Brahms’ “Alto Rhapsody”
Notes by TŌN oboist Quinton Bodnár-Smith
The opening of Johannes Brahms’ Alto Rhapsody was quite jarring to me the first time I listened to it. In a way, Brahms not only provides a musical backstory before the singer’s text begins, but he also highlights musical techniques used by his contemporaries. The beginning features loud notes marked sforzando or “forceful” played by the low strings and bassoons, followed by harsh, blaring entrances by the horns. This opening tension and drama from the start transported me as a listener back to the operas of Richard Wagner; after all, Brahms did tell his close friends that “he understood Wagner’s music better than anyone.” Though the piece starts with a tense energy, the musical scene shifts to a weeping lament, filled with sustained sounds and an unsettled harmony.
The singer and the orchestra are then infused together with a gentle harmony and pulse at first, but this only gives way to a more complex series of interjections from the orchestra. In this work, Brahms’ command of the different textures of the orchestra is notable in his use of pizzicato in the strings to imitate the plucking of a harp, and his use of woodwinds and horns to complement the chorus of singers. The final section of the work is quite similar to the ending of his German Requiem, which had recently propelled his recognition in the music scene of Germany after its premiere.
The text of the Rhapsody is drawn from “Winter Journey in the Harz” a poem by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, whose work has served as the inspiration for other Romantic composers such as Beethoven, Schubert, and Mendelssohn. The text focuses on a hero wandering in an icy wilderness to confront his suffering and seek spiritual renewal. Even though Brahms composed Alto Rhapsody as a wedding gift for Robert and Clara Schumann’s daughter Julie, the poem is not your average cheerful wedding commemoration. Furthermore, experts have suspected that Brahms had romantic feelings for Julie, so this could be a heartfelt final goodbye, or perhaps this is a lament for what could have been.
Both Alto Rhapsody and Rinaldo, completed just one year earlier, give us a glimpse of what an opera by Brahms would have sounded like.