Autumn Lieder: Schubert, Schumann, Brahms

images-29

The arrival of autumn yesterday in the Northern Hemisphere provides a good excuse to listen to the incredible art songs of German Romantic composers like Schubert, Schumann and Brahms. Autumn seems to have been a rich source of inspiration for these composers. In poetry, the season has been associated with death and cycles of life, as summer fades and winter approaches. In Friday’s post we’ll listen to Der Einsame im Herbst” (“The Lonely One in Autumn“) from Mahler’s The Song of the Earth. But let’s start with these three earlier songs inspired by autumn:

Schubert’s Herbst

In Franz Schubert’s Herbst (Autumn) D. 945, we are confronted with the terror of immortality. The piano’s continuous, running notes suggest a cold, howling wind. The ominous bass notes evoke something darkly supernatural, maybe even demonic. Listen for sudden harmonic shifts throughout the song. Notice the chord at 0:53 at the end of the verse, “Thus withers away the blossoms of life.” This is harmony which makes us feel trapped and forces us to confront the inevitable. As the line is repeated, Schubert’s harmony goes far afield to accomplish the harmonic resolution we originally expected.

The poem is by  Ludwig Rellstab. This performance features Matthias Goerne and pianist Christoph Eschenbach:

Schumann’s Herbstlied

Robert Schumann’s song places autumn in a cycle of death and rebirth. Listen to the way the music changes in the third stanza in the lines (around 1:00):

Love surely returns again
In the dear forthcoming year
And everything then returns
That has now died away

Read a translation of the text by Siegfried August Mahlmann here. The performers are Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, baritone; Peter Schreier, tenor; and Christoph Eschenbach, piano.

Brahms’ Four Quartets

Autumn turns up in the second of Johannes Brahms’ Vier Quartette Op. 92. The poem, which Brahms set for “Late Autumn”, was written by Hermann Allmers:

The grey mist drops down so silently upon the field, wood and heath
that it is as if Heaven wanted to weep in overwhelming sorrow.

The flowers will bloom no more, the birds are mute in the groves, and the last bit of green has died; Heaven should indeed be weeping. 

In the opening of the first song, listen to the way Brahms captures the expansive majesty of the night sky. This performance features the Chamber Choir of Europe, conducted by Nicol Matt with Jürgen Meier, piano:

  1. O schöne Nacht (“Oh Lovely Night) 0:00
  2. Spätherbst (“Late Autumn”) 4:10
  3. Abendlied (“Evening Song”) 6:00
  4. Warum? (“Why”) 9:12

Julia Fischer Plays "Autumn"

Unknown-18The vibrant Fall colors outside my window are a great excuse to listen to Vivaldi’s third concerto, “Autumn” from “The Four Seasons. Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741) was writing and playing this music at a time when the violin was developing as a virtuosic instrument. There’s a youthful joy in this music, as if he’s saying, “Look what the violin can do!” The key to playing this music well is to make the technical passages sound effortless and fun.

The piece is in three contrasting movements (fast, slow, fast). Here is a video by Julia Fischer and The Academy of St. Martin in the Fields:

To get an idea of how many ways this music can be played, listen to this performance which uses instruments similar to those in Vivaldi’s time. Notice the difference between the Baroque and modern bow. Can you hear a difference in the sound which is created? Also notice the sparing use of vibrato. Here, violinist Giuliano Carmignola performs with the Venice Baroque Orchestra:

Listen to Vivaldi’s Winter and Spring concertos here. Leave a comment below with your thoughts on these performances.

Find on iTunes Find on Amazon