Brahms and the disorder of the songs

Brahms' songs can be addictive. There are always moments when something completely unexpected happens. What characterizes Brahms' song oeuvre and what distinguishes him from important contemporaries such as Robert Schumann and Hugo Wolf?

From June 8 to 16, the Heidelberger Frühling Liedfestival immersed itself in the song oeuvre of Johannes Brahms. The motto "Brahms and the disorder of songs" referred to the composer's tendency not to compile larger song cycles, but to collect his songs in small "bouquets" - as he himself called them - which could be made up of settings by poets from different eras and without any connection in terms of content. Brahms' reverence for the folk song can also be heard in several concerts.

Brahms left behind a total of around 280 songs for solo voice, roughly the same number as his much younger colleagues Robert Schumann and Hugo Wolf. In contrast to them, however, Brahms did not only focus on the Lied in certain phases of his life, but continuously and consistently throughout his entire artistic career. According to the musicologist Matthias Schmidt, who teaches in Basel, Brahms' songs can be seen as the key to understanding his compositions. On the one hand, they are everyday finger exercises, but they also offer room for experimentation and allow him to express musical thoughts.

Brahms had a pronounced literary taste, but he largely omitted the "great" poets. He wanted to improve the words through music and contribute to their aesthetic enhancement. When a poem appealed to him, he carried it around in his head for a long time and only later worked it out musically.

He did not compile his songs in large cycles, but in small "bouquets", as he called them. These bouquets consisted of settings by poets from different eras and had no context. Nevertheless, there was a certain poetic arrangement within the small groups. In a letter to his publisher Rieter-Biedermann, Brahms wrote: "The volumes vary in size, but I would like to leave the order as you would call it disorder." So an orderly disorder?

Perhaps this is because Brahms was also thinking in terms of instrumental music in his songs. Over 60 different poets inspired Brahms to set his works to music, most of which are hardly known today. The lyricist most frequently set to music was Georg Friedrich Daumer, a religious philosopher and translator of oriental poems. Brahms took the texts that inspired him and arranged them according to his own musical laws.

Brahms revered the folk song, although he was not interested in what actually came from the people, but in the idealized folk tone, which was free of vulgarity. He smoothed and distorted the adopted folk songs in order to adapt them to his own style. Some of his own compositions were even regarded as folk songs, which must have pleased Brahms. He had managed to completely dissolve the artistic artificiality into simplicity and naturalness.

In the spring of 1894, Brahms was already planning to conclude his work with No. 49, the last song from the collection "Forty-nine German Folk Songs". But things turned out differently. Brahms set to work once again in 1896. The "Four Serious Songs", which deal with his own death, had yet to be completed. There was no master plan or striving for completeness - life itself determined the inner logic of Brahms' songs.