Johannes Brahms

Ballades and romances (4) for voices (SAT) & piano, Op. 75

    Description by John Palmer

    Brahms spent the summers of 1877-79, some of the most productive of his life, in Carinthia. These years saw the composition of the Ballads, Op. 75, the Second Symphony, the Songs, Opp. 69-72, the Motet, Op. 74, the Eight Piano Pieces, Op. 76, the Violin Sonata, Op. 78, the Violin Concerto, Op. 77, and the Rhapsodies, Op. 79.

    No doubt this burst of creativity was at least partially related to Brahms' "re-acquaintance" with Elisabeth von Herzogenberg (née Stockhausen). Brahms had met Ms. Stockhausen in Vienna in 1863, when she began to take lessons from him. He found her so attractive he could not talk around her, much less teach her anything, and suggested she study with Julius Epstein.

    Probably because the texts verge on the style of epic poetry, in the tradition of the Medieval Ballad, Brahms' Op. 75 settings occasionally take on the air of a dramatic scene. Although Brahms had begun to distance himself from the language of the folk song, some aspects remain in his Ballades, Op. 75, such as mainly diatonic melodies, repetition of the last words of a verse, consistent rhythmic patterns and the lack of lengthy piano introductions. However, harmonic and formal procedures of the "art song" tradition are at the core of each duet. The Ballades and Romances, Op. 75, were published in 1878.

    "Edward," the first of the Op. 75 set, is from the traditional Scottish, as translated in Herder's Volkslieder. Brahms' setting, for alto and tenor voice with piano, was first performed on December 17, 1879 in Vienna. Edward's mother asks him why there is blood on his sword and Edward eventually admits he has killed his father. Beginning on an unstable F minor, the song follows a pattern of alternation between the mother's questions and Edward's answers, each question and answer set to a varied form of the original melody.

    The text of "Guter Rat" (Good Advice) is from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, (The Youth's Magic Horn), a two-volume anthology of German folk poetry edited by Achim von Arnim and Clemens Brentano and published between 1805 and 1808. When a mother learns of her daughter's desire to leave home with a man, the mother advises the daughter to stay for a year. The daughter wishes she were a boy so she could do as she wishes. After alternating their contrasting verses the mother (alto) and daughter (soprano) enter a central section in G major, in which they both sing new material. When the opening material returns, only the daughter's verse appears, in 6/8 meter and varied to create a strong close.

    Brahms set "So lass uns wandern!" (So Let Us Wander!), a traditional Czech folk poem translated by Joseph Wenzig, for soprano and tenor voices with piano. Enchanted with a woman, a man offers her a green dress if she goes walking with him. Through-composed in overall form, "So lass uns wandern!" contains subsections that are varied strophic in construction. Chromatic inflections in the melody and harmonic adventurousness set "So lass uns wandern!" apart from the rest of the Op. 75 set.

    In Willibald Alexis' (1798-1871) "Walpurgisnacht" (The Witches Sabbath [the night before May 1]) a conversation between a mother and daughter reveals the mother to be a witch. Mother and daughter alternate phrases in this varied strophic setting that moves away from the tonic, A minor, to E flat major, creating the interval of a tritone (an interval associated with the devil during the Middle Ages). The mother repeats her dramatic final line before a close on A major.


    1. Edward
    2. Guter Rat
    3. So lass uns wandern!
    4. Walpurgisnacht

    Appears On

    Year Title Label Catalog #
    2009 DG Deutsche Grammophon 477 818-3
    1996 DG Deutsche Grammophon 449 641-2GJB4