Klassik  Sinfonische Musik
James Levine & Münchner Philharmoniker Vol. 6 / Johannes Brahms: “Schicksalslied” · Symphony No. 1 OC 506 CD
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FormatAudio CD
Ordering NumberOC 506
Release date26/08/2004
Players/ContributorsMusicians Composer
  • Brahms, Johannes

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      Description hide

      The first performance of Brahms’s First Symphony was not only greatly praised by contemporaries, it also marked the composer’s ascent to musical nobility. This recording is complemented by the “Schicksalslied” for Choir and Orchestra, after a text bei Friedrich Hölderlin.

      Münchner Philharmoniker
      Orchester der Landeshauptstadt München James Levine, Dirigent/conductor
      Philharmonischer Chor München (Einstudierung: Andreas Herrmann)

      Conservative against his will

      “I thought … that it would and that it must be … that someone would suddenly come along whose very calling would be that which needed to be expressed according to the spirit of the times and in the most suitable manner possible, one whose mastery would not gradually unfold but, like Minerva, would spring fully armed from the head of Jupiter. And now he has arrived, a young blood, at whose cradle appear graces and heroes. His name is Johannes Brahms, and he hails from Hamburg, where he works in dim seclusion having been educated in the most difficult of the rules of art by a good teacher (Eduard Marxsen)…sitting at the piano, he began to explore most wonderful regions. We were drawn in to ever more magical circles … these were the sonatas, and veiled symphonies … And when he finally lets sink his magic wand, where the powers of the masses, in chorus and orchestra, lend him their strengths, we are able to gaze into the secrets of the spirit world…For there exists in every age a secret bond of like spirits. You who belong together, draw the circle ever tighter, so that the truth of art shall burn more brilliantly, and spread joy and blessing too.” (“Neue Bahnen”, in Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, 1853)

      Schumann’s words of praise written about his guest and later friend Brahms – shortly before he was to stay in Düsseldorf for a while – have proved to be true, even if this laudatory note represented for the ambitious young composer a burden at the time. The meeting with Clara and Robert Schumann was in any case of extreme significance for the career and personal development of the twenty-year-old.

      Johannes Brahms came from a modest social background: the father, a musician in employment of the city of Hamburg, was later a double bass player in the municipal orchestra. It was he who gave his son the first instruction in music. The main impetus marking out a future path were the piano lessons and studies in music theory with Eduard Marxsen, at the time a well known musician and teacher in Hamburg. In his early youth Brahms worked as a pianist at a number of restaurants in order to help with the family income. At the beginning of the 1850s he accepted an engagement as piano accompanist to the Hungarian violin virtuoso Eduard Remény, who took him on tour throughout Europe. Through him he made the acquaintance of Joseph Joachim, the famous violinist, who was to remain a friend for the rest of his life.

      After Brahms had made a name for himself in the music world (being turned down nevertheless in 1863 for the recently vacated position of choral director of the “Singakademie” in his home town), he moved to Vienna for good. If we disregard a short period as conductor of the Wiener Singakademie and the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde, he did not take on any fixed positions – his command of ever higher fees allowed him to survive as a freelance composer.

      We must turn to Eduard Hanslick, the “Pope among critics” in Vienna to learn that Brahms, obviously against his will, was appointed the chief figure of a musical circle that was avowedly anti Wagner and later anti Bruckner. That the artist in question, who exhibited great literary learning, was not a conservative in the reactionary sense, is a thesis propounded at the latest by Arnold Schönberg, who for his part, saw in a compositional technique quite atypical for Brahms – we might term it arrested development that gives rise to concomitant variations – his own principles of composition being pre-empted. The founder of dodecaphony was right when he claimed that Brahms was several steps ahead of the field.

      Johannes Brahms’ Schicksalslied for Chorus and Orchestra, Op. 54

      Information on the composer
      Born on 7th May 1833 in Hamburg. Died on 3rd April 1897 in Vienna.

      Composition and completion of the work
      Composed between 1868 and 1871; clean copy of the final score in May 1871 in Baden- Baden; first publication in December 1871 by Simrock in Berlin

      Literary source
      The Schicksalslied is based on a poem by Friedrich Hölderlin (1770–1843) that the author had integrated into his novel of letters Hyperion or the Eremit in Greece (published in two volumes 1797–99).

      On 18th October 1871 in Karlsruhe (Choir and Orchestra of the Philharmonischer Verein conducted by the composer).

      The premiere of Ein deutsches Requiem, Op. 45 in Bremen proved to be the breakthrough for the 33-year-old composer. After this major success it was obvious that further works in the same genres should appear in order to consolidate and develop that which had been achieved. On the occasion of a visit to his friends Dietrich and Reinthaler, Johannes Brahms discovered Hölderlin’s Schicksalslied and was so impressed that he immediately began a series of sketches, interrupting his stay in order to carry on work in Hamburg. Despite this, the work did not enjoy such a speedy completion, other pieces taking up the composer’s time. The final score was finally completed in May 1871. The poem contained in this novel of letters, Hyperion (which tells of the struggle for freedom by the Greeks after centuries of subjugation by the Turks) is used by Friedrich Hölderlin to accentuate the opposition between the brightly beaming world of the gods that is the ancient Hellas, and the existence of mankind continually threatened by destiny. This contrast colours the Schicksalslied throughout its entirety; the first verse tells how the gods of antiquity are clothed in light, before moving on to recount great and godly values. The second verse characterises with the very first word a condition of which we must be jealous: free from any threat, and without destiny. The third verse attempts to compare the situation of mankind with that of a struggle for freedom, but reaches well beyond this mood and points up the more general state of things, i.e. the residual threat posed by destiny itself. Here we learn that we shall never rest, that man is for ever destined to fall headlong like a waterfall between the cliffs, hour by hour and year for year.

      In Brahms’ setting of the Hölderlin text we are presented with the unusual case of a composer producing music that not only interprets the text in a unique manner, but also evinces a declared opposition to the message of the poet. What at first seems an attempt to achieve a rounding off of form – the repetition of the orchestral introduction towards the close of the work – turns out to be caused by the composer’s need to react to the poem’s content. In a letter by Brahms dating from 1871, he opines that he was attempting to say something that the poet was not, and that it would have been better if that which was missing had been the declared intent. A little later on, and in more humble vein, the composer added that he was not sure if, in situations where the poet did not state the main thing in question, it was possible to understand it in the present case.

      It is not difficult to ascertain what Brahms saw as the missing “main thing” in the poem. Given that he treats the final lines dealing with the destiny of mankind to an abrupt musical close, and allows the opening orchestral peroration to function as a repeat of “godly” material, it is the fatalistic vision of human existence that comes so strongly into view. This expression of belief allows mankind to enter a state of peace more commonly associated with the gods.

      Sublime symphonic art
      Johannes Brahms´ Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op. 68

      Composition and completion of the work
      After two early planned attempts in the form, which ended up as works cast in different genres, the Symphony in C minor, Op. 68 represents the third attempt by Brahms to commit major symphonic art to the page. Planned since 1855, composition was begun at the latest by the second half of 1862, whereby Brahms drew on an earlier version of the first movement; only in 1874 was he to take up work on the piece again, completing the score in the autumn of 1876 in Lichtenthal near Baden-Baden.

      On 4th November 1876 in Karlsruhe (Großherzoglich- Badisches Hoforchester under Otto Dessoff).

      The composer once stated vehemently that he would never compose a symphony, expostulating that no-one had any idea just how feared was the task, especially when the sound of giant steps could be heard at one’s shoulder. The composer expressed these thoughts apparently to the conductor Hermann Levi sometime around the beginning of the 1870s. In the era after Beethoven, this high form of symphonic art had become practically unapproachable. Even for the most ambitious composer it represented a challenge that made the utmost demands on energy and concentration. The First Symphony by Brahms emerged after some fitful first attempts, which include a movement in D minor that was eventually to act as the source for the First Piano Concerto.

      Although Brahms vacillated for a long time, it was obvious that only the formal strategies and instrumental space proffered by Beethoven could serve as a point of departure for a new work in this genre. Writing a programme symphony like the Symphonie fantastique of Hector Berlioz would not do – here the formal idea is determined by a literary plot, or producing symphonic poems á la Franz Liszt, where literary or visual material acts as the inspirational source, was not a valid solution either. The music would have to be absolute, not only in the sense of being able to free itself from events and certain functions, but also in the strict abstinence from poetic design. Brahms was nevertheless aware that any symphonic composer in the second half of the 19th century who did not latch on entirely to the tradition of Beethoven would have to assimilate differently the classical canon and thus explore new paths.

      The sense of monumental pathos present in Brahms’ first essay in the form may well be inspired by middle period Beethoven, but the inner landscape of the work bears no resemblance to his predecessor’s style. The work draws subtly on the constellation of expressive traits present in Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, but instead of allowing the tragic sound world of C minor to move – like Beethoven – towards the brighter major key by means of a march rhythm, it is the gradual phasing in of an alphorn theme that acts as a surrogate for nature and which, via a warm cello cantilena, eventually provokes the final chorale clothed as it is in the guise of a quote. A sense of religiosity pervades throughout, condoning such a recondite treatment of nature.

      In 1876 – the composer was already 43 it must be remembered – the Symphony No. 1 was presented in public for the first time, and Brahms was finally able to stake a claim amongst successful protagonists in the form, after decades of wrestling with such symphonic thoughts. The first movement had been completed as early as 1862, but the composer did not feel it was fully developed. He put the work aside for an entire decade, before resuming his efforts in 1874. Only in 1877, one year after the premiere, did the symphony exist in the form we know it today. It was the conductor Hans von Bülow, who originally had been so enamoured with the music of Richard Wagner and who after several personal disappointments – his wife Cosima left him to fulfil Wagner’s will – described the work as “Beethoven’s tenth”. For Brahms, who was to enrich the symphonic repertoire in the following years with three further such works, this represented not only the highest praise indeed, but also a kind of musical knighthood.

      English translation: Graham Lack

      Johannes Brahms: „Schicksalslied“ (Song of Destiny)

      You wander aloft in the light
      On soft earth, oh blessed spirits!
      Radiant and divine breezes
      Touch you gently
      As the fingers of an artist
      A celestial lyre.

      Free of destiny, as the sleeping
      Baby, the immortal ones breathe;
      Preserved in purity
      In a humble bud,
      Their spirit
      Blossoms eternally,
      And their blessed eyes
      Watch in calm,
      Eternal clarity.

      But we are not allowed
      To rest at any place;
      Suffering humans
      Wane and waste away
      Blindly from one hour
      To the next,
      Like water, thrown from
      Cliff to cliff and year to year
      Into uncertainty.

      Fotos: Stefan Rakus

      Tracklist hide

      CD 1
      • 1.Applause00:30
      • Johannes Brahms (1833–1897)
        • 2.“Schicksalslied” by Friedrich Hölderlin for choir und orchestra op. 5417:19
        • Symphony No. 1 in C minor op. 68
          • 3.I. Un poco sostenuto – Allegro12:51
          • 4.II. Andante sostenuto09:03
          • 5.III. Un poco Allegretto e grazioso04:41
          • 6.IV. Adagio – Più Andante – Allegro ma non troppo, ma con brio – Più Allegro18:22
        • Total:01:02:46