Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Music and Memory, Part 8: "Cradlesongs of my sorrows"

These are the words Brahms used in private to describe his Three Intermezzi, op. 117, written in 1892.  The first, in E-flat major, is the best known.  In the score, Brahms prefaced the piece with two lines of poetry, an excerpt from a Scottish poem translated into German by Johann Gottfried von Herder: 

Schlaf sanft, mein Kind, schlaf sanft und schön!
Mich dauert's sehr, dich weinen sehn.

(Sleep softly, my child, sleep softly and well!
It grieves me so to see you weep.)

E-flat major is a key that had come to be associated earlier in the nineteenth century with the heroic, chiefly through Beethoven's use of it as the key of his Symphony no. 3 ("Eroica") and Piano Concerto no. 5 ("Emperor").  But as the vehicle for the voice of Brahms's gently-rocking melody, it becomes the key of bittersweet resignation, and even of profound heartbreak mediated only by memory.

There are many beautiful recordings available, but I like this one in particular, since it's the one I grew up with.  Glenn Gould playing late Brahms might seem counterintuitive, but this is a stunning, restrained, and deeply moving performance.


GretchenJoanna said...

Thank you so much!
I found your blog via Back Bay View, and will have to browse more after this lovely introduction.

Pentimento said...

You are very welcome here, GretchenJoanna! There's lots about classical music here, along with a few other topics. Perhaps you'll feel a kinship with at least some of what you find.

goblinmama said...

Got here from Betty Duffy's blog. As an undisciplined, poorly schooled musician and mom of 3, I may be back for more inspiration like this. Bookmarking you and that G. Gould link!

So this piece is about watching a child sleep? Did Brahms have children? Never would have guessed that all along it was music, not words, that would so completely capture this treasured past-time of mothers.

Pentimento said...

Welcome, Goblinmama! I'm glad you liked the Brahms op. 117 no. 1. Such a beautiful and sad piece, so understated; as usual, Brahms only hints at the true emotion that disturbs the surface of the peaceful cradle-song.

Brahms never married. He was in love with Clara Schumann, one of the greatest piano virtuosos of the nineteenth century and the wife of composer Robert Schumann, for most of his life. Robert went mad, and Brahms moved in with her and her eight children to help out, though it seems to have been a chaste arrangement. There is speculation that she expected a proposal of marriage after Robert died, but it did not emerge. Brahms was fourteen years her junior and was somewhat immature at that time. There was also speculation for a long time that he was the father of one of the younger Schumann children. There is no way to ever know the truth about these things (though I suspect their relationship was chaste), as both burned their correspondence, but they were dearest friends for their entire lives. Brahms was a very complicated man; at one point, he proposed marriage to one of Clara's daughters, if you can believe it, but she turned him down. He used to say "Alas, I have never married, and so am, thank God, single."

The Herder text is a translation of a Scottish lullaby -- "Balou, my boy, lye still and sleep, it grieves me sore to hear thee weep" -- that is excerpted from a longer poem in which the mother of the child has been abandoned by the father. In fact, I believe Brahms was very sensitively attuned to the subtleties of the text, and that, therefore, his Op. 117 no. 1 Intermezzo is not just a lullaby, but rather, as he put it, a cradlesong for his sorrows, of which there were very many. However, what makes it so moving is the way he restrains the grief that disturbs the peace of the melodic motif, leaving a far more powerful impression of deep sorrow, at least to my mind, than if he had given it free rein.

goblinmama said...

WOW! Thanks for taking the time to provide this insight! And now that you say it, I do recall his unrequited loved story from a music history class of long ago. I agree that, by not running amok with his sorrows, the piece draws out more twists and turns from the emotion of longing, aching sadness, esp. the sadness that comes from knowing you can never have what it is you think you want most. As a mom, that thing is "peace" more often than not. And that peace we feel when watching our children sleep is also tinged with an aching sadness in knowing it will not last--either the night or the childhood.

Pentimento said...

Amen to that, Goblinmama.