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Observations placeholder

Schiller - Nänie



Type of Spiritual Experience


A description of the experience

The Power of Irony: Brahms' setting of Schiller's "Nänie"

Nänie, or in English Nenia, was the Greek goddess of funerary lamentation. Her name has also come to mean a dirge of lamentation and praise of a deceased person, sung to a flute accompaniment by a hired mourner. Schiller's poem is yet another example of a poetic treatment of the paradox of mortality, or if you prefer, the paradox of immortality.

The great composers were hesitant to set Schiller's works to music. As Beethoven put it, "Schiller's poems are very difficult to set to music. The composer must be able to lift himself far above the poet; who can do that in the case of Schiller?" Brahms thought long and hard before making the attempt.

Brahms' Opus 82 setting of Schiller's poem, for chorus with orchestra, provides a clear and powerful example of Brahms' approach to musical irony. The piece begins with an instrumental introduction, which features the oboe, enunciating a melody accompanied by winds and pizzicati strings. It begins in the key of D major, but feints right away toward a tonal center of G lydian before meandering back to the home key

owever, the truth is soon revealed: the sopranos are singing the subject of a four part fugue, and as the other voices enter, the contrapuntal potentialities of that subject emerge. By the time all four voices have entered to sing the first phrase of the text, it has been transformed into something much richer and more meaningful. Here for reference is a full translation:

Auch das Schöne muß sterben! Das Menschen und Götter bezwinget,      Also Beauty must perish! What gods and humanity conquers,
Nicht die eherne Brust rührt es des stygischen Zeus. Moves not the armored breast of the Stygian Zeus.
Einmal nur erweichte die Liebe den Schattenbeherrscher, Only once did love come to soften the Lord of the Shadows,
Und an der Schwelle noch, streng, rief er zurück sein Geschenk. And at the threshold at last, sternly he took back his gift.
Nicht stillt Aphrodite dem schöne Knaben die Wunde, Nor can Aphrodite assuage the wounds of the youngster,
Die in den zierlichen Leib grausam der Eber geritzt. That in his delicate form the boar had savagely torn.
Nicht erretet den göttlichen Held die unsterbliche Mutter, Nor can rescue the hero divine his undying mother,
Wann er, am skäischen Tor fallend, sein Schicksal erfüllt. When, at the Scaean gate now falling, his fate he fulfills.
Aber sie steigt aus dem Meer mit allen Töchtern des Nereus, But she ascends from the sea with all the daughters of Nereus,
Und die Klage hebt an um den verherrlichten Sohn. And she raises a plaint here for her glorified son.
Siehe, da weinen die Götter, es weinen die Göttinnin alle, See now, the gods, they are weeping, the goddesses all weeping also,
Daß das Schöne vergeht, daß das Vollkommene stirbt. That the beauteous must fade, that the most perfect one dies.
Auch ein Klaglied zu sein im Mund der Geliebten, ist herrlich, But to be a lament on the lips of the loved one is glorious,
Denn das Gemeine geht klanglos zum Orkus hinab. For the prosaic goes toneless to Orcus below.

The source of the experience

Schiller, Friedrich von

Concepts, symbols and science items



Science Items

Activities and commonsteps





Beauty, art and music
Squash the big I am