Brahms' Five Songs Op 104

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)

Johannes Brahms
(1833-1897)

Johannes Brahms composed his Fünf Gesänge Op 104 in 1888, as a 55-year old bachelor. At this age in his composing career, the themes for his music were reflective and nostalgic. For this five-song cycle for mixed chorus a cappella, Brahms chose texts that centre on lost youth, summer turning into fall and, ultimately, man's mortality. The sombre nature of the texts coupled with intense soaring melodies and complex harmonies make it quite a demanding work for any choir.

1. Nachtwache I (poetry by Friedrich Rückert)

The musical writing reflects the frail beatings of a heart awakened by the breath of love about which the text speaks. Listen for how the dynamics alter swiftly from the soft to the very strong, which emulate the actual breathing of the narrator who seeks an answer to his love.

Gentle sounds of the soul,
inspired by the breath of love,
blow tremblingly forth,
if you open an ear,
open a loving heart,
and if none opens to you,
let the night wind carry you sighing back to me.

Leise Töne der Brust,
geweckt vom Odem der Liebe,
Hauchet zitternd hinaus,
ob sich euch [öffn']1 ein Ohr,
Öffn' ein liebendes Herz,
und wenn sich keines euch öffnet, 
Trag' ein Nachtwind euch seufzend in meines zurück.
 

2. Nachtwache II (poetry by Friedrich Rückert)

Listen for a more confident and reassuring tone in the music as well as in the text. The repeated calls of "Ruhn sie?" in all six voices is an imitation of the horns of the night watchmen, telling their listeners to confidently put out their lamps and let themselves be enveloped by the peaceful night.

Are they resting? the horn of the watchman calls from the west,
and from the east the horn calls a reply:
they rest.
Do you hear, apprehensive heart,
the whispering voices of angels?
Extinguish the lamp confidently,
and cover yourself in peace.

Ruh'n sie? rufet das Horn des Wächters drüben aus Westen, 
Und aus Osten das Horn rufet entgegen:
Sie ruh'n!
Hörst du, zagendes Herz,
die flüsternden Stimmen der Engel? 
Lösche die Lampe getrost,
hülle in Frieden dich ein.

3. Letztes Glück (poetry by Max Kalbeck)

Winter is coming; dead leaves from the trees are falling on each other—a picture wonderfully recreated in the music with its swiftly changing chords. These are followed by long and sad melodies in all parts. The piece temporarily switches to the major mode as the narrator experiences a feeling of hope that spring will swiftly come again, but this is quickly crushed by the image of the "late wild rose". But what -- or who -- is the "late wild rose"?

Leaf upon leaf floats lifelessly,
quietly and sadly from the trees;
its hopes never satisfied,
the heart dwells in dreams of spring.

Yet a sunny glance still lingers
in the late-blooming rose bush,
like one last bit of happiness -
a sweet hopelessness.

Letztes Glück
Leblos gleitet Blatt um Blatt
Still und traurig von den Bäumen;
Seines Hoffens nimmer satt,
Lebt das Herz in Frühlingsträumen. 

Noch verweilt ein Sonnenblick
Bei den späten Hagerosen,
Wie bei einem letzten Glück,
Einem süßen, hoffnungslosen.

4. Verlorene Jugend (Slovak folksong, translated into German by Josef Wenzig)

This is the most lively and boisterous song in the series. Listen for how the song has two verses, both of which can be divided into a fast and slow part. Once more, the aging of man is contrasted with nature, particularly in the end.

The mountains all bluster,
the woods murmur all about,
my days of youth,
where have you so soon gone?

Youth, precious youth,
you have flown from me;
o lovely youth,
so heedless was my mind!

I lost you regrettably,
as when one takes a stone
and flings it away
into a stream.

Sometimes a stone can be reversed in its course and return from the deep flood -
but I know that youth
will never do the same thing.

Brausten alle Berge, 
Sauste rings der Wald, 
Meine jungen Tage, 
Wo sind sie so bald? 

Jugend, teure Jugend,
Flohest mir dahin;
O du holde Jugend,
Achtlos war mein Sinn! 

Ich verlor dich leider,
Wie wenn einen Stein
Jemand von sich schleudert
In die Flut hinein. 

Wendet sich der Stein auch
Um in tiefer Flut,
Weiss ich, dass die Jugend
Doch kein Gleiches tut.

5. Im Herbst (poetry by Klaus Groth)

This is where the mixed emotions of the previous songs come together to form an impressive climax to the song cycle. The parts are repeatedly intertwined and small intervals apart, which creates an image of the inevitability of man's own autumn that heralds death. Listen for the pitch and dynamic contrast for the third verse, and the quiet, meditative way Brahms ends the cycle.

Somber is the autumn,
and when the leaves fall,
so does the heart sink
into dreary woe.
Silent is the meadow
and to the south have flown
silently all the songbirds,
as if to the grave.

Pale is the day,
and wan clouds veil
the sun as they veil the heart.
Night comes early:
for all work comes to a halt
and existence itself rests in profound secrecy.

Man becomes kindly.
He sees the sun sinking,
he realizes that life is
like the end of a year.
His eye grows moist,
yet in the midst of his tears shines
streaming from the heart
a blissful effusion.

Ernst ist der Herbst. 
Und wenn die Blätter fallen,
sinkt auch das Herz
zu trübem Weh herab.
Still ist die Flur, 
und nach dem Süden wallen
die Sänger, stumm,
wie nach dem Grab.

Bleich ist der Tag,
und blasse Nebel schleiern
die Sonne wie die Herzen, ein.
Früh kommt die Nacht: 
denn alle Kräfte feiern, 
und tief verschlossen ruht das Sein.

Sanft wird der Mensch.
Er sieht die Sonne sinken,
er ahnt des Lebens
wie des Jahres Schluß.
Feucht wird das Aug',
doch in der Träne Blinken,
entströmt des Herzens
seligster Erguß.

Listen to the world-famous Monteverdi Choir, conducted by John Eliot Gardiner, perform this marvellous song cycle.