by Emily Essex
All through Oriel Arts Week 2015, we’re providing a daily shot of musical inspiration to set you off to a good start! Make sure you come back daily for your music recommendation & explanation provided by Oriel College Music Society members.
Schicksalslied means ‘Song of Destiny’ and this piece thoroughly deserves an appropriately grandiose (I hesitate to say ‘pretentious’…) title. It is written for orchestra and four-part choir and, although it’s certainly not requiem-length (or indeed ‘Hymnus Paradisi’ length!), it’s about 15 minutes long. If you don’t have time to listen to all of it may I recommend 2:25 and then from about 8:20 (the flute solo at 14:10 and strings at 15:00 are also pretty special if you have time).
The story goes that Brahms came across the poem (by Hӧlderlin) in the library of a friend and started composing as he stood looking out at the sea. The words are beautiful:
Ye move up yonder in light,
On airy ground, o blessed spirits!
Radiant winds ethereal
O’er you play light,
As the fingers inspired that wake
Free from Fate, like the slumbering
Suckling, breathe the immortals.
In bud that enfolds
It blooms for aye,
The flower of their spirit.
And the eyes of the blessed
Gaze in tranquil
But to us is it given
In no abiding place to dwell;
We vanish, we stumble,
We suffering, sorrowing mortals
Blindly from one
Brief hour to another,
Like water from boulder
To boulder flung downward,
Year by year to the dark Unknown below.
Translation by Florence T. Jameson
Without wanting to spoil it too much (yes, you can spoil the ending of a piece of music just the same as a story) it opens with a beautiful, lyrical theme that sounds almost like a lullaby and everything is, to my mind at least, wonderfully serene until we reach the final stanza of the poem. And then you won’t even believe you’re listening to the same piece! I won’t try to describe it because I won’t do it justice, but it is so anguished and desperate and, especially if you haven’t heard it before and don’t know quite what’s coming, it is seriously powerful.
Interestingly, Brahms didn’t publish this piece for a long time after its original composition. It seems that he just didn’t know how to end it without breaking the spell of the middle section. It’s worth listening to the ending he chose and thinking about how the mood changes; some people think it lifts the whole piece and threads even the earlier sections with hope, others just see it as a slight break in the grim picture that he has painted. Whatever you think it’s certainly a beautiful closing section.
I also have to mention, since it’s Brahms, that of course the harmonies are simply gorgeous, particularly in the orchestral introduction and the ending. The choral parts at 4:25 and 5:10 are pretty lovely as well.
Depending on what kind of mood you like your background music to be, you may find this suitably inspiring to work to, but I have always found it just too engaging a piece to concentrate on anything else for long!
Take it from someone who even now can’t listen to the Schicksalslied without ridiculous hand gestures and often quite literally jumping up and down with excitement: if you have 15 minutes spare today then this is what you should do with them!!
Keep following The Poor Print for your daily shot of music recommendation! Provided for you by Oriel College Music Society!