ist’s?                                                  Who is that, wandering alone?
Ins Gebüsch verliert sich sein Pfad,                               He loses his way in the brush,
hinter ihm schlagen                                                       behind him the branches
die Sträuche zusammen,                                                close together again,
das Gras steht wieder auf,                                             the grass springs back again,
die Öde verschlingt ihn.                                                emptiness swallows him.
Ach, wer heilet die Schmerzen                                      Ah, who can heal the pain
des, dem Balsam zu Gift ward?                                     of one who finds poison in balsam?
Der sich Menschenhaß                                                  He has drunk the hate of mankind
aus der Fülle der Liebe trank!                                       from the cup of love!
Erst verachtet, num ein Verächter,                                First scorned, now scorning,
zehrt er heimlich auf                                                     he secretly wastes
seinen eigen Wert                                                         his own merit
in ungnügender Selbstucht.                                           in useless searching for himself.
Ist auf deinem Psalter,                                                  If there is in your Psalter,
Vater der Liebe, ein Ton                                              Father of Love, a melody
seinem Ohre vernehmlich,                                           that can reach his ear,
so erquicke sein Herz!                                                 revive his heart!
Öffne den umwölkten Blick                                         Turn your unclouded light
über die tausend Quellen                                             down on the thousand fountains
neben dem Dustenden                                                 beside the thirsting soul
in der Wüste.                                                               in the wasteland.
Goethe                                                                        translation: William Mann


  1. Thank you for your deeply felt show. Christa Ludwig is wonderful, Kathleen Ferrier so much deeper. A very modern, disturbing and comforting poem by one of Europe's greatest.

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