Two Songs for Alto, Viola, and Piano, Op. 91

In 1863 violinist Joseph Joachim married the distinguished mezzo-soprano Amalie Schneeweiss. Both were important musical partners for Brahms, as well as close personal friends. They later had a son, named Johannes in honor of Brahms. The composer wrote an enchanted cradle song (“Geistliches Wiegenlied,” Sacred Lullaby) for his namesake, which Amalie could sing with Joseph playing the viola, Brahms’ favorite string instrument.
But the marriage became troubled by Joachim’s paranoid delusions about an affair he imagined Amalie had with Fritz August Simrock, Brahms’ publisher. Hoping to bring them together, Brahms reworked the lullaby and wrote a new song, “Gestillte Sehnsucht” (Stilled Longing). Blissfully domestic as the song was, it failed to repair the rift, and when Brahms testified on Amalie’s side in the subsequent divorce proceedings brought by Joseph, the violinist extended the broken relationship to include Brahms as well.
Brahms published these songs in 1884 as his Op. 91. Images of wind in trees – calming in “Gestillte Sehnsucht,” alarming in “Geistliches Wiegenlied” – unite the two songs. Musicologist and Brahms biographer Karl Geiringer suggests that Brahms might have been influenced by Bach here, if only in the use of an obbligato instrument.
Friedrich Rückert’s “Gestillte Sehnsucht” was the kind of nature poem to which Brahms was very partial, with woods and birds and winds summoned to whisper the world – and yearning desires – to sleep. Brahms gives the viola an independent tune, which the voice then uses as a refrain, with rustling broken chords in the piano supporting the whole. Desires, always stirring “sonder Rast und Ruh” (without rest and peace), are presented in the urgent minor-key middle section, then quelled by nature in the return to the initial material.
Despite its spontaneous feeling, “Geistliches Wiegenlied” is quite cleverly constructed. It begins with the viola alone offering the melody of the well-known medieval Christmas carol “Joseph, lieber Joseph mein.” (Brahms wrote the words under the tune, probably as a hopeful nudge to Joseph Joachim’s familial instincts.) The voice comes in with an entirely different melody (other than the initial outline of the tonic triad) and a different text than the one the viola had clearly suggested. (It is from a poem by Lope de Vega in a German translation by Emanuel Geibel.) As with the first song, the middle section of this three-part song shifts to agitated minor mode for suffering and pain, and here even changes meter. Mary’s pleading remains consistent, however, and peace returns, with the viola giving the old carol again as a final benediction.

Kathleen Ferrier – Brahms for contralto, viola and piano


Stilled Longing 

Steeped in a golden evening glow,
how solemnly the forests stand!
In gentle voices the little birds breathe
into the soft fluttering of evening breezes.
What does the wind whisper, and the little birds?
They whisper the world into slumber.
You, my desires, that stir
in my heart without rest or peace!
You longings that move my heart,
When will you rest, when will you sleep?
By the whispering of the wind, and of the little birds?
You yearning desires, when will you fall asleep?
Alas, when no longer into the golden distance
does my spirit hurry on dream-wings,
when no more on the eternally distant stars
does my longing gaze rest; 
Then the wind and the little birds
will whisper away my longing, along with my life.

Gestillte Sehnsucht

In gold’nen Abendschein getauchet,
Wie feierlich die Wälder stehn!
In leise Stimmen der Vöglein hauchet
Des Abendwindes leises Weh’n.
Was lispeln die Winde, die Vögelein?
Sie lispeln die Welt in Schlummer ein.
Ihr Wünsche, die ihr stets euch reget
Im Herzen sonder Rast und Ruh!
Du Sehnen, das die Brust beweget,
Wann ruhest du, wann schlummerst du?
Beim Lispeln der Winde, der Vögelein,
Ihr sehnenden Wünsche, wann schlaft ihr ein?
Ach, wenn nicht mehr in gold’ne Fernen
Mein Geist auf Traumgefieder eilt,
Nicht mehr an ewig fernen Sternen
Mit sehnendem Blick mein Auge weilt;
Dann lispeln die Winde, die Vögelein
Mit meinem Sehnen mein Leben ein.
Friedrich Rückert (1788-1866)

Little Canticle of the Virgin (Lope de Vega)

As you rummage through the palms,
holy angels,
that my child might sleep,
still the branches.
Palms of Bethlehem
that the furious winds,
which sound so much,
move angrily:
do not make noise,
run more slowly,
that my child might sleep,
still the branches.
The divine child,
that is weary
of the sorrows of the earth,
for his rest,
he wishes a little
respite from his tender weeping.
That my child might sleep,
still the branches.
Harsh cold
surrounds him;
and you see I have nothing
to protect him. Angels divine
that go on flying,
that my child might sleep,
still the branches.

(Geibel) Spiritual Lullaby

Ye that hover about these palms
In night and wind,
Ye holy angels,
Silence the tree-tops!
My child is asleep.
Ye palms of Bethlehem
In blustering wind,
How can ye buzz so angrily today!
Do not rustle so, be silent,
Sway softly and mildly.
Silence the tree-tops!
My child is asleep.
The child of Heaven endures hardship;
Ah, how weary he was
of the sorrows of the earth.
Ah, now gently soothed in sleep,
The agony melts away,
Silence the tree-tops!
My child is asleep.
Bitter cold rushes down,
With what can I cover
the little child’s limbs!
O all ye angels, that, bewinged,
Wander in wind,
Silence the tree-tops!
My child is asleep.






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