Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Brahms - Gesang Der Parzen (Song Of The Fates)

Johannes Brahms personal library contained works by many composers, including music written by Baroque and Renaissance masters. He also collected autographs of earlier composer's works. These works were thoroughly studied by Brahms as his margin notes in them attest to. Brahms acquired his mastery of music by being the eternal student, but music was not his only interest. He was also a voracious reader of other subjects and was well acquainted with German literature, especially the works of Johann Goethe.

He was acquainted with many of the leading musicologists of his time and edited music of earlier masters and in his role as a conductor played many of the neglected masterpieces for orchestra and chorus. He made an intensive study of choral works from Palestrina to Bach, so it was natural that his first successful large work was for chorus, soloists and orchestra,Ein deutsches Requiem (A German Requiem) written in 1865-1868.

He continued to write works for chorus and orchestra throughout his career, with Gesang Der Parzen (Song Of The Fates) being written in 1882.  The text he used for the work was taken from the play Iphigenie auf Tauris, a reworking of the Greek legend of Iphigenia  by Johann Goethe.  In the play, Iphigenia tell about a song that was sung by the Fates that warned humans about the cruel and moody behavior of the gods. This text is what Brahms used.

The work is for a six-voice choir as Brahms divides the altos and basses into two parts. The work is only ten to eleven minutes in duration, but Brahms uses a large orchestra for it. It is sung without pause. The work opens in D minor, and the mood stays rather somber, ominous and powerful, save for one short section where the music brightens temporarily.

The text is a little hard to decipher in any English translation I've ever read, but the original was written over 250 years ago, in German, in a much different environment, time and culture. But Brahms music is sublime.

Gesang Der Panzen by Goethe
The human race should tremble
before the gods!
For in their hands they
hold dominion over them,
and demand whatever
they please.

Those who have been exalted
by the gods should doubly fear them!
On cliffs and clouds
chairs stand on the ready
around tables of gold.

If dissension arises,
then the guests are hurled down,
despised and disgraced,
into the nocturnal depths,
and they wait there in vain,
bound in darkness,
for just judgement.

But the gods remain
at their eternal feast
at the golden tables.
They walk from mountain,
to mountain peak.
From the abyss of the deep
streams the breath
of suffocating Titans
as a light mist of a
burnt offering.

The rulers avert their
blessing-bestowing eyes
from entire races,
and avoid seeing, in the grandchild,
the once loved, silently speaking features
of the ancestor.

So sang the Fates;
The old banished one listens
in his darkened lair
to the songs of ancient ones,
thinks of his children and grandchildren
and shakes his head.

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