Liebeslieder, Op. 52 (Love songs) & Neue Liebeslieder, Op. 65, (New Love Songs)
Brahms: “I must confess that it was the first time I smiled at the sight of a printed work—of mine!
I will risk being called an ass if our Liebeslieder (Waltzes) don’t give pleasure to a few people.” So wrote Johannes Brahms in 1869 to his publisher, Fritz Simrock, about his 18 love songs in waltz time. They are written for 4-hand piano (two pianists at one piano) and a vocal quartet—soprano, alto, tenor, bass. Indeed these songs, sparkling with charm and invention, have since given pleasure to those who listen to them and sing them. Five years later Brahms would write the second set, Neue Liebeslieder Waltzes Op. 65. A bit darker than his first set, these 15 songs delve more insistently into love’s anguished passions.
Brahms wrote pieces for vocal quartet, both accompanied and unaccompanied, all his life. As his wealth suggested, Liebeslieder and Neue Liebeslieder were a popular and commercial success. He even encouraged Fritz Simrock to sell them at a reasonable price “…for certainly the galleries in the theatre have a better public than the boxes.” The Requiem brought Brahms international respect but it was these smaller pieces, or Hausmusic, that brought Brahms music into homes and salons. Amateur musicians and enthusiasts gathered for joyous musical evenings. The solons also provided a venue for current music to be heard. There were theaters but still no concert or recital halls. The stunning Musikverein was yet to be built in 1870.
Brahms’ large output and success of this form was in response to the changed artistic ideals of his time. Romantic thought had swept courtly music aside. By his 20s, Brahms had already read and was deeply influenced by the literature and philosophy of what would become known as the Romantic period. Individual imagination and self expression had become understood as the very nature of humanity; and as such, folk music that bubbled up regionally, started to be collected and treasured. Poetry and music were inspired not from intellectualism but powerful emotion. Brahms two sets are passionate with love’s joy and turmoil.
Brahms seemed more often drawn to folk poems rather than the great German poets. There are exceptions like the Alto Rapsody and the last poem of the Neue Liebeslieder, “Zum Schluß”,
where Brahms turned to Goethe.
But the rest of poems for Liebeslieder and Neue Liebeslieder use short romantic poems from Georg Friedrich Daumer’s folk collection, Polydora. Daumer was influenced by a variety of European folk sources from Turkey, Poland, Latvia, and Sicily. Brahms’ music also drew on folk sources like the waltz and its precursor, the Austrian Ländler. All but the last song of Neue Liebeslieder, are stylized Viennese waltzes in ¾ time. Most are binary form, that is, in two parts with related keys.
That all are in triple meter could burden the listener but Brahms finds a spirited variety of moods and textures. Within a limited form he brought sparks of imagination. For example, he often varies the deployment of voices. Liebeslieder’s very first song starts with a gently lilting mens’ duet “Im Ländler Tempo”, the women answer in a duet and then the four voices come together when in the poem, they agree to meet as stars come out. In “Ein kleiner, Hübsche Vogel “ (6) of Liebeslieder, the tenor leads off alone telling the story of a little bird and the quartet comes in to comment. In “Flammenauge, dunkles Haar” (14) in Neue, the women sing a fiery duet that dissolves into a lyric quartet endingthe piece.
Though The Liebeslieder Walzes are somewhat lighter in tone than what came later in Neue Liebeslieder, there is plenty of unrest. To touch on a few pieces: After the first gentle Ländler, the second, "Am Gesteine rauscht die flut "rips into an unexpected warning, Those who are not stirred by a tumultuous stream crashing against stones, will learn to be so when they fall in love. This abrupt change lets us know right away that love is never predictable. “Donaustrande” (9) speaks of an inaccessible girl on the Danube banks with a melodious line sung by the mezzo, tenor, bass. Then with added soprano, the B section breaks in with a contrasting tirade about breaking the locks that keep the young maid from her admirer. There are 4 pieces, from“Vögelein” (13) to “Ein Dunkler Schacht”
(16), that seem to be placed in an especially effective grouping. The first three allow us more hope. “Vögelein” is a lilting soprano/alto duet. You hear a delicately flitting bird in the piano. Then in “Sieh, wie ist die Velle klar” the men sing a expressive duet and again the piano creates a magical mood…moonlight glistening on calm water. those three set up the exquisite “Nachtigall” (14), perhaps the romantic highlight of Liebeslieder. In the first few bars Brahms gives us the musical setting—the nightingale sings so beautifully when the stars twinkle. He opens the B section with passion, Love me, my beloved sweetheart, kiss me in the dark. Then lest we are left with love idealized,
in “Ein Dundeler Schact is Liebe” (16) Brahms denounces all this bliss in a driving fury. “Love is a dangerous well and I poor fool, fell in; I can’t hear or see, I can only think about my bliss…moan in
my sorrow.” The piece ends with a stabbing f minor flourish. That certainly is the anguish.
Neue Liebeslieder is somewhat darker in tone than the more congenial Liebeslieder. Characters emerge from the soloists. The three soprano solos start with “Rosen Steckt mir” (6). She yearns for
love before her youth fades. In “Nagen am Herzen” (9) she wonders if love will ever be hers. Then in “Alles, alles, in den Wind” (11), she must have found love for she hurls invectives at her unfaithful lover. The Mezzo reveals complications in her solos as well. In “An jeder Hand die Finger” (3), she is taken with “an unworthy boy”. Then in a fearsome rage, “Wahre, Wahre deinen Sohn”, she warns that
a mother had better protect her son or through the power of her blazing dark eyes she will either burn his soul or their cottage down! The tenor seduces a bevy of women in “Ich kose süß” (10) even as he still longs for his true love, Nonna. The bass in “Ihr Schwarzen Augen” is taken with a pair of devastating and dangerous dark eyes. All the solo pieces decry love’s instability, or insanity.
The seven choral pieces begin with a warning, “Verzicht, O Herz, auf Rettung” (“Renounce, My Heart, Hopes of Being Saved”) foreshadows love’s rocky seas in the ensuing cycle. After each “Zertrumert” (“shattered”), the piano crashes with a chord surely meant to echo not only a wrecked ship but a crushed heart. In “Weiche Gräser” (8) Brahms uses silences between syllables to create the hush of a lover's bucolic haven. The achingly beautiful soprano/alto duet, “Nein, Geliebter” (13) bemoans how secretive she and her lover must be. It moves into the fiery soprano/alto duet, “Flammenauge” (14), declaring that through loving, sorrow has entered her heart. It then blossoms into a lilting quartet admitting one can no more put an end to irrational love than nature can be altered.
The final song is a total departure from both sets of love songs. “Zum Schluß” (“conclusion”) leaves the lovers’ plights behind and directly addresses the muses. It is more philosophical as it expands from the usual ¾ time to a 9/8. Unlike pieces before, it has an extended contrapuntal section. It builds to a five bar a cappella climax where the vocal quartet moves from C major to F major in an intense transition. Another striking departure is the poetry. Brahms turns away from Daumer’s folk collection and toward Goethe. He says the muses cannot heal the wounds inflicted by Amor, but relief can only come through them. At last, both cycles ebb to a peaceful conclusion.