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Brahms - Gesang der Parzen op. 89



Type of Spiritual Experience


A description of the experience

Brahms: Gesange der Parzen, op. 89 (Berliner Philharmoniker - Claudio Abbado)



Brahms wrote the Gesang der Parzen,  op. 89, during the summer of 1882. The ‘‘archaic’’ text for this work comes from Goethe’s Iphigenie auf Tauris, a play written in 1779. Although originally written in prose while in Weimar, eventually Goethe recast it in verse during his first italienische Reise in 1786.

The scenario of Goethe’s Iphigenie is freely based on Euripides’s drama Iphigenia in Tauris: Iphigenia, the daughter of Clytemnestra and Agamemnon, was offered as a sacrifice by her father, but she was eventually rescued by Artemis (Diana) and transported to an area called Tauris. Euripides’s work is representative of the shift in the outlook among classical tragedians: although there is a complete action that arouses emotions of pity and fear — to use Aristotelian terminology — there is no tragedy or violence apart from those averted, and the play ends happily. Goethe borrows elements of the story, but in no way does he attempt to imitate or reproduce an ancient Greek drama. He puts emphasis on the Humanität of the main character and creates a heroine who, like Gretchen in Faust, she herself has the power to redeem through her moral and ethical integrity.

His classical heroine had all the serenity and repose of a perfect classical sculpture, but with these features now transferred to her mentality as well: Iphigenia became a real eighteenth-century heroine. Goethe transferred the characteristics of restraint and repose of classical plastic art from the surface to the core of his art. In Schiller’s words, Goethe’s  Iphigenie was ‘‘modern’’.

The Parzenlied (Song of the Fates) comes at the end of the fourth act of Goethe’s play, and is thematically linked with Schicksalslied, since both portray the dichotomy between the sufferings of mankind and the blissful, Elysian existence of the gods. Iphigenia recalls a song that the Fates once sang, about the sufferings that the gods mercilessly inflict on mankind. The Latin name “Parcae” is synonymous with “Fates” (also Latin), the equivalent of the Greek “Moirai”, the three deities who each held the distaff (The Weaver), drew off the thread (The Apportioner), and cut it short (The Inflexible One).

The  Parzenlied  constitutes Iphigenia’s sole emotional outburst, a cry of despair, and a singular glimpse at the drama’s irrational forces. For that moment of agony, Goethe veers away from regular pentameters to write in another meter. The Parzenlied consists of six strophes, each one including a different number of lines.  Like the whole play, it is written in blank verse, but the metric pattern here changes from iambic pentameters to dactylic dimeters, each line beginning with an anacrusis, a pattern that remains consistent throughout the song. 

The work starts in a majestic 4/4 meter, in the key of D minor. The dark atmosphere is furthermore enhanced by the instrumentation, which calls for full orchestra with contrabassoon and bass tuba, instruments that obviously add weight to the lower registers of the texture. Moreover, the voices added here in order to constitute the six-part chorus are alto and bass, again the two lower voices of the women’s and men’s parts.  As a whole, the work is dominated by dark colours and minor-mode sonorities. There is no moment of relaxation for mankind, nor for the chorus, which remains silent in only thirty-one measures out of the one hundred and seventy-six of the work.

It is also interesting that Brahms avoids obvious contrapuntal techniques. The texture remains mainly homophonic, with occasional antiphonal and imitative passages, but Brahms’s favoured canonic approaches are not much in evidence — after all, counterpoint is a rather cerebral procedure, and would be out of place in this text, where despair predominates; at these moments one just lets the emotions explode, and Brahms purposefully writes music that does not sound contrived, but that is still amazingly thought out. The text-setting throughout the work is syllabic, with a minimal use of melismas and ornamentation.

 Brahms here appears in the gloomiest of moods; his proclivity for darkness and dreariness — for which he was famous even from his very early years — here finds perfect expression.  The text’s depiction of human suffering is thus perfectly illustrated musically until the end of the fourth strophe. What follows constitutes a celebrated passage not only for its stunning tranquility and calm repose, so different in mood from anything that preceded, but also for the controversy that it aroused during Brahms’s final years and immediately thereafter. The controversy lies in Brahms’s decision to set the fifth strophe of the poem in hymn-like, serene music, thus contradicting the content of the text, which would normally be set to music of similar dramatic intensity:

“The rulers turn their beneficent eyes away from whole races, and shun in the grandchildren the once-beloved, quietly eloquent features of their forebears.”

Brahms’s setting of the fifth strophe presents a striking difference in mood in relation to the rest of the piece contrary to and in no way justified by its textual content.  Gustav Ophüls, a young lawyer at the time, who admired Brahms and had been a friend of his late in his life, asked for Brahms’s opinion. Although cited many times, Brahms’s answer has been interpreted in various ways, mainly due to its laconic and contradictory character. Ophüls later published this letter in a 1922 article entitled “Brahms On his Choral Work Gesang der Parzen”, published in the Zeitschrift für Musik.  In this letter, Brahms wrote to Ophüls from Ischl on 13 June 1896:

I often hear people philosophizing about the fifth strophe of the Parzenlied. I think that, at the mere entry of the major key, the unsuspecting listener’s heart must soften and his eyes become wet, only then does the whole misery of mankind take hold of him



The source of the experience

Brahms, Johannes

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