Brahms composed the Alto Rhapsody, Op. 53 (1869) as a wedding gift for Julie Schumann, the daughter of Robert and Clara Schumann, who was for a time the object of the composer's affections. Forced to abandon his undeclared love upon her engagement to another man, Brahms sublimated his grief in this work for alto, male chorus, and orchestra. Shortly after completing the work, Brahms showed it to Clara Schumann, prompting her to write in her diary, "A few days ago Johannes showed me a wonderful work.... He called it his bridal song. It is long since I have received so profound an impression; it shook me by the deep-felt grief of its words and music." The Alto Rhapsody was first performed in Jena on March 3, 1870 of the same year.
The text consists of three stanzas from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's Harzreise im Winter (Harz Mountain Journey in Winter); together they make for a self-contained poetic and dramatic unit in which desolation gives way to the possibility of consolation. Brahms set each of the stanzas differently. The first, which introduces the wanderer's plight, receives the freest, most rhapsodic musical treatment; the fragmented voice part never repeats an idea, and there is a sense of aimless resignation. Significantly, it seems that the first lines of the first stanza were the last measures Brahms composed; the text "Who is that in the distance? His path is obscured in the thicket...." may indeed have encapsulated the composer's own feelings.
The second section, marked by a faster tempo and more agitated rhythm, becomes an intense plea for pity on behalf of the lost wanderer: Is there to be no consolation for him? Brahms organized the second stanza along the lines of a da capo aria; the first lines of the stanza return at the end with the same melody and an only slightly modified accompaniment.
The chorus makes its first appearance in the third stanza, which takes the form of a simple, hymn-like song. The warm harmonies of the chorus and the straightforward phrases are indeed a balm for the first two stanzas; perhaps the wanderer will indeed find hope and consolation. Though they begin homophonically, the alto's solo and the four choir parts eventually gain some measure of independence; the overall effect is that of a duet for alto and choir. Aside from a few flirtations with flat keys, the music remains in C major throughout.
The Alto Rhapsody has remained one of Brahms' most popular and successful works; the sincerity of its sentiment and the universality of its plea for future contentment have given it a timeless quality that transcends its occasional inspiration.