Schicksalslied

By Johannes Brahms
Composed in 1871

Johannes Brahms composed for piano, chamber ensembles, symphony orchestra, and for voice and chorus. He was at once a traditionalist and an innovator. His music is firmly rooted in the structures and compositional techniques of the Baroque and Classical masters. His thorough study of music of the past had given him a reverence for form. He also had hands-on experience with vocal music, having conducted choirs for many years; in 1863 he had been appointed conductor of the Vienna Singakademie. Brahms had already completed his Deutsches Requiem when he wrote Schicksalslied in 1871. Its premiere confirmed his growing European reputation, and led many to believe that he had conquered Beethoven and the symphony, even though his four great symphonies were not yet written.

Brahms came across the text of Schicksalslied in a friend’s library in 1868, and it made an immediate impression on him. The poem by Friedrich Hölderlin was originally part of the novel Hyperion. It had only two verses. The first describes the peaceful life of the gods, the second the suffering of mankind. Brahms wrestled with his desire to be faithful to the poet, which would mean ending his musical setting with the despairing text of the second verse. At first he wanted to create a three-part form with a reprise of the first verse, but felt this would be contrary to Hölderlin’s dark intention. He compromised by adding an orchestral coda without text, referring only in the music to the bliss of Hölderlin’s initial vision.

The orchestral introduction immediately sets up the fate motif with an inexorable, repeated triplet pattern in the timpani. The next section is gentler, foretelling the poet’s description of beatific celestial calm. When the chorus enters, the main theme is first given to altos alone, then to the full chorus. With the second theme the melody in the strings soars above the singers.

Everything changes as the poem depicts the fate of man, “plunging blindly into the abyss,” with no hope of rest. The strings swirl in rushing sixteenth notes, there are unstable diminished chords, the winds blast, and the singers have a jagged vocal line. The tumult dies down, only to return again. A constant low C (pedal point) in the celli and timpani, held for 54 measures, leads to Brahms’ final section. The music of the introduction reappears, this time with new orchestration, and now in the key of C major – a long way from its original iteration in Eb major. For an orchestral work to end in a key so different from that of its opening was very unusual, perhaps even revolutionary.

Ihr wandelt droben im Licht
Auf weichem Boden, selige Genien!
Glänzende Götterlüfte
Rühren Euch leicht,
Wie die Finger der Künstlerin
Heilige Saiten.

Schicksallos, wie der schlafende
Säugling, atmen die Himmlischen;
Keusch bewahrt
in bescheidener Knospe,
Blühet ewig
Ihnen der Geist,
Und die seligen Augen
Blicken in stiller
Ewiger Klarheit.

Doch uns ist gegeben,
Auf keiner Stätte zu ruhn;
Es schwinden, es fallen
Die leidenden Menschen
Blindlings von einer
Stunde [zur] andern,
Wie Wasser von Klippe
Zu Klippe geworfen,
Jahrlang ins Ungewisse hinab.

You walk above in the light
on soft ground, blessed spirits!
Glistening, divine breezes
touch you lightly,
just as the fingers of the fair artist play on
sacred harpstrings.

Free from fate, like the sleeping infant,
celestial spirits breathe;
chastely protected
in its modest bud,
their spirit
blooms forever,
and their blessed eyes
gaze in calm,
eternal clarity.

Yet we are given
no place to rest;
we suffering humans
vanish and fall
blindly from one
hour to the next,
like water flung
from cliff to cliff
endlessly down into the unknown.