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Orchestration: alto, chorus (TB), 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, strings. First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: April 23, 1938 with soloist Clemence Gifford, Otto Klemperer conducting.
Goethe is again the poet here. But dark as Schubert’s Gesang der Geister may be, it remains an abstract artistic statement for both poet and composer. The Alto Rhapsody, on the other hand, has strong biographical implications related to a crisis in its composer’s life.
But first, the origin of the text: In 1777, the 27-year-old Goethe was already among Europe’s most influential literary figures, his celebrity achieved two years earlier with his novel about unrequited passion, The Sorrows of Young Werther, which would become a sort of bible of despair for young lovers. Hundreds of young men, seeing themselves as Werther-like victims, wrote to Goethe asking him for words of hope. One of them, in fact an acquaintance of Goethe’s, asked the poet to visit him on what we today would call a suicide-prevention mission. It should be noted in this connection that Goethe’s novel grew out of his own last-minute withdrawal from the brink of suicide over a failed love affair.
The mission of mercy -- successful, as it turned out -- took Goethe through the Harz Mountains in central Germany and inspired his Harzreise im Winter. It is not one of the Goethe poems usually found in the anthologies, perhaps being too dark overall to be truly representative of its author.
Brahms’ attraction to the poem (and to The Sorrows of Young Werther) stemmed from his own romantic failures and an exceedingly complex attitude toward women: Brahms was misogynistic in general, passionately devoted in the specific. Among the "specifics" were, of course, Clara Schumann, unattainable even after the death of her husband Robert in 1856, followed by a hopeless infatuation with her daughter, Julie, 20-odd years his junior. Out of Julie’s rejection of Brahms came the inspiration to set in 1869 three stanzas (out of a total of 12) of the Goethe poem.
Brahms sent the finished score to Clara for her approval, as was his custom. She recorded in her diary, "It is long since I remember being so moved by the profound pain of words and music. It is the expression of his own heart’s anguish. If only he could speak so candidly in his own words!"
Yet the composer was uncharacteristically positive when describing the piece to other acquaintances, going so far as to tell his publisher, Simrock, that it was his "best work to date." In the words of Brahms biographer Jan Swofford, "He loved it so much that he slept with it (metaphorically) under his pillow. He took it to his bed, in other words, like a bride."
For Goethe, writing Harzreise im Winter represented his turning to a more philosophical view of himself and his art, ending his callow Werther period. For Brahms, the musical version signified the realization that he was not destined for love or strong personal relationships: "Whatever succor and redemption from despair he might find in life, he would find henceforth in music." (Swofford)
The declamatory opening of the Rhapsody, in C minor, sets the physical scene, man alone amid menacing nature, with nothing but contempt for his fellow men. The following section is more lyrical, yet full of self-doubt (the vacillations of 6/4 and 3/2 meters represent the lonely wanderer’s uneasiness). With the gentle, almost imperceptible rise to the major and a broadening of the phrase lengths, the final part begins with the words "Ist auf deinem Psalter, Vater der Liebe," and with the chorus’ entrance there emerges a vision of at least a chance of peace, and revival of the spirit -- through music.
The soloist in the first performance of the Rhapsody (Jena, 1870) was Pauline Viardot-Garcia, famed interpreter of operas by Meyerbeer, Rossini, Bizet, Saint-Saëns, Massenet; Leonore in the Paris premiere of Fidelio (those connections again); lover of Turgenev, friend of Chopin and Wagner, etc., etc. Another notable interpreter of the Rhapsody during the composer’s lifetime was Amalie Weiss, better known as Amalie Joachim, wife of the great violinist Joseph Joachim, for whom Brahms wrote his Violin Concerto.
Herbert Glass, a columnist and critic for the Los Angeles Times from 1971 through 1996, is also a frequent contributor to Gramophone and The Strad. He is English-language annotator for the Salzburg Festival.