Goethe's young Werther suffered from unrequited love for a woman that was already engaged to another man, and at the end of the book Werther commits suicide. The book was somewhat autobiographical as Goethe had experienced what he had put in his novel, even up to contemplating suicide. Goethe came to dislike the book and tried to distance himself from it in later years.
Johannes Brahms read and studied Goethe's works throughout his life, and in his early years identified with Young Werther, as no doubt other young German men did. As he grew older, he lost his identification with Werther as he resigned himself to the fact that he had no time or disposed to getting married and having a family. His art was to be his life, but he never lost his tendency to fall in love with women, or his love of Goethe's writings.
The Alto Rhapsody was written as a wedding present for Julie Schumann the daughter of Robert and Clara Schumann. Brahms had romantic feelings towards Julie, and the work was written after he found out that she was engaged to another man. He used three stanzas of a poem written by Goethe in 1777 entitled Harzreise im Winter - Harz Mountain Journey in Winter. The poem was based on an actual trip Goethe made in to the Harz Mountains in the dead of winter to visit one of his friends that had fallen into deep depression and spiritual crisis. The lines that Brahms used for the work deal with a misanthropic wanderer who is desolate in spirit that is lifted up and consoled as his spiritual suffering is lifted. It was written in 1869 and presented to Clara Schumann on Julie's wedding day. Clara commented about the work in her diary:
Johannes brought me a wonderful piece... the words from Goethe’s Harzreise , for alto, male chorus, and orchestra. He called it his bridal song. It is long since I remember being so moved by a depth of pain in words and music. 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 work is in three sections that are played without break. The first two sections are for orchestra and soloist in C minor. They depict the wandering and pain of the misanthropic man. The third section has the entrance of the male chorus, is in C major and depicts the plea of the wanderer for an end to emotional pain.
But off apart there, who is that?
His path gets lost in the brush,
behind him the branches close again,
the grass stands straight again,
the solitude swallows him up.
Ah, who can heal the pain
of one to whom balsam became poison?
Who has drunk misanthropy
from the fullness of love?
First despised, now despising,
he secretly wastes
his own worth
in unsatisfying egoism.
If there is in your Psalter,
Father of Love, a single tone
perceptible to his ear,
then revive his heart!
Open his cloud-covered sight
onto the thousand fountains
beside the thirsting soul
in the desert!