Leading British baritone Roderick Williams and distinguished pianist Roger Vignoles have recorded Brahms’ only song cycle, Romanzen aus die schone Magelone in two versions.
The songs follow the narrative a novella by Ludwig Tieck (1773-1853), a favourite of Brahms in his youth, which tells of a handsome noble warrior, Count Peter of Provence, who travels to Naples and falls in love with the princess Magelone. Drama ensues involving pirates, a beautiful Sultan’s daughter and a near-betrayal.
Roderick Williams says of the songs “Either I am a sucker for late-Romantic song or perhaps for his historic fairytales of derring-do and blushing maidens, but I for one was enthralled on first hearing.”
This unique double CD recording presents the original cycle – along with the Four Serious Songs – and a second version where Roderick intersperses the songs with Roger’s English translations for Tieck’s original story. He says, “I hoped it might connect with the wide-eyed child in us all, anyone who cannot resist “Once upon a time…”.
Roderick Williams was winner of the 2016 RPS Singer award, is Artistic Director of Leeds Lieder and is in demand around the world as a recitalist, in opera and with orchestras. - Roger Vignoles has collaborated with some of the world’s greatest singers, and has an extensive doscography across a wide range of lieder and song."
On 7 May 1833, Johannes Brahms was born in a cramped two-room apartment in a squalid block in Hamburg’s Gängeviertel – that is Lane Quarter, known by the locals as “Adulterer’s Walk”. He was the first son of a modestly successful bandsman who had married a seamstress 17 years his senior. Like many children of such poor background, Brahms dreamed of escaping his circumstances, and often retreated into books. His reading horizons grew when, in the summer of 1847, he took up the invitation of a wealthy paper-mill owner, Adolf Giesemann, to spend some weeks at his country house at Winsen an der Lühe. There Brahms taught piano to Giesemann’s 13-year-old daughter, and together they befriended a Jewish boy who obtained books from his mother’s lending library for them to read. One of these books was the romance The Beautiful Magelone and Count Peter of the Silver Keys, a story which would become the basis of Brahms’s only full song cycle.
The story, based upon a 12th-century Provençal tale, exists in several versions. The one Brahms finally set in the 1860s was Ludwig Tieck’s novella Wundersame Liebesgeschicte der schönen Magelone und des Grafen Peter aus der Provence (The Wondrous Love story of the Beautiful Magelone and Count Peter of Provence), which he possibly discovered in the library of his mentor, Robert Schumann. Tieck’s novella tells of a handsome noble warrior, Count Peter of Provence, who travels to Naples and falls in love with the princess Magelone. She too loves him, and on being betrothed to another nobleman offers to elope with Peter. However they are accidently parted and Peter, lost at sea, is captured by Moorish pirates. They take him to their sultan and Peter is made to serve in the palace. The sultan’s daughter, Sulima, falls in love with the handsome Christian, and he agrees to elope with her. However Peter recalls Magelone in a dream, and abandons Sulima as he sails away from her land. After several adventures, including being stranded on an island, Peter is eventually reunited with his beloved.
Writing to his beloved Clara, Robert Schumann’s pianist wife, Brahms was apt to draw parallels between their situation and literature: indeed, after Schumann had voluntarily submitted himself to a lunatic asylum, Brahms was bold enough to allude to an erotic tale from the Arabian Nights to express his feelings for her. And when attempting to comfort Clara on the occasion of her and Robert’s son, Ludwig, also being committed to an asylum, Brahms referred to Ibsen’s stage play Ghosts. Not surprisingly, several biographers have since suggested that the young composer saw in Tieck’s novella several parallels with his own life: not only was there his affair (even if platonic) with Clara Schumann, but even more compellingly there was his subsequent engagement to the lesser-known Agathe von Siebold.
A daughter of a Göttingen University professor, Agathe was intelligent and musical, with an attractive singing voice (“like an Amati violin”, according to Brahms’s violinist friend Joseph Joachim). In the summer of 1858 Brahms spent much time with her, accompanying Agathe on the piano as she sang several of his songs. Clara, who had often encouraged her young admirer to find “a nice young wife”, was so shaken by the sight of Johannes and Agathe together that she promptly left Göttingen. Brahms, no doubt, was at least equally shaken by Clara’s reaction, and though he went to far as to secretly exchange engagement rings with Agathe, he faltered fatally when her family begged him to end small-town gossip by making their engagement public. According to Agathe, Brahms sent her a letter saying “I love you! I must see you again! But I cannot wear fetters. Write to me, whether I am to come back…” Agathe released him from their engagement, but, understandably, refused to see him again.
It was, by any measure, a badly botched affair. Yet Brahms remained haunted by memories of Agathe, and could hardly have failed to see a parallel between their relationship and Peter’s tryst with Sulima. Brahms eventually started composing settings of the songs featured in Tieck’s Wundersame Liebesgeschicte in the summer of 1861 (around the same time that he began work on what was to become his First Symphony). It is perhaps significant that not long afterwards he composed another vocal work which reflects another and not altogether unrelated childhood obsession: four choruses to poems by Carl Lemcke which offer romanticized views of barrack life, camaraderie and of do-or-die-glory of a soldier’s life. Brahms was a keen collector of tin soldiers even into his young adult life, an enthusiasm he attempted to share with Clara in his early letters to her. The Magelone songs, of course, more closely echo Brahms’s personal experiences, and in that sense have – perhaps – a greater depth of feeling. But nonetheless, one should not totally forget how much they also reflect Brahms’s idealized – indeed child-like – inner world which enchanted him, yet from which he always shied away when there was any danger of his “desires” being fulfilled.
Brahms’s cycle underwent a prolonged gestation. He submitted the first six songs to his publisher, Breitkopf & Härtel, in 1864, but they were rejected for having too difficult a piano part. Brahms subsequently found another publisher, Rieter-Biedermann, though no doubt that initial rebuff inhibited his creativity; he did not complete the remaining nine songs (leaving out two of Tieck’s original 17 poems) until 1869. Those 15 songs represent the nearest Brahms ever came to writing a song cycle, though unlike Schubert’s two great cycles, Die schöne Müllerin (which Brahms performed a great deal with the baritone, Julius Stockhausen) and Winterreise, Brahms’s Romanzen aus Magelone does not in itself offer a coherent narrative. Yet he rejected his publisher’s suggestion that an explanatory narrative should be printed to accompany his song cycle. Closely associated though his music is to Tieck’s words, Brahms perhaps did not want their sentiments limited or linked exclusively to the medieval tale that had originally inspired them. He himself preferred to hear just two or three of the songs performed at a time, and certainly if the listener is unfamiliar with the story from which they are taken this is perhaps the most digestible way to appreciate them. However, knowing the story, or simply hearing the songs within the context of the tale they were originally intended to adorn gives them a specific resonance and charm.
Listeners of Roderick Williams’s performance recorded here have the option of hearing Brahms’s cycle either way. Heard complete, one may appreciate all the more not only Brahms’s still generally underestimated skill in word setting (most obviously in the songs concerning Peter’s falling in love and courtship of Magelone), but the positively operatic quality of such settings as “Sind es Schmerzen” (No. 3): here one hears in the piano part the enchantment of a Neapolitan night in which a young man’s “inward music resounded above the whispering of the trees and the plashing of the fountains”; then the music change to minor (a very Schubertian trick) as enchantment turns to despair, Peter doubting his good fortune, before he bestirs himself (horn calls in the piano part), making a vow that he will at least try for Magelone’s love. If the quality of the music after the first six songs does not quite maintain this dramatic level, there are still several gems to be found in those subsequent settings, such as the lullaby Peter sings to his beloved Magelone as they stop in a forest (No. 9, “Ruhe, Süssliebchen”). Here in this cycle, Brahms surely revealed himself as a true, tender-hearted romantic.
We enter a quite different emotional world with his Four Serious Songs. On 26 March 1896 Clara Schumann had suffered a stroke, and Brahms composed these four settings of Biblical texts in the expectation that she was soon to die. He completed these songs, which he titled Vier ernste Gesänge, in time for his 63rd birthday; Clara died 13 days later on 20 May. The first three songs, setting texts from the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes, are meditations on death, on the injustice of life and the fragility of fortune – such was Brahms’s pessimistic view of human existence. (Brahms, in a typical demonstration of his gruff humour, insisted in referring to these songs as “gottlose Schnaderhüpfeln” – “godless harvesters’ revels”.) Yet he counter-balances these lugubrious ruminations with a final song, setting the well-known text from I Corinthians which exalts love even above faith and hope. Typical of Brahms, one might say, especially since the music of that final song derived from several sketches which apparently were originally intended to set at least two different love songs, one by Rückert and the other by Heyse. Brahms clearly had in mind a love far more encompassing than the King James Bible’s translation of the Greek agape, “charity”. And certainly, the Lutheran German translations he sets are far more direct in tone – more in tune with his own style – than the stately cadences of the King James Bible familiar to English listeners.