We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more


Music in the Nineteenth Century


CHAPTER 13 The Return of the Symphony
Richard Taruskin

It is one of the many ironies surrounding his career that Brahms, famous in history for shunning opera, for his faithfulness to the idea of “absolute music,” and for his role in reviving it, should have gained his first real fame as a composer of choral music to romantic, religious, and patriotic texts. It was, however, a time-honored road to success for German composers in the older Romantic and nationalist tradition, with its many supporting institutions in the guise of singing societies and summer festivals. For a while it was the field in which Brahms was seen to specialize.

The first major appointment he was able to secure in Vienna was as director of the Singakademie, one of the city's two main choral societies. In pursuit of the post he unexpectedly embarked in the spring of 1863 on an elaborate cantata—Rinaldo, for tenor soloist, chorus, and orchestra—after a narrative poem by Goethe based on Torquato Tasso's epic of the crusades, Jerusalem Delivered (1581), which had been a popular source for Italian madrigals and early operas. The part Goethe had paraphrased had already been set as an opera by Lully (1686), Handel (1711), and Gluck (1777) by the time Brahms got a hold of it, and in its dramatic exchanges the work is as close as Brahms would ever come to writing an opera himself. (Indeed, had he found a suitable opera libretto in this ambitious phase of his career Brahms would not have hesitated to set it; his “principled” antioperatic stance was adopted later and was mostly a matter of image-building.)

By the time he had his first rehearsals at the Singakademie in the fall, Brahms realized that the organization's budget would not cover a performance of his work in progress, and it, too, was shelved for a while, not to be completed until 1868. For the time being Brahms concentrated as a conductor on a cappella and continuo-accompanied literature, and in the process discovered a wealth of sixteenth- to eighteenth-century music, particularly Heinrich Schütz and other early “German masters” from Henricus (“Heinrich”) Isaac (then thought to be a German) to J. S. Bach, whose choral works were then only beginning to be published.

Brahms's stint with the Singakademie lasted only one year, but the impact of “early music” on his composing was decisive. He became an enthusiast, sought out the leading musical scholars of his generation—Gustav Nottebohm, Friedrich Chrysander, Philipp Spitta—as friends, and actually engaged in some amateur musicological work of his own, making many arrangements of early German choral music and participating in the preparation of “critical editions” (that is, editions faithful to original sources rather than arrangements) of music by Schubert and Schumann, and even a non-German, François Couperin.

“Even” a non-German, because musical antiquarianism, as an aspect of musical Romanticism, was ipso facto an aspect of musical nationalism as well, and it should not be assumed that his eventual stance in favor of “absolute music” put Brahms at odds with either the Romanticism or the nationalism of his time. The manner in which his antiquarian pursuits rubbed off on his composing only intensified its timeliness, so to speak, given the moment in which he lived, and the nation to which he belonged. Brahms's choral music, in fact, gives us an interesting new lens on an old question, namely the question of how the liberal German nationalism of the pre-1848 period metamorphosed into the more aggressive nationalism with which the world is now more familiar, and how music figured in the process.

Brahms's greatest choral work, Ein deutsches Requiem (“A German requiem,” 1868), may be viewed as a sort of culmination of the older nationalist phase. It is not a liturgical work, but rather a setting, inspired by the death of Brahms's mother, of selected passages from the bible, in Luther's translation, that deal with consolation, acceptance of fate, and transcendence of suffering through love. As a work with “Lutheran” words (and a certain amount of chorale-like writing) but meant for performance throughout the German-speaking lands—including Catholic Austria, the composer's adopted home—it continued the ecumenical “Mendelssohnian” tradition of using music as a liberal uniter of the German-speaking peoples.

As hinted earlier, the Requiem contains one remnant salvaged from the aborted symphony in D minor: the second movement, “All of Flesh is Like the Grass,” set as a funeral march in B♭ minor that in its original symphonic context would surely have recalled Beethoven's Eroica. But other sections of the Requiem give evidence of Brahms's profound assimilation of his nation's earlier legacy of sacred music. Fugues and fugatos abound, of course, but there are also many passages that bear traces of “musica antiqua” from archeological strata to which no previous composer had ever penetrated creatively.

The Requiem's very opening section, “Selig sind, die da Leid tragen” (“Blessed are those who bear their grief”), is a striking case in point. Its text is put together like the words of an old motet. That is, it is a patchwork of topically related lines from disparate biblical sources, in this case bridging the Old and New Testaments. After the first sentence, from the Gospel According to Matthew, the words come from Psalm 126, “Die mit Tränen säen” (“They who sow with tears”). This was a psalm that many old north-German composers had set. The most famous setting, perhaps, was the one by Johann Hermann Schein (1586–1630) in his collection Israelis Brünlein (“Fountain of Israel”) of 1623.

Brahms surely knew it, and fashioned his own setting to reflect that knowledge, appropriating the contrapuntal and expressive techniques of Schein's day (or even those of Schein's actual setting) in order to achieve a similar marriage of “motet” style with “madrigalian” trappings (Ex. 13-8). Motet style means that successive lines are given individual musical treatment (or, to use the language of the nineteenth century, set to separate motifs), usually in imitative texture. The madrigalian element is the use of highly contrasting musical figures to point up the figures of speech employed in the text. The most sought-after figures were antitheses, the contrast of opposites, here “sowing with tears” and “reaping with joy.”

A Choral (and a Nationalistic) InterludeA Choral (and a Nationalistic) InterludeA Choral (and a Nationalistic) Interlude

ex. 13-8a Johann Hermann Schein, Die mit Tränen säen, the two opening points

Schein had set the former to a tortuous chromatic line in long note-values, the latter to an octave leap in short ones. Brahms does something similar, in nineteenth-century terms. The first phrase is set to drooping sigh-figures, with the quarter note as the shortest value. Except for the soprano, all the voices sing the same musical idea either in parallel harmony or in imitation. The soprano part intensifies expression through syncopation, chromaticism, and a final leap to a suspension at the top of its range. The second phrase is set disjunctly, in halved note-values and (in seemingly direct reference to Schein's setting) in dancing dactylic rhythms that cover almost an octave's span in a single direction.

The harmony is fully up-to-date and highly expressive in Romantic terms, the orchestration likewise—and highly sophisticated, the violins being omitted for the sake of a “darker” sonority as Brahms had previously done in his second orchestral Serenade. The archaism is not so much stylistic (or “epigonal”) as “procedural”—not an imitation or even an emulation (since there is no sense that Brahms was competing with Schein) but rather a reference or allusion, the rhetorical device of which Brahms is emerging as the supreme nineteenth-century musical master.

A Choral (and a Nationalistic) InterludeA Choral (and a Nationalistic) InterludeA Choral (and a Nationalistic) Interlude

ex. 13-8b Johannes Brahms, Ein deutsches Requiem, I (“Die mit Tränen säen…”)

Allusion to early music also makes a significant contribution to the impact of the Triumphlied (“Song of victory”; 1871), Brahms's most grandiose choral work and during his lifetime his most popular one. (As in the case of Beethoven's Der glorreiche Augenblick, the reasons for its present near-total neglect have more to do with its tainted political content than its musical qualities.) It was composed in the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian War, in expectation of the elevation of the king of Prussia to the exalted rank of Kaiser, emperor of the united German Reich.

Like the vast majority of his countrymen (including those who, like Brahms, lived under the rule of the other kaiser, Franz Josef of Austria) the composer enthusiastically supported the policies of Otto von Bismarck, the Prussian “Iron Chancellor,” who engineered the long-awaited unification of Germany, and whose portrait, in the form of a bronze relief surrounded by a wreath, occupied a place of honor in Brahms's music room. The Triumphlied, a three-movement cantata for antiphonal mixed choirs (eight voice parts in all) in D major, accompanied by the largest orchestra Brahms ever employed, was published with a decorative flyleaf proclaiming it to be Seiner Majestät dem Deutschen Kaiser Wilhelm I ehrfurchtsvoll zugeeignet vom Componisten: “Reverently dedicated by the composer to his Majesty the German Emperor Wilhelm I.”

A Choral (and a Nationalistic) Interlude

fig. 13-5 Brahms's music room in Vienna; the bas-relief portrait of Bismarck (with ribbon attached) is located between a reproduction of Raphael's Sistine Madonna and the huge bust of Beethoven at the upper right.

Opportunistic? To be sure, but it was nevertheless an authentic expression of the German nationalism of its day, and this in two ways. In the first place it renders adoration to Reich and kaiser in explicitly religious terms, such as until then (within modern times) had been the exclusive province—and notoriously so—of the “backward” Russian Empire (as in Glinka's opera A Life for the Tsar, discussed in chapter 4). It is not just that the empire is declared to be the fulfillment of God's will. (That much had already been claimed, by Beethoven among others, for the post-Napoleonic imperial restorations.) In the Triumphlied the German Reich is implicitly compared, in a text drawn by Brahms himself from the biblical Book of Revelation, with the heavenly dominion (also a Reich in Luther's German), and the kaiser (blasphemously, as it might have seemed were it stated outright) with “the King of Kings and Lord of Lords”—that is, with God himself.

Brahms's musical antiquarianism was especially germane to this religious veneration of state and ruler, for the Triumphlied takes the form of a “polychoral motet,” the most exalted form of early ritual music, pioneered in Venice by the Gabrielis but known to Brahms primarily through the work of Schütz, Giovanni Gabrieli's pupil. And the edge the Triumphlied orchestra has over all other Brahmsian ensembles consists in the use of three trumpets instead of two, which, in conjunction with the timpani, play fanfares antiphonally with the choruses’ Hallelujahs in a manner that specifically apes the Baroque “festival” orchestra with its “Stadtpfeifer” (town piper) contingent, known best to Brahms and his contemporaries from Bach's D-major orchestral suite, some of the large cantatas recently published in the Bachgesellschaft (Bach Society) edition of J. S. Bach's complete works, which began appearing in 1850—and especially from Bach's exuberant D-major setting of the Magnificat (“Mary's song of praise”), the most immediate model, which echoes and reechoes through the first movement of the Triumphlied.

The trumpet fanfares inevitably lend a military cast to the proceedings; and this is the second way in which the nationalism expressed by the Triumphlied is of the newer, hawkish type. The work celebrates not only a political event but (as its title proclaims) a military triumph as well, and the latter is asserted aggressively, with Schadenfreude—roughly “gloating,” more exactly “malicious pleasure in another's misfortune,” something for which, only the German language possesses a word.

The “other” in this case, of course, was France, and fallen Paris in particular. Brahms shared the general German contempt for Offenbach's city and found an ingenious way of expressing it in the Triumphlied, literally “between the lines.” The text of the cantata's first movement consists of a portion of the heavenly shout transcribed in Revelations, 19:1 – 2: “Hallelujah! Victory and glory and power belong to our God, for true and just are his judgments!” The rest of the verse runs as follows: “He has condemned the great whore who corrupted the earth with her fornication, and has avenged upon her the blood of his servants.”

Brahms never set these abusive words. But at one point, immediately following the last line that he did set, he inserted an orchestral theme, blared all'unisono by almost the full orchestra, that never returns in the voice parts, and that exactly fits the rhythm of the next line in German: daβ er die groβe Hure verurteilt hat (Ex. 13-9). No one who remembered the bible could miss it; and just in case anyone did, Brahms “painted” the unsung word Hure (whore) with an outlandish diminished third. There can be no mistaking his intention, however reluctant we may be to acknowledge it: Brahms penciled the offensive lines into his own copy of the full score.

And another bit of “painting” depicts, for all with ears to hear, the Prussian advance upon the French capital. At what ought to be the climax of the first movement, Brahms inexplicably (as it seems) scales the dynamics down to pianissimo right where the choirs enter with “Victory and glory and power” for the last time. Over the next twelve bars, a crescendo carries the words through to fortissimo, while the brass instruments and drums begin beating a tattoo, and finally an imitation of hoof beats. At the crescendo's peak, a German sixth on B♭ is harrowingly suspended over a pedal A for two full measures. Bloodier battle music would have to await the twentieth century.

So with the Triumphlied we encounter a nationalism that projects itself with the force of religious dogma, and that not only loves but also hates. It would be an impertinence to credit Brahms with the innovation. He did give it an unusually vivid musical expression, however, and one that links up interestingly with other aspects of his musical profile. Particularly telling is the use of “Bach” trumpets in such a context. The canonization of Bach had been linked with German nationalism since the appearance of Forkel's biography at the beginning of the century. Associated since Mendelssohn's time with choral genres, a tradition that Brahms brought to its peak in the Triumphlied, the Bachian style (and related “baroque” devices) would soon be carried by Brahms into the “symphonic mainstream”—the domain of absolute music—as well. It was Brahms, in other words, whose music forged the link between Bach and the “Viennese classics” that has since been spuriously read back into the historical narrative, at first by German (“insider”) scholars, and that has quite recently come under intense skeptical scrutiny, chiefly by Americans, the quintessential musicological outsiders.

A Choral (and a Nationalistic) Interlude

ex. 13-9 Johannes Brahms, Triumphlied, I

As we redirect our own narrative now toward the “absolute” genres with which Brahms is now chiefly, and with every good reason, associated, one more work from his “choral period” will repay a sidelong glance: the Schicksalslied (“Song of fate”), completed in 1871, the same year as the Triumphlied, but of very different character. It is a setting of a poem by Friedrich Hölderlin (1770–1843), one of the great German romantic visionary poets, whose romantically unlucky fate (ending with his confinement in an insane asylum for the last thirty-four years of his life) paralleled Schumann's, quickening Brahms's interest in him.

The poem, originally titled “Hyperion's Song of Fate” after the Titan of Greek mythology, angrily contrasts the perfect, timeless bliss of the gods’ abode, whose “fateless” denizens exist in utter serenity and obliviousness to pain, with the miserable lot of “suffering humanity,” buffeted by the flux of time, “falling haphazardly from hour to hour like water dashed from crag to crag.” Like any poem based on an antithesis, it is made to order for musical treatment. The first section of Brahms's setting, comprising the opening stanzas of the poem, is a soft and gentle “Elysian” song in E♭ major, in a leisurely common time, set off by gleaming flutes and by pizzicato strings doing their best to imitate harps. Bachian resonances abound. The first choral tutti, for example, is accompanied by a quotation from the pizzicato bass in the famously idyllic Aria from Bach's orchestral Suite in D major (the louder movements of which had already found echo in the Triumphlied). The tempo marking, Langsam und sehnsuchtsvoll (slowly and longingly), shows that heavenly bliss is being described from the earthly point of view, as an object of desire.

A Choral (and a Nationalistic) Interlude

fig. 13-6 Autograph score page from the middle section of Brahms's Schicksalslied (1871).

And then comes the last stanza of the poem, set in stark and sudden contrast as a stormy Allegro in C minor, the dark “relative” of the original tonic, moving in an agitated triple time, accompanied by tremolando strings and baleful rolls of the kettledrum.

But afterward, Brahms does something no one following the chorus from Hölderlin's text could have anticipated. He allows the storm and stress gradually to die away, and then appends a return to the opening section, but in the key of C major, the parallel rather than relative key of the stormy middle. Thus the Schicksalslied, uniquely in the work of Brahms (and with scant precedent anywhere but in opera), ends in a key other than the one in which it began. Brahms explained the anomaly, in a letter to a prospective conductor of the piece, as a deliberate critique of the poem, asserting that “I am saying something that the poet does not say,” and adding that “it would have certainly been better if what is missing had been the most important thing for him,” that is for Hölderlin.24 Elsewhere, he complained that Hölderlin “doesn't say the most important thing.”

A Choral (and a Nationalistic) Interlude

fig. 13-7 Friedrich Hölderlin, the poet of the Schicksalslied, in a pastel portrait by F. K. Hiemer (1792).

Yet, however we interpret Brahms's beatific coda, whether as a consoling foretaste of immortality or a Christian rebuke to pagan heartlessness or a contrasting portrayal of heaven “from the inside,” or more simply as supreme emotional exaltation, the fact remains that neither Hölderlin nor any other poet could have said this “most important thing,” since it is said without words. In one of the most pointed affirmations that the idea of “absolute music” ever received, the final consolation, or insiders’ view of heaven, or what you will, is reserved for the instruments to disclose. It is the very removal of the verbal element that allows the sense of transcendence—what Hanslick, in an ecstatic review, called the “transfiguring power of music”—to supervene over what might otherwise appear a merely dutiful “rounding” of the musical form.

Absorbed in the act of composing the Schicksalslied, Brahms may or may not have been aware that he was precisely reversing and thus negating the trajectory, and the implicit “argument,” of Beethoven's Ninth. Having finished the piece he experienced doubts. “A silly idea,” he called it in another letter, “perhaps a failed experiment.”25 Audiences found the piece moving, however; its success gave Brahms courage. Eventually the reversal and its implications must have dawned on him and shown him a way out of the bind that had been paralyzing his work on the First Symphony.


(24) Brahms to Karl Reinthaler, October 1871; quoted in John Daverio, “The Wechsel der Töne in Brahms's Shicksalslied,” JAMS XLVI (1993): 90.

(25) Brahms to Reinthaler, quoted in Daverio, “Wechsel der Töne,” p. 86.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 13 The Return of the Symphony." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 24 Jan. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-013006.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 13 The Return of the Symphony. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Nineteenth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 24 Jan. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-013006.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 13 The Return of the Symphony." In Music in the Nineteenth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 24 Jan. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-013006.xml