The Slow Process of Learning and Loving “Nänie”

One of our three Brahms pieces this weekend is Nänie, which roughly translates to “Funeral Song.”  I agreed with that translation initially, because when I first began listening to it, I figured I’d rather be dead!  Every time I put it on, my brain would drift away.  I’d think of something else.  I’d have to back it up to hear sections again.  I’d get lost in thought.  To me, there was nothing remarkable or imposing about the piece, certainly not like the sumptuous chords of the Alto Rhapsody or the drama of the Schickslaslied.  To make matters worse, it would be the hardest to learn of the three.  It has the most text.  It has no structure short of a brief reprise of the opening tune towards the end.  It has only one truly dramatic moment.  It has many sustained notes that are hard to sing in one breath.

As is often the case, by the time I was done studying it — no, immersed myself in it — it became my favorite of the three pieces.

It turns out John Oliver agrees.  When we sat down for our first piano rehearsal with him Thursday, he was unusually exuberant in his conducting. The 71-year-old founder of our chorus stepped off the stand and moved around the rehearsal hall, practically leaping across from sopranos to altos, evoking with dramatic hand and body gestures the sound he wanted from each of us.  Initially I attributed it to the fact that he had already been through the earlier concert cycle with Stephanie Blythe that Wednesday.  But later today, he confessed how much he loves this piece and has conducted it many, many times in his career — even as far back as putting it in his senior recital in Jordan Hall back when he was in his 20’s.

So what’s to love about this seemingly drab piece?  I first realized what I wasn’t understanding about it when I saw a comment in the previous performance’s program notes, where a contemporary of Brahms lamented that it felt wrong to perform such an intimate piece in a large concert hall.  And that’s what this is — a very intimate, personal, exposed piece.  It wasn’t until I fully understood the translation that I could match the mood to the subject matter.  Once those meshed, I was once again in awe of Brahms and his ability to convey such heady concepts as coping with death in his music.

What’s so deep about this text?  It professes that “all beauty must die,” and gives three examples from classical mythology of Death triumphing.  Its message is that rather than try to defeat Death, the glory — the “Herrlich”, literally “Herr” (Lord / God) + “lich” (-ly, or -like) — can be found in the song that honors and laments their passing.  This powerful concept is born out through the music, which evokes the dying beauty, the attempts by even the gods to stop death, and then the one dramatic portion of the piece (one of the few forte moments, coupled with a switch of  time signature to 4/4 from 6/8) as we describe all the Daughters of the sea-goddess Thetis rising from the sea to sing a lament for her fallen son Achilles.   The conclusion, again coupled by the same beautiful oboe solo that introduces Auch das Schöne muß sterben (“But Beauty must die”) line at the beginning, states that “Auch ein Klagelied zu sein im Mund der Geliebten ist herrlich” (“But a lament-song on the lips of a beloved one is glorious”), and this line repeats again, with emphasis on the glorious word Herrlich, so that the last line of the poem (roughly, “only the undeserving go down to the underworld without a song”) is offset by the glory of a funeral song to honor our loved ones after death.

Now if I can just keep all the small words straight and not get distracted by the difficulty of the piece, I can hopefully convey this very powerful concept – a precursor to themes from the Brahms Requiem – to an audience who has never heard the piece before.  Hopefully they won’t drift like I did when I first heard it!

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