Song of Destiny (Schicksalslied), op. 54

A somber procession of choral works with orchestra, all dealing with gods and mortals, life and death, runs through Brahms’s works from the early, supremely beautiful Begräbnisgesang (‘Burial Song’) to the Schicksalslied (‘Song of Destiny’), the Alto Rhapsody, the Nänie (‘Threnody’), the Gesang der Parzen (‘Song of Fate’) and, of course, the German Requiem. Brahms had a special affinity for the choral medium, having earned his living primarily as a choral conductor during his early years. And he was always given to philosophical reflections on our path on earth and the meaning of it all.


The text for Schicksalslied was taken from Friedrich Hölderlin (1770-1843), one of the greatest German poets from the generation after Goethe. Hölderlin’s own destiny was a tragic one indeed: after brilliant studies at the Seminary of Tübingen and contact with intellectual circles in Jena, he had considerable success with his novel Hyperion, but his failure to win Goethe’s blessing proved fatal to his career. After the death of the woman he loved, his mental troubles quickly intensified to complete derangement; pronounced incurable by his physicians, he spent the last 36 years of his life in the house of an honest cabinet-maker and his wife, with only occasional lucid moments during which he wrote some truly remarkable poems. In his youth Hölderlin regarded poetry as a mission that combined those of the Biblical prophet, the ancient Greek seer, the philosopher, and the social thinker. He hoped to raise the German nation to a higher level of cultural, moral, and political consciousness. Hyperion describes historical events, namely the freedom fight of the Greeks against the Turks in the 1770s; yet its main content is the hero’s struggle to understand and to become one with divinity on one hand, and on the other, to build a new, better society on earth. It is in nature that he finally apprehends an accessible form of divinity.


Schicksalslied is one of several poems interspersed in the novel (after the manner of Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister, which also incorporated poetry). It expresses the profound chasm between gods and people and contrasts the happy and sheltered existence of the former to the hardships endured by the latter. This topic had earlier been treated in a somewhat similar way by Goethe in his poem Grenzen der Menschheit (‘The Limits of Humanity’) and in the Parzenlied (‘Song of Fate’) from Iphigenia in Tauris (set to music by Brahms). Hölderlin follows Goethe in the way he describes humankind as a plaything of the elements. Yet whereas Goethe ended on a peaceful and conciliatory note, emphasising the bliss of the immortals and holding out some hope for humans, Hölderlin closed in despair. He belonged to the Romantic generation for whom the Classical composure of their elders was no longer an option. And it was precisely this pessimism of Hölderlin’s that Brahms could not accept.


In the summer of 1868, Brahms visited two musician friends, Albert Dietrich and Carl Reinthaler, in Bremen. Dietrich related in his memoirs that one day, as the three of them went on a trip to see the naval station at Wilhelmshaven, Brahms was surprisingly silent all day. That morning he had found Hölderlin’s poems on the bookshelf and had been deeply moved by the Schicksalslied. He withdrew to a solitary spot and made the first sketches for the composition. He cut short his visit in Bremen, and hurried back to Hamburg to devote himself to his work.


In spite of this impulsive start, it took Brahms about three years to complete the Schicksalslied. One of the main difficulties he had was precisely connected to the closing of the poem. After trying out various other solutions, he wrote a purely orchestral postlude which, after the depiction of the cruelty of human destiny reintroduced heavenly bliss in a soothing C major, not unlike the ending of the Alto Rhapsody (or the last chords, in F major, of the Requiem). In the program for the Karlsruhe premiere, the words Nachspiel des Orchesters (%u201COrchestral Postlude") were printed after the text, in order to emphasise the degree to which this ending was to be regarded as an extension of the poem.


The work is structured in three parts. The first of these portrays the happiness of the gods. After an orchestral introduction, the altos of the chorus begin a beautiful melody, soon joined by the other voices.


The second section brings a sudden contrast. The tempo and meter changes and sharp dissonances appear as human misery is invoked. At the words von Klippe zu Klippe (%u201Cfrom rock to rock"), we hear one of Brahms’s favorite rhythmic devices as he re-organises two measures of 3/4 into three measures of 2/4 (a phenomenon called hemiola), used here in a particularly dramatic manner.


The third section is the purely orchestral prelude mentioned above. It uses the melodic material of the opening, re-orchestrated for an even more ethereal effect. Here Brahms actually managed to turn Hölderlin into Goethe as he moved from the ‘unknown depths’ back to Olympian realms where peace and serenity reign supreme. This ending reveals much about Brahms’s faith and life philosophy, ‘uniting,’ as Karl Geiringer wrote in his monograph on Brahms, ‘the lot of men and gods in one reconciling bond.’

100 évesek vagyunk