Program Notes

2005 Spring – Liebesliederwaltzer

Liebesliederwaltzer by Johannes Brahms

At 35, Johannes Brahms had not achieved any real success. He had given up his career as a concert pianist some 15 years earlier, hoping to achieve success as a composer and conductor. All he now had to show were couple of serenades, a piano concerto, and some chamber music-and conducting a women’s chorus in Hamburg for two years. He was painfully aware of others’ successes at 35: Haydn, for example, at 35 had about 25 symphonies to his credit, a couple of masses, a fine cello concerto, two operas, and at least six string quartets-and lived another 42 productive years. Mozart, in the last year of his life, was working on an opera (La Comenza di Tito) and his Requiem; Beethoven had completed three of his nine symphonies, the Waldstein and Appassionata piano sonatas, the Kreutzer violin sonata, and the first version of his opera “Fidelio”. Mendelssohn had finished five symphonies, the oratorio St. Paul, two piano concerti, at least seven overtures, most of his Songs Without Words-and lived only three more years. And Brahms’ great friend Robert Schumann, besides being a respected editor and critic, at 35 had completed three of his four symphonies, a piano concerto, numerous quartets, enormous amounts of piano music, songs, and even a (justly neglected!) oratorio (Das Paradies und die Peri). Even Clara Schumann-Robert’s widow, and probably Brahms’ best friend (though his romantic designs on the older woman had been replaced by respect), had become a remarkable touring piano virtuoso (and occasional composer)– interrupted, at 35, when Robert’s increasing mental problems finally caused him to be permanently institutionalized.

Brahms’ lack of recognition probably was not without his own culpability. Brahms was not a recluse, but he was serious and intense. In the 1850’s, he authored a manifesto-also signed by a few other musical friends-in which he took vigorous exception to the supposed superiority of the “New German School”, the musical torrent of his time, which was dominated by, among others, Liszt and Wagner. This publication backfired, making Brahms a laughing-stock and probably contributing to the neglect of his compositions by the intelligentsia of the day. Moreover, Brahms was extremely self-critical (which could not have helped his lagging recognition) and destroyed much of what he composed, which of course left his reputation resting on a smaller body of published work.

In his 35th year, Brahms moved to Vienna. He brought with him at least two works in process. One was the work that at last brought him real recognition as a composer: A German Requiem, a unique and very personal oratorio/cantata which had been inspired by Brahms’ regard for his mother, who had passed away some three years previously. The other, as different-and commercial-as it could be, was a series of 18 song settings, based on poems translated, possibly in part rewritten, by Georg Friedrich Daumer. Two of these poems were of Russian origin; three Polish; five Hungarian; and the other eight had both Russian and Polish roots. Brahms set them all in _ time, calling them Liebeslieder Waltzer– “Love Song Waltzes”. The waltz itself was a relatively new invention- a product of the nineteenth century, though it developed out of the laendler, a much older peasant dance of probable Austrian origin. Brahms’ Waltzer are barely distinguishable from their parent form, which is generally slower and may differ in its rhythmic emphasis. These songs were almost surely a means to an end: Eminently salable, certainly in a popular vein, their intent was probably to provide financial support to Brahms while he finished the Requiem – and possibly to tide him over if the Requiem were to fail. But the reception of the Requiem , premiered in 1869, was unbelievably positive: Brahms suddenly had the recognition he coveted (although he still did not get a conducting position). And Liebeslieder was also a surprising success, from its first performance just after New Year’s in 1870. So much so that Brahms subsequently issued another collection, Neue Liebeslieder, finished in 1874 and performed the next year, with lyrics again drawn from Daumer. The newfound fame also eventually got Brahms a conducting job, with the Vienna Gesellschaftskonzerte in 1872; but the demands of that position sapped the time available for composing, and he resigned the next year. Fortunately, he had little need for conducting thereafter, and while continuing to compose-all four symphonies, the Variations on a Theme by Haydn, the Academic Festival overture, and many other works– accumulated a continuing, if belated, stream of prizes and recognitions. He died at age 63, of cancer, in 1896, less than a year after his beloved Clara.

The Chorus performed Liebeslieder once previously, in 1988, under its then assistant director, Carol Fancher. The Chorus performed Ein Deutsches Requiem in its fifth season, 1980, under Robert O. Jaynes.

J. R. Fancher,Mar. 2005