With Brahms' works for chorus and orchestra the texts are an instance where the listener can hear the musical result of an outside influence. Schicksalslied (Song of Destiny) is set to a poem by the German poet and philosopher Friedrich Hölderlin , a major writer in German Romanticism. Brahms was a voracious reader and while exploring a friend's library found a volume of Hölderlin's poetry which contained a poem in it called Hyperion's Schicksalslied from the novel Hyperion. The poem moved Brahms deeply as related by his friend Albert Dietrich
One morning we went together to Wilhelmshaven, for Brahms was interested in seeing the magnificent naval port. On the way there, our friend, who was usually so lively, was quiet and grave. He described how early that morning, he had found Hölderlin’s poems in the bookcase and had been deeply impressed by the Schicksalslied. Later on, after spending a long time walking round and visiting all the points of interest, we were sitting resting by the sea, when we discovered Brahms a long way off sitting by himself on the shore writing. It was the first sketch for the Schicksalslied, which appeared fairly soon afterwards. A lovely excursion which we had arranged to the Urwald was never carried out. He hurried back to Hamburg, in order to give himself up to his work.The year was 1868, but Brahms did not finish the piece until 1871. Brahms could not make up his mind concerning how to end the work. The final stanza of the poem appealed to Brahms' morose nature, but he hesitated to end the work in such a dark mood. After much thought (and some advice from conductor Hermann Levi) Brahms settled on a return of the orchestral prelude that began the work.
Schicksalslied is in three short movements. The first movement begins with an orchestra prelude and the chorus comes in with the first two stanzas of the poem in E-flat major. The second movement is in C minor and reflects the gloominess of the third stanza. The last movement is a repeat of the the orchestral prelude that opened the work, but Brahms transposed the key to C major and made changes in the instrumentation.
You walk above in the light
on holy ground, blessed genies!
waft by you,
like the fingers of the player
on the holy strings.
Fateless, like sleeping infants,
breathe the heavenly beings.
With modest buds
their spirit will bloom forever,
and their blessed eyes
will see in silent,
But we are given
no place to rest.
We vanish and fall,
Blind from hour to hour,
thrown from tragedy to tragedy
like water thrown from cliff to cliff,
we disappear into the abyss.