The Descent from the Cross - Rogier van der Weyden
The Descent from the Cross - R. van der Weyden

On May 7, 1896, the day he turned sixty-three, Brahms said to the friends that join him to celebrate his birthday that he had given himself something. And he showed them the scores he had just finished, saying: "But this gift is only for me, when you read the texts you will understand why." The next day he changed his mind and told his publisher, Fritz Simrock, that he wanted to publish those little songs (liederchen, he said) and dedicate them to Max Klinger, the artist who had published a book with illustrations inspired in his works (mental note: to speak more extensively about this Opus XII. Brahmsphantasie in another post). He added: "They aren't exactly fun, on the contrary. They are damned serious and at the same time so impious that the police could prohibit them if the words weren't all in the Bible."

Brahms, well versed in sacred texts, chose four fragments: two from Ecclesiastes, about the vanity of earthly things; one from the Sirach, about death; and one of the First Epistle to the Corinthians, about the power of love, and made them music. I don't know if the songs are impious, but they are damned serious, and the composer reflected this feature in the title (without the swearword), Vier ernste Gesänge [Four serious songs]. They are different from any other songs he had written before, there are in a declamatory style, and they approach more to motets (profane, Brahms insisted on this) than to Lieder as we know them.

Among the circumstances that led to his rather obscure reflections was the stroke that Clara Schumann had on March 26. In 1853, at his twenty, Brahms arrived at the Schumanns place with his scores under his arm, and since then he had become a member of that family; They had endured together the hardest situations, and now, those painful news arrived. On May 10 Clara suffered another stroke and on the 20th she died. Two months later, Brahms sent the published score of the four songs to Marie and Eugenie, Clara's daughters. In her letter, he told them when he had written the songs, and though he didn't want to think that their mother would get worse, there are things that we keep deep inside almost without being aware of them, and those things sometimes turn into music. He also told them that it was too early for them to perform the songs, but he asked them to accept them as a tribute to their beloved mother.

The Vier ernste Gesänge turned to be the last songs written by Brahms and his last work published in his lifetime, the opus 121. He traveled forty hours to reach his friend's funeral and he arrived exhausted. He stayed a few days with some friends to get his strength back, and from there he went back to Ischl's spa, but it soon became clear that he was not only tired and sorrowful, he also was seriously ill. He died on April 3 of the following year.

This odd, hard Easter days, I want to share with you the third song in this cycle, O Tod, wie bitter bist du, [O death, how bitter you are], whose text are the first verses of chapter 41 of the Sirach. The first part of the song talks about how bitter is death when it happens to a full of life person, and the second part about how liberating it is for someone who is suffering and no longer has hope; The original text is from the Lutheran Bible, and I'm sharing here the text from the King James Bible.

O Tod is a moving song. The other three are more severe, but in this one, one of the wonderful themes by Brahms emerges in the second stanza, a balm in difficult times, The music critic Eduard Hanslick attended the premiere of the cycle, which was held in Vienna on November 9, and told in his review about the impressive silence at the end, no one dared to breathe, and the rapturous applause that came later. We all have lived such emotional experience at a recital, haven't we? Given the long, enthusiastic ovation, one of the songs was repeted, our third one. We're listening to the great performance of Hermann Prey and Gerald Moore, let's try to imagine how wonderful was that moment and how happy Brahms must have been.

Take care of yourself!


O Tod, wie bitter bist du

O Tod, wie bitter bist du,
Wenn an dich gedenket ein Mensch,
Der gute Tage und genug hat
Und ohne Sorge lebet;
Und dem es wohl geht in allen Dingen
Und noch wohl essen mag!
O Tod, wie bitter bist du.

O Tod, wie wohl tust du dem Dürftigen,
Der da schwach und alt ist,
Der in allen Sorgen steckt,
Und nichts Bessers zu hoffen,
Noch zu erwarten hat!
O Tod, wie wohl tust du!

O death, how bitter
is the remembrance of thee to a man
that liveth at rest in his possessions,
unto the man that hath nothing to vex him,
and that hath prosperity in all things:
yea, unto him that is yet able to receive meat!

O death, acceptable is thy sentence unto the needy,
and to him whose strength faileth, that is now in the last age,
and is vexed with all things,
and to him that despaireth,
and hath lost patience!


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