In May 1863, Johannes Brahms accepted the directorship of the Vienna Singakademie, followed in September 1872 by the directorship of the Vienna Gesellschaftskonzerte. During his tenure in both positions, Brahms produced numerous works for chorus, both accompanied and a cappella. Many of these works are for vocal quartet, although they are occasionally performed by larger ensembles. Among these are the Liebeslieder Waltzes, Op. 52, and the Neue Liebeslieder Waltzes, Op. 65.
Brahms' Liebeslieder (Love Songs) Waltzes consist of eighteen poems arranged for two pianos and vocal quartet, setting texts from George Friedrich Daumer's Polydora. Brahms' sketches suggest that he conceived the shape of the entire cycle before completing individual waltzes.
Published in 1869, the Liebeslieder were first performed on January 5, 1870, in Vienna. After Brahms received a copy of the first edition he wrote to the publisher, Simrock, in Berlin, "I must confess that it was the first time I smiled at the sight of a printed work of mine!" The original publication is for two pianos and voice ad libitum, indicating that the voices are optional. This direction, made possible by the fact that the vocal lines are present in the piano part, was evidently inserted by the publisher, who hoped to increase sales. Brahms, of course, realized that this removed some of the most charming aspect of the pieces, and the direction was omitted from the second set of Liebeslieder, Op. 65. In the winter of 1869-1870, Brahms orchestrated a suite of waltzes taken from the Liebeslieder for a Berlin performance. He chose Nos. 1, 2, 4, 5, 8, 9, and 11, and composed a new piece, which became No. 9 in the Neue Liebeslieder set of waltzes.
Brahms' Liebeslieder represent the mingling of the folk music of northern Germany (the composer's former homeland) and the waltzes and Ländler of Upper Austria (his new homeland). In effect, Brahms' Liebeslieder are stylized Viennese waltzes. Nearly all of Daumer's poems are pastoral verses on both the positive and negative attributes of love. Brahms' settings tends toward folk music in their melodic characteristics, with none of the text painting that a lesser composer may have employed. A few numbers, however, stand out from the rest. Those that are concerned with different expressions receive appropriate treatment. For instance, No. 12, "Schlosser auf, und mache Schlösser," (Get up locksmith, and make me locks) finds the narrator in a moment of anger as he asks a locksmith to make innumerable locks for him, claiming, "Then the wicked, wicked mouths/Shall I shut forever!" The intensity of Brahms' setting conveys the urgency of the request in this, the shortest of the 18 songs. In the ninth song, a man notices a pink-faced girl peering out of a house on the bank of the Danube. Ten iron bars protect the doors of the house, but the man explains he could easily tear them down. The calm atmosphere is shattered as the man explains his intention of breaking through the bars, after which the first lines return with their fluid music. The 16th poem, "Ein dunkler Schacht ist Liebe," (Love is a pit of despair), receives the most fiery setting of all.