Johannes Brahms | Schicksalslied

“[Brahms] understands how to be Classic and Romantic, ideal and real.”[1]

With the wisdom afforded in nearing midlife, Brahms concluded humanity had lost its connection to God.  During this rare fallow period in 1868, following his successful Ein Deutsches Requiem, Brahms found some of Hölderlin’s[2] poetry in a friend’s library and read “Hyperions Schicksalslied.”  In walks along the beach near his friend’s home, Brahms began to sketch his Schicksalslied (Song of Destiny), opus 54.  After struggling with the ending, he set the secular cantata aside, not to be finished until three years later.

As with every work that survived Brahms’ fireplace, Schicksalslied is a masterpiece, portraying the brush between spiritually blinded, self-doomed mortals and the Elysian spirits.  With woodwinds and strings, “[t]he introduction rises to a peak of longing, then sinks for the entrance of the altos declaiming . . . the unreachable bliss of the gods . . . .  After the full choir enters, the verses unfold like a hymn.  [T]he middle section plummets to earth, and human fate” then “sinks to an exhausted whisper . . . .  [L]eaving the chorus tacet for the entire last section, [Brahms] reorchestrated the haunting first phrases . . . .”[3]  The cantata ends with instrumental music alone, “its ruthless beauty the only solace he knew now.”[4]  The ending adagio, which restates the C-minor prelude in an ethereal C major, consciously changes the meaning of the poem from resignation to resolution.  Brahms couldn’t bring himself to do otherwise.

—   by Carol Talbeck

1 – Music critic Adolf Schubring quoted in Jan Swafford, Johannes Brahms:  A Biography (Alfred A. Knopf, 1997), 234.

2 – Friedrich Hölderlin was a major 18th-century German poet-thinker.  He deeply admired the ancient Greek perspective on humanity’s tragic fall, expressed in the last stanza of his poem “Hyperions Schicksalslied.”

3 – Swafford, 360-361.

4 – Swafford, 361.