In order to work through this article, we recommend that you obtain a copy of the score for Brahms' "Geistliches Wiegenlied", opus 91, and/or a good recording such as the one by Marian Anderson with William Primrose on viola, or the recording by Jessye Norman.
The year 1997 marks the centennial of the death of Johannes Brahms, the last great master of the art of classical music composition. In observance of this occasion, it is appropriate to examine the method by which Brahms approached this lost art, using what Lyndon LaRouche has described as the "Rosetta Stone": the Lied or art song. To understand how Brahms conceptualized musical metaphor, we can learn from how he "translates" a written text into music.
We have the additional assistance of Brahms' pupil Gustav Jenner, who wrote an insightful book entitled, Johannes Brahms as Man, Teacher and Artist: "Brahms demanded from the composer above all, that he know his text completely." "...it was certainly in no way sufficient for Brahms, when there was nothing more present than a pretty, well-accompanied melody. In a case where, for him, my melody did not meet the requirements of the text, he said: 'Compose another text for yourself under this.' Brahms set great store by that, which one can call, for short, 'word-expression.' Often one finds in his Lieder pregnant turns of melody, that are clearly brought about by single, particular words of the text. Far from disturbing the melodic flow, these turns are essential components of the melody, indeed they are often like motivic seed-crystals, from out of which the entire melody appears to grow. It is instructive to study which portions of the text Brahms treats this way in his songs, while passing over others, that to another composer might seem no less deserving of such characteristic treatment. One will find, that his sharp gaze has always differentiated the essential from the non-essential. But the so-called 'mood-poems,' that are just thrown together from an accumulation of word-painting, he has never composed. If the direction of the melody was excessively oriented to the particular word-expression, this he would rebuke with the words, 'More from the whole!', thereby penetrating to the heart of the matter."¹
One of Brahms' most powerful Lieder is entitled "Geistliches Wiegenlied" ("Spiritual Lullaby"), Opus 91, scored for mezzosoprano, piano and viola. As Brahms instructed Jenner, let us begin by examining the text. Here is the original version of the poem, by the Spanish Renaissance poet, Lope de Vega:
This is the version that was set by Brahms:
In the discussion which follows, links are provided, so that quotations from the poem may be seen in context. Then, use the "back" feature of your browser program to return to the article. Musical examples may be accessed by clicking on the treble clef symbol:
Some of the ironies that are only hinted at in the original version, are brought out somewhat more sharply in Geibel's version. As the poem develops from stanza to stanza, the ambiguities become more pronounced, more paradoxical.
Lyndon LaRouche, in recent years, has produced a rich body of work on the subject of metaphor, in which he investigates how the creative process works: each creative act can be understood as the transition from one hypothesis, an ordering principle which governs the assumptions which underlie one set of ideas, to another, higher hypothesis; and the transition is marked by a paradox, that cannot be resolved from the standpoint of the relatively lower hypothesis, but only from that of the relatively higher. The same principle holds for the physical sciences, where human creativity is also efficient.²
Thus, the poem, and Brahms' setting of the poem, can be seen as a progression of hypotheses, where, the "shift upwards" is marked by a paradox. It is important, as well, to note the role of ambiguities, meaning not something that is vague or unclear, but rather something that is rich in implication, or in other words, an idea that carries multiple meanings. A metaphor will have this quality, in that it cannot be "pinned down" to represent something specific, in the sense of symbolism (a degenerate concept with respect to poetry). It will be an idea that cannot be understood logically, because the multiple meanings will be mutually contradictory from that standpoint; in other words, they will create a paradox. But the mind can rise above the cruder forms of activity, such as the induction of the beasts, or the deduction of the the computers, to the level of reason, where a metaphor becomes not only comprehensible, but instructive and beautiful. This is also what is meant by the concept of irony.
Keeping this in mind, let us look first at some features of Emmanuel Geibel's version of the poem, the version set by Brahms.
Geibel changes the title of the poem, eliminating the reference to the Virgin, and inserting the German word for "lullaby," which translated literally, means "cradle-song." The image of "night and wind" in the first stanza, might seem innocuous, but from the standpoint of the where the poet intends to lead the mind of the hearer, it is not. Schiller, in his essay, "Vom Erhabenen" ("Of the Sublime"), says:
"...Darkness is terrible, and precisely on that account suitable for the sublime. But it is not terrible in and of itself, but rather because it conceals from us the subject matters, and thus delivers us over to the entire sway of the power of imagination. As soon as the danger is distinct, a very great portion of the fear vanishes. The sense of sight, the first sentry of our being, denies us its services in darkness, and we feel ourselves placed before the concealed danger unarmed and naked. On that account superstition sets all ghostly visitations at the hour of midnight, and the realm of death is imagined as a realm of eternal night."³
By the second stanza, the allusions to Bethlehem, angels, and the sleeping child have begun to create an association in the listener's mind, to the story of the birth of Christ (in the original Spanish poem, the reference to the Virgin in the title strengthens this association.) However, a kind of dissonance arises, between this joyful association, and the image of the palms, buzzing angrily in the wind.
At the beginning of the third stanza, there is a reference to the Child of Heaven, strengthening the tendency toward an association with the infant Jesus. However, a paradox rapidly arises in the following lines, which destroys the initial, naive impression: the Child of Heaven "endures hardship", he "was weary of the sorrows of the earth," the "agony melts away." This suggests the crucified Christ, who has suffered and perished to redeem the sinners of the world. This paradox forces the mind to rise above deduction to creative reason, in order to find the "one" that can reconcile the "many". It also compels the hearer to reconceptualize the image of the "child asleep", because the "sleep" is not literally sleep, but an ambiguity. As Hamlet says, in the most famous of his soliloquies,
"...and by a sleep to say we end the heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks the flesh is heir to..."
The tension that is created, that forces the hearer to abandon any literal or symbolic understanding of the poem, is sustained throughout the fourth stanza, and the singer recapitulates the opening stanza by appealing directly to the angels once again; this causes the listener to reflect on the beginning of the poem, from the vantage point of the ending. Brahms, in his musical setting of the poem, set about to deepen the paradox. He chose a very novel approach, in that he actually created a song setting of two poems, in dialogue with one another: Geibel's poem is sung by the mezzosoprano, while the viola sings an old folk melody, one that is familiar to all German speakers, and many English speakers as well. It is a Christmas carol:
The melody is played on the viola; the words are never heard. Although the words are not sung, there is an unavoidable association for those who are familiar with them, to the story of the birth of Jesus. In his original score of this song, Brahms inscribed the words to the Christmas carol under the viola part, in case someone should miss the point. He is using this simple, unambiguous verse as an initial, simple hypothesis: that the subject of the song is the infant Jesus. As LaRouche has observed, to discover a paradox, you must have pre-existing beliefs that can be overthrown by an higher hypothesis. Brahms is thus using the Christmas carol as a foil, so that the mind will compare it to the progression of higher, richer hypotheses in the Geibel text, and thereby discover a series of increasingly profound paradoxes.
Brahms has another reason for choosing this melody, and setting it in this key, and this species of voice: the melody is so simple, that it is remarkably free of singularities. A simple illustration of what is meant by a singularity, or a discontinuity, may be found in geometry: a triangle is a polygon with 3 discontinuities, which are those spots where the continuous, straight-line directionality of the sides is interrupted by a change in direction. A simple illustration of a discontinuity in music, is a register break in the human singing voice; for example, the physical means, by which the mezzosoprano's voice produces a tone, changes between Eb and E natural, just above middle C, and then again an octave higher. This divides her voice into 3 registers; within each register, the production of sound is continuous, but the change from one register to another represents a discontinuity.
In a situation where the mind anticipates continuity, a discontinuity appears paradoxical; when the mind breaks through to a higher hypothesis that resolves the paradox, the use of the term singularity is more apt. As LaRouche has demonstrated, a relatively higher hypothesis may be thought of as a geometry that is richer in singularities. It is possible to introduce tones into a composition which, if introduced in an arbitrary way, would be viewed as paradoxical, or heard in music as "wrong notes;" but which, when ordered by a relatively higher hypothesis, become beautiful, ironic. Another term for the concept of an hypothesis in music, is modality, an ordering principle which may embrace potentially numerous tones beyond the simple do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti-do of the key signature.
The melody of the Christmas carol is contained within a six note span, and in the key of F, it lies entirely within the mezzo's first, or second register (the pairing of the viola and the mezzo voice suggests that the viola is intended to be a "second mezzo", with its dark timbre). Brahms intends to take this "naive" musical raw material, the Christmas carol, and ironically transform it in a way parallel to how he will treat the text. The song opens with the viola declaiming this melody in what would be the mezzo's first register.
The mezzo never sings the melody of the Christmas carol, and the viola never plays the singer's melody, but the two melodies have an ironic relationship to one another. The singer enters with her melody after the viola has played the entire Christmas carol once through. The first phrase of the singer's melody (F-A-C-D-D-C-Bb-C-F) is a form of inversion of the viola melody (C-A-F-A-C-D-C); the singer, instead of descending from the C to the F, and then going back up and on to the D, begins at the bottom. Note that the two examples both fall within the same 6 note span, F to D.
In the second phrase of the singer's melody, Brahms begins to introduce the singularities that will drive the further development of the song. He expands the modality, introducing an Ab on the word "Nacht" ("night"), accompanied by an harmonic ambiguity in the piano voices (at this point it is useful to recall what Jenner refers to as "word-expression" -- Brahms unerringly matches the introduction of musical singularities, to the introduction of important ambiguities in the text).
Then, in a most remarkable, third phrase, he employs three descending lines, falling from the notes D, Eb, and E:
(D) Ihr heil'gen Engel,
First of all, the D is the highest note that has so far appeared in the melody. The introduction of the Eb "pushes the envelope" by introducing a higher tone; by introducing another anomalous tone, i.e. by further expanding the modality; and by reaching the uppermost limit of the Mezzo's 2nd register. Then, the E represents a singularity, because the Mezzo enters the 3rd register for the first time, which effect is intensified by singing the vowel "u" on "schlummert".
There is tremendous tension created in this passage, because of the above referenced singularities, and also because of the motion by half-steps from D, Eb, E, and implicitly to F, since the E is the leading tone for the key of F, and the mind anticipates the final tone. However, Brahms, instead proceeding to the 3rd register F on the word "schlummert", descends stepwise all the way down past the F in the 2nd register, to D in the first register, before finally coming back up to a resolution on the 2nd register F. In doing this, the singer sings the words, "es schlummert mein Kind" ("my child is asleep") twice, finally coming to rest on the word "Kind". The listener is kept in "suspension" throughout this entire, long phrase.
In addition, Brahms has planted a seed here which comes to fruition later, in the form of the motif derived from the sequence (D,Eb,E,[F]). Although the D, Eb, and E do not occur in direct sequence, but rather separated by intermediate notes, the mind still identifies them as a sequence, and they appear later, without the intervening notes. By the same token, although the F is only implied, and in fact appears at the end of the phrase displaced by an octave, the motif will appear later in the form of 4 notes, each one half-step from the other.
Now, a word on half-steps: the half step is associated with harmonic transformations - in the simplest sense, as the "leading tone", proceeding upward from the 7th to the octave, or downward from the 4th to the 3rd. A series of notes, each a half-step apart, generates a particularly intense sense of anticipation, as the mind prepares itself to grapple with a higher cardinality, a greater density of singularities, which characterizes a higher hypothesis: all great composers have been attracted to this challenge, and among the fruits of this inquiry are found Bach's "Musical Offering," Mozart's C minor fantasy, Beethoven's variations on an original theme, Schubert's sonata on that same theme, and Brahms' first symphony. (Romantic composers such as Wagner, on the other hand, exploited what is called "chromaticism", to use that sense of anticipation as an effect, without ever providing a lawful hypothesis: this creates a kind of morbid anxiety.)
At the conclusion of the first stanza, the viola once again plays the first phrase of the Christmas carol, once in the mezzo's second register, then once in the first register. The only thing that has changed, is that the melody appears in both registers, instead of only the first, but the mind has already begun to hear it differently, because of the ironic transformation that has taken place in the first verse. Because the listener has been provoked by paradox, to take in a higher hypothesis, he now comprehends the initial material of the Christmas carol, from the standpoint of a new and richer set of underlying assumptions.
The second verse begins as a sort of variation of the previous line, "Ihr heil'gen Engel, stillet die Wipfel, es schlummert mein Kind." There are two descending sequences of tones:
(C) Ihr Palmen von Bethlehem in
Then on the following line "Wie mögt ihr heute so zornig sausen", which begins to introduce a greater degree of irony, two things happen simultaneously: in the bass voice in the piano, we find the descending sequence E,Eb,D, which is, in reverse order, the D,Eb,E "seed crystal" identified above (and it is preceded by an F in the bass, followed by a rest, so that, in effect, it is an inversion of the tone sequence D,Eb,E#,[F] mentioned earlier). It is followed by F#,F,E in the bass, the same intervals, but moved up a whole step. In the mezzo line, we have the ascending sequence F#,G,G#,A on "mögt ihr heute", followed by G#,A,A#,B on "zornig sausen"; in other words, the same series of 4 ascending notes, separated by half-steps, but beginning on F# and G# rather than D.
Let's pause here and assess what Brahms has done, in the space of 4 measures. He has taken the basic material that is sketched out in "Ihr heil'gen Engel, stillet die Wipfel, es schlummert..." and presented it in a new form, far denser in singularities. Where before the ascending notes were two measures apart, and separated by intervening, descending lines, they are now concentrated down to two notes per measure, with no intervening tones. Also, they appear in both ascending and descending form, simultaneously, contrapuntally. Brahms, who studied Bach and Händel with great thoroughness, is employing some of the fugue-makers' techniques in the service of Motivführung, or "Motif-leading". And, let us not forget, the text that is being sung is driving the metaphor toward paradox, as the music reaches a higher density of singularities.
In the next phrase, as the singer sings, "O rauscht nicht also," entering the third register on "rauscht," the viola bursts forth with the Christmas carol in A major, entering also in the mezzo's third register. The effect is no longer that of a soothing lullaby, but rather a more agitated, plaintive sound. The first phrase of the melody is then repeated in G major, as the singer sings, "schweiget, neiget euch", and the viola enters the third register again, briefly, before subsiding down into the warmer second and first registers, as the singer sings "leis und lind".
They then return to "stillet die Wipfel, stillet die Wipfel, es schlummert mein Kind" -- the notes are as before, at the end of the first stanza, but the meaning of those notes has been transformed by what has just occurred.
The next stanza enters a domain of yet higher cardinality. In preparation for what is to come, Brahms indicates a change in key signature, to the key of F minor. He also changes the time signature, from the "cradle rocking" rhythm in 6/8, to 3/4, where he begins to subdivide the beat simultaneously into 2 and 3 parts, creating a rhythmic irony. The first phrase of this stanza culminates in a breathtaking moment, a stroke of Johannes Brahms' particular genius: the phrase, "Der Himmelsknabe duldet Beschwerde," which begins in F minor, concludes by touching upon Db major, which mode has an ironic relationship to the original key of F major (it can be generated by inverting, or reversing the directionality of the F major mode). This underscores a remarkable irony, which is that the upward sweep of the mezzo's vocal line, culminating on the Db near the top of the second register, sounds a note of triumph, on the very word "Beschwerde" ("hardship")! This may usefully be compared to Brahms' militant treatment of the text, "Death, where is thy sting," in his German Requiem.
The following line is key to the paradox: "Ach, wie so müd er ward vom Leid der Erde." The singer dips down into her first register, to underscore the words "er ward" ("he was") and "der Erde" ("of the earth"). Brahms has the singer repeat it for emphasis: "Ach, wie so müd , wie so müd er ward vom Leid, vom Leid der Erde." As this is sung, the viola and piano are relentlessly putting the motif of 4 notes in a series of half-steps ( originally D,Eb,E,[F] ) through a new, more intensive development, where the series appears as eighth notes, beginning over and over on different tones, with descending lines in the viola pitted contrapuntally against ascending lines in the piano bass.
Finally, in the concluding lines of the stanza, Brahms returns to the music used at the beginning of the first stanza: the Ab that fell on the word "Nacht" then, now falls upon the word "Qual" ("torment" or "agony"). The irony is heartbreaking, as the mind finds a way to reconcile the gentle lullaby melody, with the new text that is applied to it. And when the refrain, "Stillet die Wipfel, stillet die Wipfel, es schlummert mein Kind," recurs, the notes, as they appear in the score, are once again the same, but the idea content has been further transformed, far beyond any previous sounding of these tones, and as the viola concludes the stanza with the opening phrase of the simple little Christmas ditty, it too has been transformed further.
The final stanza is given the same musical setting as the second stanza, and at the conclusion of the piece, the entire Christmas carol is recapitulated by the viola: where it sounded, at the beginning of the piece, childish and naive, it now sounds ennobled and powerful, although there has been no change in the written score. The simple image of the infant Jesus, suggested by the (unheard) text of the Christmas carol, now carries with it the entire mission of Christ, and his triumph over death (like Raphael's painting, the "Alba Madonna," where a baby John the Baptist is depicted, offering a crucifix to the baby Jesus in his mother's arms).
The mind of the listener has considered this little melody 5 times, and each time from the standpoint of a higher hypothesis. Now, at the conclusion of the song, the mind is confronted with the real idea of the piece, the "metaphor of metaphors": the ordering principle that governs the process of change from one hypothesis to another. This idea is not heard, nor found in the score, nor the text: it is located in the realm of memory.
Brahms has created a dialogue between two poems, two songs within one composition, and in doing so has used the method that Socrates uses in the dialogues of Plato: he has used a series of paradoxes to lead the mind toward a consciousness of its own power, its propensity to rise above the rude activity of induction and deduction, to the realm of creative reason.