The fact that Brahms never wrote an opera makes any essay into narrative song especially interesting. This set of fifteen songs is Brahms' only effort that is specifically designated as a song cycle. Unlike Beethoven's "An die ferne Geliebte" (To the Distant Beloved), Schubert's "Die schöne Müllerin" (The Fair Maid of the Mill), or Schumann's "Dichterliebe" (Poet's Love), Brahms' cycle is neither as cohesive in its narrative nor as musically self contained. The actual common thread of the poems relies upon the story from which they are drawn, 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) by Ludwig Tieck. Brahms chose fifteen of the eighteen poems interspersed throughout the novella. These poems draw upon a common thread in Brahms' choice of literature, being romantic in tone yet medieval in their evocation of chivalric love. If it were not for the background of this novella, these songs might be considered similar to the Opus 32 songs, related in theme, but lacking a cohesive narrative. But as we have the background, the cycle must be accepted in terms of the story and the various poem's relationships to it.
Some of these songs are lyrical commentaries on the narrative, while others are songs within the story itself. The first is the minstrel's worldly advice to the lovers while the last is a duet of love, cast as a unison solo. There are love songs, Numbers 4, 5 and 7, and there is a lullaby, Number 9. Peter is the protagonist in most of the songs, but Magelone is the principal voice in Number 11, and Number 13 belongs to Sulima, the secondary love interest. Most of these songs are set in standard forms, such as ternary (A B A), or expanded ternary (ABABA) or varied strophic (repeated verses varied each time). Only Number 13 is set in simple strophic form to illustrate the simple Sulima. In spite of this apparent simplicity of form, many of these songs take on an almost operatic expansiveness, length and variety of expressive detail. In this regard, they are quite different from the Lieder und Gesänge of Opus 32, and bear a much greater similarity to Brahms' great chamber and instrumental works in their complexity and seriousness of expression. These fifteen songs are arranged in five sets of three songs each. Although Brahms stated that he was not opposed to independent performance of the various numbers, their lack of specific titles, and the ongoing narrative connection make them most effective as a set. Today, they are never performed separately, in spite of the great length of the set, lasting nearly an hour performed in its entirety.