Alto Rhapsody

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The Alto Rhapsody, Op 53, is a work for contralto, male chorus, and orchestra by Johannes Brahms. It was written in 1869, as a wedding gift for Robert and Clara Schumann's daughter, Julie. Brahms scholars have long speculated that the composer may have had romantic feelings for Julie, which he may have integrated into the text and music of the Alto Rhapsody. The text, with its metaphysical portrayal of a misanthropic soul who is urged to find spiritual sustenance and throw off the shackles of his suffering, has powerful parallels in Brahms's life and character.

The Rhapsody is a setting of verses from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's Harzreise im Winter. The work is in three sections: the first two, in a chromatically dense and wandering C minor, are for the soloist and orchestra and describe the pain of the misanthropic wanderer. The second section is an aria in all but name. The third section, in a nominal C major, brings in the male chorus, which joins the soloist in a plea to a celestial spirit for an abatement of the wanderer's pain. The third part of the Rhapsody has similarities of vocal and choral style to A German Requiem, which was written the previous year.

The work typically takes between twelve and fifteen minutes in performance. See recordings, below, for indicative timings.

The work was first "tried out" on 6 October 1869, at the dress rehearsal for the Karlsruhe season's first orchestral subscription concert. Amalia Boni sang the solo role; the conductor Hermann Levi was on hand, but there was no male voice chorus, and it is unclear whether Boni was accompanied by orchestra or simply on piano. Brahms and Clara Schumann were present, but there was certainly no other audience.[1] It received its first public performance, and its first definitely known proper performance, on 3 March 1870, at Jena. The soloist at the first performance was Pauline Viardot and the conductor was Ernst Naumann.[2]

The text Brahms set is:

German original
English translation
Aber abseits wer ist's?
Im Gebüsch verliert sich sein Pfad;
hinter ihm schlagen die Sträuche zusammen,
das Gras steht wieder auf,
die Öde verschlingt ihn.
But who is that apart?
His path disappears in the bushes;
behind him the branches spring together;
the grass stands up again;
the wasteland engulfs him.
Ach, wer heilet die Schmerzen
dess, dem Balsam zu Gift ward?
Der sich Menschenhaß
aus der Fülle der Liebe trank!
Erst verachtet, nun ein Verächter,
zehrt er heimlich auf
seinen eigenen Wert
In ungenügender Selbstsucht.
Ah, who heals the pains
of him for whom balsam turned to poison?
Who drank hatred of man
from the abundance of love?
First scorned, now a scorner,
he secretly feeds on
his own merit,
in unsatisfying egotism.
Ist auf deinem Psalter,
Vater der Liebe, ein Ton
seinem Ohre vernehmlich,
so erquicke sein Herz!
Öffne den umwölkten Blick
über die tausend Quellen
neben dem Durstenden
in der Wüste!
If there is on your psaltery[3]
Father of love, one note
his ear can hear
then refresh his heart!
Open his clouded gaze
to the thousand springs
next to him who thirsts
in the wilderness!
  1. ^ George S. Bozarth, Brahms Studies
  2. ^ Michael Musgrave, The Cambridge Companion to Brahms
  3. ^ translations differ on whether ‘auf deinem Psalter’ means ‘on your psaltery’ (an old instrument like a small harp) or ‘in your psalter’ (‘in your book of psalms’).

Recordings[edit]

The Alto Rhapsody is not frequently performed in concert, perhaps because of the expense of hiring a soloist and chorus for a short piece, but it has been recorded many times. A selection of recordings available 2012 illustrates the wide range of tempi adopted by different interpreters of the Rhapsody, with playing times ranging from 11 minutes 45 seconds to 16 minutes 10 seconds.

John Alldis Choir
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Conductor: Sir Adrian Boult
Duration: 11:45
Prague Philharmonic Chorus
Czech Philharmonic Orchestra
Conductor: Giuseppe Sinopoli
Duration: 14:28
London Philharmonic Orchestra and Male Choir
Conductor: Clemens Krauss
Duration: 15:53
Performance Date: December 1947
  • Soloist: Ann Hallenberg
Collegium Vocale Gent
Orchestre des Champs-Elysées
Conductor: Philippe Herreweghe
Duration 11:15
Atlanta Symphony Orchestra & Chorus
Conductor: Robert Shaw
Duration: 14:01
Philharmonia Orchestra & Chorus
Conductor: Otto Klemperer
Duration 12:27
Wiener Singverein
Wiener Philharmoniker
Conductor: Karl Böhm
Duration 16:10
Philadelphia Orchestra
Conductor: Eugene Ormandy
Duration: 13:10
Ensemble a sei voci
Ensemble Orchestral de Paris
Conductor: John Nelson
Duration: 12:14
Royal Male Choir, "Apollo"
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra
Conductor: Eduard Van Beinum
Duration: 12:43
Performance Date: February, 1958
Ernst Senff Chor
Berliner Philharmoniker
Conductor: Claudio Abbado
Duration: 13:04
Monteverdi Choir
Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique
Conductor: John Eliot Gardiner
Duration: 12:57
Performance Date: November 2007
Houston Symphony Orchestra & Chorus
Conductor: Christoph Eschenbach
Duration: 13:55
Men of the Oslo Philharmonic Chorus
Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra
Conductor: Erik Tuxen
Duration: 13:10
Performance Date: 14 October 1949
The Occidental College Chorus
Columbia Symphony Orchestra
Conductor: Bruno Walter
Duration: 12:25
Performance Date: 11 January 1961
BBC's Men's Chorus
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Conductor: Sir Adrian Boult
Duration: 13:51
Performance Date: 1968


References[edit]

  • West, Ewan: Notes to EMI CD CDM 7 69650 2
  • Stone, John: Notes to HMV CD 5 68014 2

External links[edit]