Christmas Night 3/4
By Gabriel Prynn, cellist
It is often said that of all the instruments of the orchestra, it is the sonority of the strings which most closely resemble that of the human voice. So we were naturally drawn to the lieder of Brahms and Schubert for this concert. Indeed, when interpreted on the violin, viola or cello, these vocal works take on a new personality.
Brahms is famous for his lullabies, but do you know the Two Songs for alto, viola and piano, opus 91?
These circumstantial pieces of Johannes Brahms show him at his warmest and most noble.
The second song, entitled Sacred Lullaby, written first but put in second place in the album for musical reasons we imagine, was composed to celebrate the birth of the first child of Brahms’s best friend, the violinist, violist and composer Joseph Joachim, and his wife Amalie Schneeweiss, a highly respected singer.
They had named their child after their friend Johannes, and the idea was that Brahms’s lullaby could be performed by them as a trio: Amalie singing, Joseph on the viola (a favorite instrument of Brahms) and Brahms himself at the keyboard.
The connection to the Christmas story is clear from the words in the song:
You that hover over these palm-trees in the night and the wind, you holy angels, still the tree-tops! My child is sleeping.
The couple experienced great difficulties later on. Although she was considered one of the greatest singers of her time, Amalie always felt inadequate in the eyes of her husband Joseph. Health problems also eventually prevented her from accompanying him during his long tours. Joseph, for his part, was convinced she was cheating on him – a suspicion that had no basis in reality.
Trying to calm the situation, Brahms wrote a second lullaby for them, bearing the title Stilled Longing:
Bathed in the golden glow of evening, how solemn the woods stand! Among the gentle voices of the little birds breathes the gentle plaint of the evening wind. What do the winds, the little birds, whisper? They whisper the world to sleep.
You wishes, that constantly bestir yourselves in the heart without rest or peace! You longings, that stir the breast, when will you rest, when will you sleep? At the whisper of the winds, the little birds, you longing wishes, when will you fall asleep?
Ah, when no longer in the golden distance my soul hastens on the wings of a dream, no longer on ever-distant stars with longing gaze my eyes linger; then the winds, the little birds, will whisper my life, with my longing, to sleep.
Although it was Beethoven who established the new genre of the lied, that is to say a sung poem for voice and accompaniment, when he wrote his song cycle An die ferne Geliebte (To the distant beloved), it was in Schubert’s hands that it truly blossomed.
In his short life (he died at the age of 31), Schubert wrote an incredible 625 lieder (the plural of lied).
Certain themes recur frequently in lieder, especially night, travel, and of course love. These inspiring songs are often combined in a cycle, as is the case in Schubert’s Winterreise (A winter’s journey).
The work explores the obscure and enigmatic side of the world of winter.
In our transcription, the rich, dark tone of the cello lends itself to the most evocative melodies of the cycle.