Alto Rhapsody - Johannes Brahms (1833 - 1897)

Brahms's passion for Robert Schumann's wife, Clara, formed for a long time a central part in his life and music. Strangely, after Schumann's death in 1856, this passion cooled. Towards the end of the 1860s, Brahms was lodging with the Schumann family and began to realise a growing affection for Clara's daughter, Julie. On subsequently being told by Clara that Julie was engaged to be married to an Italian Count, Brahms's reaction was to turn to composition as a solace and to set a piece for contralto, his favourite voice.
In 1869 the piece was completed and he played it for Clara, who wrote in her diary: "Johannes brought me a wonderful piece … the words from Goethe's Harzreise … He called it his bridal song …This piece seems to me neither more nor less than the expression of his own heart's anguish. If only he would for once speak as tenderly!" The piece had its first performance at Jena on 3 March 1870. The first two anguished verses of the poem are sung by the soloist alone, and are set in C minor, the tempo beginning slowly and becoming more agitated in the second stanza.
It is only when a hope of redemption is offered in the third verse that the key changes to C major and the mood of the piece is further warmed by the addition of a male chorus. In the Alto Rhapsody, it is not hard to find evidence for the Brahms statement that, "I speak through my music." 


Barry Creasy


Collegium Musicum of London


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