“Liebestreu”, op. 3 (Sechs Gesänge) no. 1 (1853) by Johannes Brahms (1833-1897). Dedicated to Bettina von Arnim
Text by Robert Reinick (1805 – 1852) , title unknown, from Lieder, in 2. Romanzen und Bilder, no. 26, published 1844
What a dashing young man Brahms was. When he met the famous pianist Clara Schumann and her composer husband Robert, the affinity and attraction was instant. Johannes and Robert had great admiration for each other. Indeed, the affinity between Clara and Johannes went beyond friendship, while – it seems – the love might have been spoken and written of in tender letters, the two never had a traditional relationship, even after Robert was committed to a mental asylum for what appears to have been some form of paranoid schizophrenia.
Lisel Mueller wrote a touching poem on the matter:
“The modern biographers worry
“how far it went,” their tender friendship.
They wonder just what it means
when he writes he thinks of her constantly,
his guardian angel, beloved friend.” [Extract from “Romantics: Johannes Brahms and Clara Schumann”]
“Liebestreu” was definitely not the first song that Brahms had composed, but it was the first he allowed to be published. By all accounts the song was written before he met Clara Schumann, but the way in which it fore-shadows their relationship is quite touching. He published it after his life had become intertwined inextricably with the Schumanns. “Brahms was distraught when Schumann was taken away; but he couldn’t help loving Clara. He moved into the house at Düsseldorf, taking over Schumann’s meticulously kept household book, helping to look after the children – and waiting for Clara to come back from her endless tours. Brahms and Clara wrote to each other constantly. By the end of 1854, their intimacy was so advanced that Brahms felt able to end one of his letters to her with a quote from the Arabian Nights: “Would to God that I were allowed this day instead of writing this letter to you to repeat to you with my own lips that I am dying of love for you. Tears prevent me from saying more.” We don’t know how Clara replied because, many years later, they returned their letters to each other, and she destroyed hers. We also don’t know whether they ever became lovers; probably not – the guilt would have been too overwhelming.” [Steven Isserlis: The Guardian,
Given this backdrop of emotional turmoil – a love that just would not die, but was not acceptable in the eyes of society at the time – it is very tempting to place Brahms at the center of the song, the protagonist in dialogue with his mother. It is a true dialogue song, with the speaking voices of each distinguished in style, rhythm and harmony.
The mother’s speaking voice is anxious and repeats words, creating a sense of urgency and revealing that not only is the young lover in great emotional anguish, but that the loving parent is distraught at witnessing the child’s pain. Despite the Pianissimo opening, the atmosphere is ominous and filled with dread. The drama launches immediately: dissonant harmony unsettles the minor chord, already presented in an unsettling 2nd inversion, and 2-against-3 rhythms creating a stormy-sea on which the mother’s entreaties lurch upward in two anticipations on “O versenk, o versenk” before launching to the top of the wave on “Leid”, before sinking down to the bottom of the singing range, as if illustrating the sadness sinking to the bottom of the ocean.
But the triplets rise and bubble to the surface, anticipating the description by the daughter of her grief rising ever more to the surface. The instruction Träumerisch (Dreamily) distinguishes the younger speaker’s voice from that of the mother. Hushed Pianissimo with fewer breath-gasping commas than the mother’s emotional plea and longer lines, give the daughter’s line a haunted feeling, emphasised by some emotional chromatic writing.
The piano provides the surface of the water on which the sorrow of the voice gently floats – as if the daughter wants to appear in control of the emotions – until the two separate on the word “Leid” (Sorrow) and rise to a major conclusion.
Verse 2 repeats the same structure as the first, albeit more intense on repetition. With a Pocco più mosso, we return to the urgent, gasping, repeated call of the mother to break the sorrow out of her heart. Again, the child soothes the mother’s anguish in a calm and quiet response, saying that while a flower might die when broken off its stem, true love will not die as quickly.
Ancora più mosso, aggitato drives the drama swiftly forward. The mother repeats her same melody, urging the child that fidelity is just a word, and that she should respond to the lover’s inconstancy by throwing hers to the wind. The conflict between mother and daughter has been indirect up to this point in the song, with each inhabiting their own tonal space and character; the mother distraught, gasping, short of breath, and the daughter dreamily distracted and introvert.
As if woken from a dream, or perhaps finally allowing the tumbling of the walls that held at bay the grief, the child transforms the mother’s melody to the major, as she describes how her fidelity and love is as strong as a rock, stronger than a real rock which can be cleft by the wind. The angst-ridden beauty of this outburst is further heightened by a falling third harmony in the voice, and a disturbing psychological unraveling illustrated by a rising chromatic line in the piano, and a falling melodic line, where the commas of the mother’s speaking style are not only incorporated, but heightened into painful silences. Yonatan Malin describes the effect of these overlapping harmonies and motives as “Scwhebende zeit”, or floating time. [Malin]
The song “imparts a sense of urgency and darkness, but also of tender and tormenting consolation, Brahms’ music betraying anything but his supposedly reserved emotional manner.” [Robert Cumings]
About the Poet:
Robert Reinick (22 February 1805 – 7 February 1852) was a German painter and poet, associated with the Düsseldorf school of painting. Reinick was born in Danzig (Gdańsk) and died in Dresden.
“Liebestreu”, op. 3 (Sechs Gesänge) no. 1 (1853) by Johannes Brahms (1833-1897):
Original German text by Robert Reinick (1805 – 1852) , title unknown, from Lieder, in 2. Romanzen und Bilder, no. 26, published 1844.
“O versenk’, o versenk’ dein Leid, mein Kind, in die See, in die tiefe See!”
“Ein Stein wohl bleibt auf des Meeres Grund, mein Leid kommt stets in die Höh’.”
“Und die Lieb’, die du im Herzen trägst, brich sie ab, brich sie ab, mein Kind!”
“Ob die Blum’ auch stirbt, wenn man sie bricht, treue Lieb’ nicht so geschwind.”
“Und die Treu’, und die Treu’, ‘s war nur ein Wort, in den Wind damit hinaus.”
“O Mutter und splittert der Fels auch im Wind, Meine Treue, die hält ihn aus.”
die hält, die hält, ihn aus.
“Liebestreu”, op. 3 (Sechs Gesänge) no. 1 (1853) by Johannes Brahms (1833-1897):
English translation by Albert Combrink of the German text by Robert Reinick (1805 – 1852) , title unknown, from Lieder, in 2. Romanzen und Bilder, no. 26, published 1844.
“Oh sink, oh sink your sorrow, my child, in the sea, in the deep sea!”
“A stone might well rest well at the bottom of the ocean, but my sorrow, though, comes again up to the surface.”
“And the love that you carry in your heart, break it off, break it off, my child!”
“Even if the flower dies when one breaks it off, true love not so fast.”
“And constancy, and fidelity, ’tis only a word; out into the wind with it!”
“Oh, Mother, even if the rock splinters in the wind, My constancy will withstand.”
Download Free Sheet Music of “Liebestreu”, op. 3 (Sechs Gesänge) no. 1 (1853) by Johannes Brahms
“Liebestreu”, Op. 3 No. 1 (Brahms) performed by Anja Harteros (soprano) & Wolfram Rieger (piano)
“Liebestreu”, Op. 3 No. 1 (Brahms) performed by Bernarda Fink (mezzo-soprano) & Roger Vignoles (piano)
“Liebestreu”, Op. 3 No. 1 (Brahms) performed by László Fenyö (Cello) & Kirill Krotov (Piano)
This exquisite song was dedicated to Bettina von Arnim (the Countess of Arnim) (4 April 1785 – 20 January 1859), born Elisabeth Catharina Ludovica Magdalena Brentano, a German writer and novelist.
Bettina (as well: Bettine) Brentano was a writer, publisher, composer, singer, visual artist, an illustrator, patron of young talent, and a social activist. She was the archetype of the Romantic era’s zeitgeist and the crux of many creative relationships of canonical artistic figures. Best known for the company she kept, she numbered among her closest friends Goethe, Beethoven, and Pückler and tried to foster artistic agreement among them. Many leading composers of the time, including Robert Schumann, Franz Liszt, Johanna Kinkel, and Johannes Brahms, admired her spirit and talents. As a composer, von Arnim’s style was unconventional, molding and melding favorite folk melodies and historical themes with innovative harmonies, phrase lengths, and improvisations that became synonymous with the music of the era. She was closely related to the German writers Clemens Brentano and Achim von Arnim: the first was her brother, the second her husband. Her daughter Gisela von Arnim became a prominent writer as well.