12 Songs & Romances for SSAA
TWELVE SONGS AND ROMANCES (ZWÖLF LIEDER UND ROMANZEN)
FOR SSAA FEMALE VOICES WITH OPTIONAL PIANO ACCOMPANIMENT
1. Love Song op. 44 no.1
2. The Bridegroom op. 44 no.2
3. Barcarole op. 44 no.3
4. Questions op. 44 no.4
5. The Maid of the Mill op. 44 no.5
6. The Nun op. 44 no.6
7. The Butterfly op. 44 no.7
Nun stehn die Rosen
8. The Mountains are high op. 44 no.8
Die Berge sind spitz
9. The Willows by the river op. 44 no.9
Am Wildbach die Weiden
10. Should you go into the churchyard op. 44 no.10
Und gehst du über den Kirchhof
11. The Bride op. 44 no.11
12. Stormy March night op. 44 no.12
edited and translated by Neil Jenkins
In 1859 Brahms settled in Hamburg, and in the same year founded a women’s choir of some 40 voices. He arranged folksongs and wrote original compositions for these ladies, much of which is now lost. He later revised and published a number of the original works once he had settled in Vienna for good in 1862.
This set of secular songs for female chorus completes the sequence of pieces composed for the Hamburg women’s choir. Published in 1866, significantly later than they were written, the songs are of slighter scope than other choral works released around the same time. In fact, they could be aptly described as choral miniatures, since none of them lasts much longer than two minutes in performance. Four parts are indicated in all the songs, although in some, particularly the sequence of four settings from Paul Heyse’s Der Jungbrunnen (‘The Fountain of Youth’), the altos remain in unison much of the time. As in some of Brahms’s other short pieces for women’s choir, the second alto parts often reach into dangerously low territory, such as at the end of each strophe in no.1. Some tenor voices might usefully double this line in modern performances.
An interesting question in performance of the songs is whether to include the piano accompaniment or not. Brahms almost never wrote works for choir with piano accompaniment. A few, such as op. 27 and op. 30, have organ parts. The piano does play a large role in the vocal quartets, such as the two sets of Liebeslieder Waltzes, which were composed a decade later. But the role of the piano in op. 44 is unique. Brahms indicated that the pieces were to be sung either a cappella or with optional piano accompaniment. But the piano parts he provided, while simple and often offering basic harmonic support, rarely merely double the vocal lines. In fact, in certain songs, the piano actually adds a new and interesting element, for example the rocking motives in no.3 and no.9. The varied accompaniment to the last two strophes of no.1 is another obvious example, as is an isolated anticipatory repeated note after the first phrase of no.7. The arpeggios and oscillating motion of no.12 add an entirely new layer to the canonic voices in this piece. Performances are therefore enhanced when the piano parts are included.
The set of twelve songs is arranged in two books of six, with Paul Heyse’s four settings from Der Jungbrunnen opening the second group. The most substantial song is no. 2, which is virtually through-composed. No. 3 has a memorable repeated refrain. Often, Brahms introduces subtle variations to strophic settings in the last verse, as in nos. 4 and 6. No. 12 is another brilliant piece of canonic writing on the same level as those in his sacred choruses of op. 37. Except for the folk texts of nos.3 and 4, all are settings of fairly major German poets. It is of some interest that two poets famous for the great song cycles of Schumann and Schubert, Adelbert Chamisso and Wilhelm Müller, are represented in the penultimate song of each book (nos. 5 and 9). Schumann’s other favoured poet, Josef von Eichendorff, is represented by a moody and mysterious poem, no.2, which inhabits the same world of Germanic legend as the Lorelei, the Erl-King and other shadowy sprites. For anyone who is familiar with Schumann’s own settings of songs for SSAA voices, such as op.43, op.69, op.91, op.103 and op.114, it will seem that Brahms has inherited the older composer’s mantle and has continued that good work – the similarities of style are so strong.
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