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The Science of Music

Getting Brahms' Idea Across in
Vier Ernste Gesaenge"
Four Serious Songs)

by Lyndon H. LaRouche, Jr.
August, 2002

In early 2002, Lyndon H. LaRouche initiated an international dialogue among musicians and others, on the significance of this last work of Johannes Brahms, his "Four Serious Songs." This dialogue also involves working papers on the music, the context and the universal principles involved in this classical work.

To fully appreciate the importance of these immortal songs for today, one must hear them in the mind, and not just with the senses (ears). The brief remarks below stem from recent discussions about performances of this piece, which can assist the listener in hearing the music in the mind, such that Brahms's idea is communicated, thus ensuring that the art itself is not lost to future generations.

Lyndon H. LaRouche, Jr.

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I have audited eight record performances of Brahms' Vier Ernse Gesaenge, by: Fischer-Dieskau, Gertrude Pitzinger, Marian Anderson, Alexander Kipnis, Ernst Gerold Schramm, Thomas Quasthoff, Theo Adam, and Kathleen Ferrier. I compared these, as pairs and triples, in various combinations, including cross-checking for possible correction of initial impressions. Of these, three, Fischer-Dieskau, Pitzinger, and Anderson, are musically and artistically convincing. Schramm is interesting. Quasthoff has a beautiful talent, but he misses on the 121. Adam leaves the impression that he is performing Adam, not Brahms. Kipnis is Kipnis as I have known him from his performances. Ferrier is, to put it gently, not at her best.

As I recall from nearly fifty years ago, Fischer-Dieskau's treatment of the transition across the rest, from "dieser drei" to "aber die Liebe," is not approached by any of the others, even including the Pitzinger who pauses too long over the rest. Otherwise, Fischer-Dieskau and Pitzinger are comparable, sharing the position of the absolute best. Marian Anderson's weakness is failing to leave enough room for the ideas which lie between the notes. Her speed in the Erlkoenig incurs similar problems; musically and artistically, in both the Brahms and Schubert, she is on the mark, and a truly amazing woman and artist, but I would prefer Schlusnus's Erlkoenig by a wide margin.

The essence of a truly artistic musical performance, as on the Classical dramatic stage, is to enrapture the soul, by moving the performance from the visible stage, to the stage of the audience's imagination. This apotheosis must occur in a hushed moment of silence immediately preceding the utterance of the first tone. The audience must hear the effect of the first sounded interval, rather than the accoustical event as such. The audience must be gripped by suspense, a grip which never lets go until after the last tone has faded into a heavenly distance of silence. The performer must, thus, convince the audience that "I am not my body, but my soul." This is emphatically required for this Brahms, in which Brahms' message is delivered on precisely that premise.

William Warfield Singing Brahms at the
February 2002 Schiller Institute Conference
Thus, one must leave enough well-tempered contrapuntal space between the notes for the soul to squeeze through. Pitzinger does that as if by instinct. Fischer-Dieskau's performance perhaps reflects his coaching by Furtwaengler, especially in the case of the soundless, Florentine bel canto quality of transition from "drei" to "aber die Liebe." Thus, Fiischer-Dieskau and Pitzinger set the relative standard to be matched artistically and musically, while Marian Anderson represents something so special that a few distractions will not bother us very much.

The object, however, is not imitation. The issue is the challenge of escaping from the prison of a shadow-world of heard sounds, to hear the substance of the musical idea. This may be accomplished only by the method of the Platonic dialectic, by the principle of hypothesis. To this end, Classical composition in the tradition of Bach's (Florentine bel canto) method of well-tempered counterpoint — Keplerian counterpoint — afford us the use of a double palette. The palette of the contrapuntal paradoxes specific to the bel canto singing voice, and the palette of the paradoxes expressed by the ironies, including crucial metaphors, of the subject being addressed musically. These two kinds of ironies, lie between the notes, as transcendental tones sung and heard only in the mind, and as ironies of the subject-matter being treated musically. Nothing better illustrates that doubled irony of great Classical composition, that the great religious music, from Bach's Passions, through Mozart, the later Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert, and Brahms.

To hear the substance sounded between the heard notes, a certain amount of space must be allowed for those paradoxical passing moments in which a change from the course of deductive schoolbook harmony intervenes. It is shaping the interval of the unheard, transcendental sound, as if "between the notes," which won me to undying admiration of Furtwaengler, in early 1946, and Fischer-Dieskau's performance of the Brahms in 1953.

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Four serious songs
Vier Ernste Gesaenge
Op. 121 (1896)
Set by
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
Text from the Bible


1. Ecclesiastes 3:19

Denn es gehet dem Menschen wie dem Vieh;
wie dies stirbt, so stirbt er auch;
und haben alle einerlei Odem;
und der Mensch hat nichts mehr denn das Vieh:
denn es ist alles eitel.

Es fährt alles an einem Ort;
es ist alles von Staub gemacht,
und wird wieder zu Staub.

Wer weiß, ob der Geist des Menschen
aufwärts fahre,
und der Odem des Viehes unterwärts unter
die Erde fahre?

Darum sahe ich, daß nichts bessers ist,
denn daß der Mensch frählich sei in seiner Arbeit,
denn das ist sein Teil.

Denn wer will ihn dahin bringen,
daß er sehe, was nach ihm geschehen wird?

2. Ecclesiastes 4:1-3.

Ich wandte mich und sahe an
Alle, die Unrecht leiden unter der Sonne;
Und siehe, da waren Tränen derer,
Die Unrecht litten und hatten keinen Tröster;
Und die ihnen Unrecht täten, waren zu mächtig,
Daß sie keinen Träster haben konnten.

Da lobte ich die Toten,
Die schon gestorben waren
Mehr als die Lebendigen,
Die noch das Leben hatten;
Und der noch nicht ist, ist besser, als alle beide,
Und des Bösen nicht inne wird,
Das unter der Sonne geschieht.

3. Ecclesiastes (Sirach), 41:1-2.

O Tod, wie bitter bist du,
Wenn an dich gedenket ein Mensch,
Der gute Tage und genug hat
Und ohne Sorge lebet;
Und dem es wohl geht in allen Dingen
Und noch wohl essen mag!
O Tod,
wie bitter bist du.

O Tod, wie wohl tust du dem Dürftigen,
Der da schwach und alt ist,
Der in allen Sorgen steckt,
Und nichts Bessers zu hoffen,
Noch zu erwarten hat!
O Tod,
wie wohl tust du!

4. I Corinthians 13:1-3, 12-13.

Wenn ich mit Menschen und mit Engelszungen redete,
Und hätte der Liebe nicht,
So wär' ich ein tönend Erz,
Oder eine klingende Schelle.

Und wenn ich weissagen könnte,
Und wüßte alle Geheimnisse
Und alle Erkenntnis,
Und hätte allen Glauben, also
Daß ich Berge versetzte,
Und hätte der Liebe nicht,
So wäre ich nichts.

Und wenn ich alle meine Habe den Armen gäbe,
Und ließe meinen Leib brennen,
Und hätte der Liebe nicht,
So wäre mir's nichts nütze.

Wir sehen jetzt durch einen Spiegel
In einem dunkeln Worte;
Dann aber von Angesicht zu Angesichte.

etzt erkenne ich's stückweise,
Dann aber werd ich's erkennen,
Gleich wie ich erkennet bin.

Nun aber bleibet Glaube, Hoffnung, Liebe,
Diese drei;
Aber die Liebe ist die größeste unter ihnen.


1. Ecclesiastes 3:19

For that which befalleth the sons of men befalleth beasts,
as the one dieth, so dieth the other;
yea, they have all one breath;
so that a man hath no preeminence above a beast:
for all is vanity.

All go unto one place;
all are of the dust
and all turn to dust again.

Who knoweth the spirit of man
that goeth upward,
and the spirit of the beast
that goeth downward to the earth?

Wherefore I perceive that there is nothing better,
than that a man should rejoice in his own works;
for that is his portion:

for who shall bring him to see
what shall be after him?

2. Ecclesiastes 4:1-3

So I returned, and considered
all the oppressions that are done under the sun:
and behold the tears of such
as were oppressed, and they had no comforter;
and on the side of their oppressors there was power;
but they had no comforter.

Wherefore I praised the dead
which are already dead
more than the living
which are yet alive.
Yea, better is he than both they, which hath not yet been,
who hath not seen the evil work
that is done under the sun.

3. Ecclesiastes (Sirach), 41:1-2.

O, death, how bitter you are,
in the thoughts of a a man
who has good days, enough
and a sorrow-free life
and who is fortunate in all things,
and still pleased to eat well!
O, death,
how bitter you are,

O death, how well you serve him who is in need
Who is feeble and old,
and is beset by all sorrows,
and has nothing better to hope for
or to expect;
O death,
how well you serve.

4. I Corinthians 13:1-3, 12-13.

Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels,
and have not charity,
I am become as sounding brass,
or a tinkling cymbal.

And though I have the gift of prophecy,
and understand all mysteries,
and all knowledge;
and though I have all fatih,
so that I could remove mountains,
and have not charity,
I am nothing.

And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor,
and though I give my body to be burned,
and have not charity,
it profiteth me nothing.

For now we see through a glass,
but then face to face;

now I know in part;
but then I shall know
even as also I am known.

And now abideth faith, hope, agape (love)
these three;
but the greatest of these is agape.


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