Recording: Marjana Lipovšek, alto; Men of the Ernst Senff Choir (Chorus Master: Ernst Senff); Berlin Philharmonic, conducted by Claudio Abbado [DG 435 683-2]

Published 1870.

The so-called “Alto Rhapsody” is one of the composer’s most famous vocal works, and was the first of four short choral/orchestral pieces that are often grouped together, all of which last around twelve to fifteen minutes.  These include the Schicksalslied, published immediately thereafter, and two more works from the 1880s (and the Op. 80s), the Nänie and the Gesang der Parzen.   It is, however, unlike the other three in several ways, most notably the inclusion of a soloist.  It also uses a male chorus rather than a mixed chorus.  Brahms had recently utilized a men’s choir to great effect in the cantata Rinaldo (also to a text by Goethe).  This text is a fragment from a longer poem and describes a wandering misanthrope for whom the narrator offers a prayer that his heart will be moved (the prayer marked by the entry of the chorus).  Brahms apparently identified with this protagonist, and the work is often associated with the marriage of Julie Schumann (daughter of Robert and Clara) with whom Brahms had been infatuated.  He perhaps only half-jokingly referred to the piece as a pendant to the Liebeslieder Waltzes, whose opus number directly precedes it.  The irony is that no two works could (at first glance) be further apart in affect.  Strikingly, the main melody of the final choral section is used as the ground bass for the closing “Zum Schluß” of the later New Liebeslieder, Op. 65.  The structure is similar to a Baroque cantata, with opening recitative or arioso, solo aria, and finale with chorus.  Brahms loved the alto voice greatly, and the contrast with the men’s voices, who enter about halfway through, is extremely beautiful.  The contrast between the warm closing choral section and the often dissonant and dramatic solo portion is also effective.  The orchestra is conservative, with flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, two horns, and strings with no trumpets or timpani.

Note: The link to the English translation of the text is from Emily Ezust’s site at http://www.lieder.net.  For the most part, the translation is line-by-line, except where the difference between German and English syntax requires slight alterations to the contents of certain lines.  The German text (included here) is also visible in the translation link.

ONLINE SCORE FROM IMSLP (First Edition from Brahms-Institut Lübeck--also includes piano/vocal score)
ONLINE SCORE FROM IMSLP (From Breitkopf & Härtel Sämtliche Werke)

Rhapsodie (Alto Rhapsody).  Text by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, from the long poem Harzreise im Winter (Journey Through the Harz in Winter).  Adagio--Poco Andante--Adagio.  Three-part form resembling a Baroque cantata: recitative (arioso), aria, and chorus (with soloist).  C MINOR/MAJOR, 4/4 and 6/4 time.

German Text:
Aber abseits wer ist’s?
Ins Gebüsch verliert sich sein Pfad.
Hinter ihm schlagen
Die Sträuche zusammen,
Das Gras steht wieder auf,
Die Öde verschlingt ihn.

Ach, wer heilet die Schmerzen
Des, dem Balsam zu Gift ward?
Der sich Menschenhaß
Aus der Fülle der Liebe trank?
Erst verachtet, nun ein Verächter,
Zehrt er heimlich auf
Seinen eigenen Wert
In ung’nügender Selbstsucht.

Ist auf deinem Psalter,
Vater der Liebe, ein Ton
Seinem Ohre vernehmlich,
So erquicke sein Herz!
Öffne den umwölkten Blick
Über die tausend Quellen
Neben dem Durstenden
In der Wüste!

English Translation

Part 1--Introduction and recitative/arioso; Adagio, C minor, 4/4;  Stanza 1
0:00 [m. 1]--INTRODUCTION.  The violins are muted throughout the entire solo section.  The low strings, supported by bassoons, begin with a “leading tone” figure.  The violins and violas, supported by horns, enter immediately in tremolo with a very sharp but nebulous “augmented” chord that resolves and diminishes.  A descending figure in long-short rhythm follows.  The “leading tone” and augmented chord are then heard a step lower, in B-flat minor, again followed by the descending figure.  Two more “leading tone” figures follow, both without the succeeding descent.  The sharp dissonance in both is a “diminished seventh” that now moves to a major chord on A-flat, then D-flat.
0:33 [m. 7]--Moving back to C minor, the woodwinds join the orchestra now in an upward winding line that slowly surges forward.  The low strings play a yearning figure that will later set the words “hinter ihm.”  The violas pulsate in triplets as the violins and horns provide a counterpoint to the yearning figure.  The flutes and clarinets then respond with a richly harmonized descent that settles the music back down.
0:51 [m. 11]--The violins now play a slow descent that will be used to set the words “schlagen die Sträuche zusammen.”  They are harmonized by the violas, with some cellos playing a line in the opposite direction.  Three syncopated “sigh” figures follow, each dropping in pitch and successively losing strength.  The last of these is held slightly longer before resolving downward.  The low strings come to a quiet, preparatory pause on the “dominant” chord.
1:34 [m. 19]--ARIOSO.  Lines 1-2.  The alto soloist enters with a slowly winding melody on the first line, beginning unaccompanied.  When she reaches the word “ist’s,” the strings enter with the “leading tone” motives and dissonant tremolo chords heard at the beginning, but without the horn and bassoon support.  These continue as they had at the opening as she sings the second line, which is filled with heavy, pathetic downward “sighs.”  After the line, the last leading tone and tremolo are shifted up a third from where they were in the introduction.
2:08 [m. 26]--Lines 3-4.  The upward winding line heard at 0:33 [m. 7] is also shifted up a third, suggesting E-flat minor.  When the alto enters with “hinter ihm” on the “yearning figure,” the voice is still higher than the low strings were before, but the harmony becomes similar and moves back to C minor.  The woodwinds descend as they had before, in rich harmony.  The soloist then sings “schlagen die Sträuche zusammen” to the slow descent heard at 0:51 [m. 11], with flutes joining the strings.   Only one syncopated figure follows, and it slides upward toward the key of D-flat major, where the next lines will be heard.
2:43 [m. 34]--Line 5.  This line is set in a comparatively warm D-flat major to depict the blooming grass.  The flutes and clarinets descend against the violin ascent, which the soloist shadows.  A syncopated “sigh” figure bridges to a second statement of the line a step higher, in E-flat major (the major key most closely related to the home key of C minor).  The syncopated “sigh” then bridges to the last line.
3:14 [m. 42]--Line 6.  All winds drop out.  The soloist has only quiet low string support.  She shifts back to C minor with a leaping fifth, then a highly dramatic descending jump of a seventh.  She works upward to the second syllable of “verschlingt,” where she holds a note.  The violins and violas quietly enter with a slow descent.  This continues after the alto drops out after the last word, “ihn.”  The strings descend to a quiet, but highly intense and anticipatory “dominant” chord in preparation for the next section (the “aria”).
Part 2--Aria; Poco Andante, C minor, 6/4; Stanza 2.  The aria has a small “aba” form.
3:52 [m. 48]--ARIA.  First section (a).  The meter changes to a flowing 6/4 meter for the “aria.”  In the first two lines, the soloist is doubled by the first violins.  She and the violins frequently superimpose a clashing implied 3/2 meter upon the flowing 6/4, which is maintained by a meandering viola line.  The low strings provide bass support, and the winds are absent.  The alto melody, with its cross rhythms, is peaceful, yet somehow agitated.  A pathetically stressed “sigh” figure is heard on “Gift ward.”
4:09 [m. 54]--The alto continues with the next two lines.  The violins join the violas on the meandering line.  The soloist reaches a highly dramatic accented downward leap of a seventh on the significant word “Menschenhaß.”  Under this leap, the violins and violas move to a steady syncopated rhythm on repeated notes.  A flute then leads the woodwind entrance, followed shortly thereafter by an oboe, then clarinets.  Meanwhile, the soloist sings the fourth line of the stanza, which wanders toward a wistful A-flat major.
4:27 [m. 60]--The soloist sings two more sharply accented leaps on “Menschenhaß,” this time on more mild fifths, the second one a step higher.  The strings continue their syncopated rhythm, but the first violins have rising lines after each statement of the word.  The soloist moves again to the fourth line, seeming to move to D-flat major on a new arching line, but she breaks off after “Fülle,” trailed by the clarinets as the strings quiet down on their syncopations.
4:43 [m. 65]--The strings drop out, and the soloist enters on a full statement of the fourth line.  The flutes and clarinets support her.  She leaps down an octave on “aus,” slides further down, and then has a very wide upward leap of a twelfth on “Fülle.”  On “Liebe trank,” she settles to a gentle cadence on A-flat major.  The woodwinds, supported by a winding viola line, punctuate the cadence with a reference to the opening melody of the “aria.”  This is then repeated more quietly by a clarinet, with the bassoon on the winding line.  The flutes and oboes drop out for this last, subdued echo, which is quickly tinged by a minor-key harmony.
5:13 [m. 73]--Second section (b).  The remainder of the words are presented in a short time frame.  The fifth line is given in two short phrases that move from F minor back toward C minor.  The violins and violas, with wind support, provide a fluid background.  The sixth line is sung in faster winding notes in a narrow range, trailed by the strings.  The seventh line is then given in longer notes that reach steadily upward, doubled by a flute, then leap back down on a dissonant seventh.  This line briefly suggests F minor again.  A bassoon echoes the long notes.  Finally, the last line is sung on a gentle arch that descends to a half-cadence in C minor, with cellos imitating the vocal line under the cadence.
5:45 [m. 84]--An instrumental bridge is based on the preceding vocal setting of the stanza’s last line, as well as the aria’s opening melody.  The violas follow the cello imitation.  The winds and horns then enter against a flowing low bass.  The volume increases dramatically and strongly as the winds and the violas recollect the aria’s opening melody.  Finally, the violins play the arching line at full volume under a strongly accented wind chord.  They then trail downward, leading to the reprise.
6:04 [m. 90]--Third section (a’).  The opening melody is given by the alto as at 3:52 [m. 48], but now the violas join the first violins on the vocal doubling, and the meandering line previously played by the violas is transferred to the cellos.
6:21 [m. 96]--The sections that previously followed the first statement of the melody are now conflated together.  The music begins as it had at 4:09 [m. 54], but the leap on “Menschenhaß” is suddenly expanded to an octave instead of a seventh.  The strings play the pulsating syncopated rhythm, as they had before.  The ascending flute line is doubled by the viola.  The word “Menschenhaß” is then repeated a half-step higher, which is similar to its double statement at 4:27 [m. 60].  The flute/oboe ascent follows again.  In fact, the statement of the fourth line breaking off after “Fülle” is heard as it was after those repetitions at m. 60, a half-step lower than it was there, moving toward the home major key (C major).  It is trailed by the oboes instead of the clarinets.
6:44 [m. 104]--  The full statement of the fourth line is given as it was at 4:43 [m. 65], with wind support, absent strings, and the same wide leaps.  The whole line is a half-step lower than it was before.  The cadence is now in G major.  The strings do enter a bar earlier.  The winds, supported by the winding viola line, reference the opening melody as they did before after this cadence.
7:05 [m. 110]--The subdued repetition of the reference to the opening melody is expanded.  The clarinets present it first, as they had before, but now with the cellos on the winding line.  It is tinged by minor-key harmony, as before.  The cellos continue to diminish and trail downward as the horns and bassoons slowly echo the long last notes of the cadence gesture.  The bassoons, horns, violas, and low strings quiet completely and settle on a very subdued, but extremely tense and expectant pause.  This pause arrives on the “dominant” chord of the home key, C, which is simply an alteration of the previous G-major harmony.
Part 3--Chorus with solo; Adagio, C major, 4/4; Stanza 3
7:27 [m. 116]--With glowing radiance, the male chorus makes its first entrance, together with the soloist.  She carries the melody while they warmly, albeit mezza voce, support her with harmonies.  The cellos play pizzicato (plucked) triplets as an accompaniment.  At “Vater der Liebe,” there is some counterpoint, as the first tenors and first basses begin after the soloist and the others.  Clarinets and bassoons enter to support and harmonize with the soloist, while flutes join with the later-entering men.  The second tenors and second basses enter with the soloist on “Vater,” but sustain their first note longer.  All come together on “Liebe.”
7:47 [m. 120]--The words “ein Ton” are joined with the next line.  The melody is extremely gentle here, becoming slightly chromatic in the next line at “so erquicke.”  There, the second tenors have a prominent line of counterpoint as they begin later with a descending diminished third (whole step).  The soloist and the first basses have slightly more active vocal lines.  Horns and bassoons provide support as the plucked string triplets continue.  This line beginning with “so erquicke” is repeated as the soloist sings a sweeping line.  A cadence is reached.
8:30 [m. 128]--The next two lines abruptly shift upward to E-flat major, where they are sung in their entirety.  The plucked cello triplet arpeggios give way to bowed triplets (now on repeated chords) in the upper strings.  Supported by the flutes, the soloist presents the line “Öffne den umwölkten Blick” alone, dovetailing with the chorus, who sing for the first time without her support.  The other winds enter with the chorus.  Soloist and chorus sing the next line together with more motion and a swelling volume.
8:52 [m. 132]--The chorus trails on “Quellen” behind the soloist, who begins the last two lines as they end the word.  The triplet arpeggios return, now in the second violins and violas.  The soloist’s melody makes a highly dramatic harmonic shift, from E-flat major over its minor version to the highly remote and atmospheric B major.  Her melody is quiet and restrained, like the prayer that the text here is.
9:07 [m. 135]--As the soloist finishes the last line of text, the orchestra begins a restatement of the previous line, the melody used for “Öffne den umwölkten Blick,” now in B major.  An oboe takes the lead, supported by the other winds, and the strings return to the pulsating triplet repeated notes.  At the end, this orchestral melodic statement makes a somewhat darker turn with a highly dramatic, leaping horn entrance.
9:23 [m. 138]--The chorus now takes the last two lines alone.  They sing a harmonized version of the soloist’s line from 8:52 [m. 132].  The plucked string triplets are heard again.  The chorus, beginning now in B major, makes the same harmonic shift that the soloist did and ends up in G major.  The second tenors have prominent internal chromatic motion at the cadence.
9:39 [m. 141]--A similar orchestral statement to that at 9:07 [m. 135] begins at the choral cadence.  It proceeds in G major, now led by a flute doubled by first violins.  The pulsating triplets are in the second violins and violas.  At the point where the horn makes its dramatic leaping entrance, the interlude is extended by two bars, striving upward and warmly swelling, finally moving back home to C major.  It flows into the return of the main melody from the choral section.
10:06 [m. 146]--The main melody from the soloist and chorus from 7:27 [m. 116] is reprised.  The accompaniment is much more full, however.  The violins play a winding bowed line in straight rhythm against the plucked cello triplets, now also played by violas.  The winds (flutes and clarinets) are present from the beginning.  At “Vater der Liebe,” flutes and bassoons rather than clarinets and bassoons support the soloist, while the clarinets now join the later-entering men.
10:26 [m. 150]--The music and text from 7:47 [m. 120] is reprised, again with the richer accompaniment.  At “so erquicke,” the soloist’s former line is transferred to the first tenors, and she takes the  later entry previously sung by the second tenors.  The second tenors themselves have a new line.  The music has further slight alterations, including both of the soloist’s statements of “erquicke.”  The second of these, sung as the line is repeated as before, meanders a bit more and is doubled by a flute.  The violins play a strong syncopation under the word.  A C-major cadence is reached on “Herz.”
11:07 [m. 158]--Rather unexpectedly, the E-flat major music from 8:30 [m. 128] appears again.  This time, however, it is the orchestral version, led by flutes and horns with pulsating string triplets and including new descending arpeggios.  This is cut off by a sudden statement of “erquicke sein Herz” from the chorus.  The soloist, as if taken by surprise, enters late on “erquicke.”  This choral statement moves the music not to C major, but to F major, where it reaches a notated pause on a rest (a fermata).
11:30 [m. 162]--The now familiar “Öffne den umwölkten Blick” music is given in a new key, A-flat, by the oboe with clarinet and later flute support with string triplet pulsations.  The new descending arpeggios are heard from clarinets, horns, and bassoons.
11:41 [m. 164]--As the instruments approach a cadence, it is aborted by a passage of active counterpoint from the voices, led by the second basses.  The first tenors (reaching their highest notes), first basses, and second tenors follow.  The soloist comes in above them.  The text is again “erquicke sein Herz,” now with reiterations of “erquicke.”  The second basses sing the whole text twice.  Under the counterpoint, the orchestra has syncopation, plucked triplets, and wind doubling of voices.  The passage builds to a climax.  The harmony is very active.  From the previous A-flat, it shifts to F, then moves along the circle of fifths to B-flat, E-flat, A-flat, and finally D-flat, a key that signifies an arrival point.
12:01 [m. 168]--The music slides back down to the home key of C major, where the voices have reached their climax.  They state “erquicke” three times in succession.  They use the version first heard as a late entry from the second tenors at 7:27 [m. 120] and later associated with the soloist, beginning with a now familiar diminished third (whole step).  The horns enter with pulsating, syncopated triplets on an octave, following the violas.  The soloist originally doubled the first tenors here, but Brahms revised it so that she rests until the third “erquicke,” where she has a diverging line.  There, the music greatly recedes to a pause.
12:28 [m. 172]--Finally, all voices sing the luminous cadence on “sein Herz,” accompanied by winds and low strings, the alto leaping while all choral voices descend.  They gently swell before the violins and violas enter to articulate the last two chords.
13:18--END OF WORK [175 mm.] (Runoff after chord ends at 13:00)