- Thursday, 8 September 2011
There are texts too powerful to be set as songs, whose musical treatment demands a larger form: in grappling with the poetry of Goethe and Hölderlin, Johannes Brahms broke down boundaries between existing genres and came up with new forms for vocal music. In the Alto Rhapsody after Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s poem Harzreise im Winter (Winter Journey through the Harz Mountains), about a man suffering from disappointment in love, Brahms orients himself closely on the structure prescribed by the poem. He does, however, sharpen the profile of the individual stanzas by giving each its own particular character. Brahms in this work combines different traditional genres to create a miniature drama: a disrupted orchestral character piece with arioso, a dramatic orchestral song and a consolatory, quietly flowing choral piece with contralto solo.
Brahms finds a completely different solution for the Schicksalslied (Song of Destiny) from Friedrich Hölderlin’s Hyperion. The extreme contrast between the world of the gods, above in the light, and suffering mankind below is resolved by Brahms in an orchestral postlude. “For the conclusion here you will indeed find no text, no chorus”, writes Brahms to a friend. “The poem is not the kind of text to which one can tack something on.” Instrumental music here is the only means to relieve the pain, brought back at the end of the piece as balm for the oppressive gloom of mankind’s hopeless situation, described in the final stanza.
Ferruccio Busoni initially planned to set the Danish poet Adam Gottlob Oehlenschläger’s verse drama Aladdin as a “Gesamtkunstwerk with drama, music, dance, magic”. The composer, who later composed a Faust opera on a libretto deliberately not based on Goethe, saw in Aladdin a popular Faust subject and thus an alternative to the great German poet’s famous tragedy. In the end, he decided against a dramatic setting in favour of an “architectonic, landscaped, symbolic scene” (Busoni). Poetic natural theatre, Neapolitan landscape, symbolic building, mythical creature, and at the end a nature-mystical final chorus from the Aladdin epilogue – these elements determine the programmatic orientation of Busoni’s Piano Concerto with men’s chorus, Op. 39. The composer devises an experimental form, a mixture of piano concerto, symphonic poem and choral cantata in which the virtuosi, serious and effusive movements leavened are balanced and reflected by two lighter movements, with the final choral movement as a sort of apotheosis to which all the previous movements have been leading.
Johannes Brahms [1833–1897]
for mixed choir and orchestra op. 54 
Rhapsody for alto solo, male choir and orchestra op. 53 
on a fragment from J.W. v. Goethe’s Harzreise im Winter
Ferruccio Busoni [1866–1924]
Concerto for piano and orchestra with final chorus op. 39 
Concerto per un Pianoforte principale e diversi Strumenti ad arco, ad fiato, ed a percussione. Aggiuntovi un Coro finale per voci d’uomini a sei parti. Le parole alemanne del poeta Oehlenschlaeger, danese.