Näine, op. 82 – Johannes Brahms
This is a fresh look at Brahms’s rich and wonderfully complex setting of Schiller’s Nänie. This analysis will be multi part, and as all good studies of choral music should, we begin with the text.
The poem by Schiller is a classical elegy. An elegy sets up a conflict between that which is actual and that which is ideal. The conflict between the actual and the ideal is what is mourned. The goal of the poem is to bridge the gap between reality and perfection. To offer a new idea that helps reconcile the gap.
Schiller begins this elegy by making his thesis statement:
Auch das Schöne muß sterben!
Even the beautiful must die!
The conflict is that beauty and perfection are not immortal even though we may want beauty to last forever. Death is the reality that is in conflict with beauty.
A classical elegy often references several mythological characters and stories which Schiller’s does.
Das Menschen und Götter bezwinget,
That which overcomes men and gods,
nicht die eherne Brust rührt es des stygischen Zeus.
Does not touch the iron breast (heart) of the Stygian Zeus.
Stygian means dark or gloomy and also refers to the river Styx. Stygian Zeus is Hades, the ruler of the underworld. Hades represents the ultimate nature of death that cannot be overcome by men or gods. To demonstrate how immortal gods have no power over death Schiller makes allusions to three mythological stories of how gods wanted to rescue an immortal from death but could not.
Einmal nur erweichte die Liebe den Schatten beherrscher,
Only once did love soften the ruler of the shades,
und an der Schwelle noch, streng, rief er zurück sein Geschenk.
And still, at the threshold, in his severity, he revoked his gift.
This couplet refers to the story of Orpheus who was in love with the mortal Eurydice. Eurydice dies from snakebite. When Orpheus discovered this he went to Hades and sang of his love for Eurydice. Hades heart was softened by Orpheus’s love for Eurydice and allowed him to go to the underworld to rescue her. There was a condition. Orpheus was not to look at Eurydice until they reached the upper world. Orpheus, perhaps thinking he had been tricked looked back just at the threshold of the upper world and Hades severely revoked his gift – Eurydice vanished forever.
Nicht stillt Aphrodite dem schönen Knaben die Wunde,
Aphrodite cannot heal the beautiful boy’s wounds,
die in den zierlichen Leib grausam der Eber geritzt.
Which the boar cruelly tore into his graceful body
Aphrodite, the goddess of love fell in love with Adonis as a youth. Adonis was known for his incredible beauty. He was also a hunter. He was attacked by a wild boar and Aphrodite could do nothing to save him. This story reinforces Schiller’s thesis that “even the beautiful must die”
Nicht errettet den göttlichen Held die unsterbliche Mutter,
The immortal mother cannot save the divine hero,
wenn er, am skäischen Thor fallend, sein Schicksal erfüllt.
When falling at the Scaean gate he fulfills his destiny.
Thetis, the mother of Achilles feared his mortality since he was born to a mortal father. She tried to make him immortal by dipping his body into the River Styx. He could not escape his ‘Achilles heel’ and was killed in front of the (Scaean) gates of Troy.
Aber sie steigt aus dem Meer mit allen Töchtern des Nereus,
But she arises from the sea with all the daughters of Nereus,
und die Klage hebt an um den verherrlichten Sohn.
An begins her lament for her exalted son,
Siehe, es weinen die Götter, es weinen die Göttinen alle,
See, the gods weep, all of the goddesses weep
daß Schöne vergeht, daß Volkommene stirbt
because the beautiful perishes, because perfection dies.
Aber – however, At this point Schiller advances his solution to immortality. Thetis, the mother of Achilles responds to the death of Achilles by offering a lament. Thetis is one of the fifty daughters of Nereus who live in the sea. She rises from the sea with all the daughters of Nereus to offer a song of lament for Achilles, her son.
Auch ein Klaglied zu sein im Mund der Geliebten, ist herrlich,
To be even a song of lament on the lips of a loved one is wonderful,
denn das Gemeine geht klanglos zum Orkus hinab.
For what is commonplace descends toneless to Orkus.
How can the conflict between immortal beauty and the desire to preserve that beauty be reconciled? A song of lament (Klaglied) on the lips of a loved one provides a measure of immortality. The Greeks believed you have not perished if someone is singing about your deeds.
Thetis accomplishes immortality for Achilles though her song of lament. She could not keep his body from dying, but he lives on in song. The opening measures of her lament are triumphant as the gods rise up out of the sea to sing this stirring melody Brahms has provided.
For Brahms this goes beyond the references Schiller has provided in the poem. Certainly the association with the painter Feuerbach is obvious. The work is dedicated to his mother. This is a lament to remember him. But its meaning transcends the remembrance of one gifted painter. It extends to the meaning and purpose of all art. The human and the divine can meet through art. The bridge between mortality and immortality is art.
To bring the point into greater focus Brahms uses the piece to memorialize two of his greatest music hero’s. The opening measures are a quote of Beethoven’s Lebewohl (farewell) sonata op. 81. Brahms quotes Beethoven and Schumann in other portions of the piece. These are ways he is offering a ‘Klaglied’ to immortalize his heroes.
Look for an analysis of the musical form of Nänie in the next post.