Saturday, February 25, 2012

about Brahms Liebeslieder Waltzes

The Romantic Muse, the CBA Symphony & Chorus's March 7th concert at St James Cathedral, features the orchestra performing music by Schumann (Piano Concerto in a minor, with Neil Posner, soloist) and Schubert (Unfinished Symphony) and the chorus presenting the Brahms Love-Song Waltzes, with duo-pianists Janet Eckhardt and Jennifer Zlotow, Becky Patterson conducting.

Here is some background on the Waltzes, by CBA Chorus member Lucy Kennedy.
And here is a link where you can purchase tickets.

Brahms' Liebeslieder Waltzes, op 52
program note by Lucy Kennedy

First, a little music-technology and anthropological scene setting: In the 19th Century, the pianoforte finally arrived at essentially its modern form with deep lower notes and an array of pedals that enabled even a non-professional to make beautiful sounds. Over this hundred years the middle class finally “arrived” too, with widespread literacy, stable income, free time, and the desire to both partake of the fine arts and “keep up with the Joneses.” An upright or spinet piano became a standard middle-class possession, and family sons and daughters were expected to “improve” themselves with instrumental and vocal lessons and to provide entertainment in the parlor after dinner. A vast market for chamber music that didn’t require professional skill was created, a market that composers like Johannes Brahms (though he is more known now for his big, serious works) strove to capitalize on.

In 1868, Brahms was searching for a new project to equal the popularity of some previous piano-based chamber music. He settled on a romantic song cycle, his sophisticated, delightful Liebeslieder Wälzer. They were written about love, and out of love, for Brahms, as usual, was head-over-heels about a lady, whose attention (and romantic interest) he is reputed to have been trying to entice with this musical bouquet.

For lyrics on which to wrap his musical confections, Brahms chose selections from Polydora: A World-Poetic Songbook, a collection of German translations and imitations of folk poetry from Eastern Europe (Russia, Poland, and Hungary) by his contemporary, Georg Friedrich Daumer (1800-1875). He wrote the piece for piano four hands and an optional vocal quartet, for performance at home, but (fortunately for the CBA Chorus), the work has over the years grown beyond its composer’s original concept to become a standard of the choral concert repertoire.

Though the lyrics did not approach the level of the great German poetry, i.e., Goethe et al (one critic called Brahms’s sources “folksy, doggerel verse”), they do express the gamut of human emotion on the subject of Eros, from flirtation to enticement, to strong passion, to domestic harmony, to endless bliss, to various forms of disappointment/frustration, to sweet directness, to sadness at rejection, with a nod to ebullient young love. And the tunes exhibit Brahms’s usual elegant, classical sophistication—almost all are in binary form while at the same time being in ¾ time—and lush evocativeness: you can hear the raging spring, see the little bird hopping around trying to find a home, view the cocky swain eying the ten iron bars on the pretty maiden’s front door, and etc. One critic called Brahms’s chamber music some of “the most sophisticated and exquisitely crafted of the Romantic era.”

When published in 1870 (by Friedrich August Simrock) they were an instant, tremendous success, popular with both professional musicians and singers and with the family market for which they were intended, perhaps even bringing the composer the fame that more serious works, such as the German Requiem, had failed to do, and going a long way to convince music lovers that Schumann had been right about Brahms being the next great composer. The unbending, moody perfectionist uncharacteristically told Simrock, “I must confess that it was the first time I smiled at the sight of a printed work—of mine! I will risk being called an ass if our Liebeslieder Waltzes don’t give pleasure to a few people.” He even encouraged Simrock to sell the pieces inexpensively so that more non-professional music lovers could afford them, which of course increased his “fan base.”

But alas, when the Waltzes were premiered (played from the manuscript on October 6, 1869, with Clara Schumann and Hermann Levi at the pianofortes), the object of all his stürm und drang did not respond the way the composer had hoped (“Speak, maiden, all too dear/…Don’t you want to soften your heart/…do you want to come to me?”), and subsequently Brahms learned she was engaged to another. Brahms expressed his disappointment some years later by composing a second set of waltzes (the New Liebeslieder Waltzes—if anything, even more successful than the first set) which embody a chastened, more realistic vision of romantic love, and end with lyrics from Goethe.

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