Brahms’ Coded Confession

Like all the greatest music, part of what makes Brahms’ music so compelling is the way it seems to work on so many levels- it can be happy and sad, abstract and programmatic, personal and universal all at the same time.

To a certain extent, I think many fans of orchestral music tend to think as Brahms as the ultimate example of a pure, abstract symphonist. Certainly, no composer ever more successful lived up to the ideals of “absolute music.”  If ever there was a composer whose music seems to be about music, it’s Brahms. One  doesn’t need program notes or a biographical sketch to appreciate any of Brahms instrumental works.

In fact, some of the anecdotes, like the one about the Double Concerto being inspired by Joachim’s divorce, are not particularly illuminating. Brahms, in his curmudgeonly way, is also one of the most unreliable sources of information about his own music. Just think of what he wrote to his friend, Elisabeth von Herogenberg when he finished the 2nd Piano Concerto, calling it “a tiny, tiny piano concerto with a tiny, tiny wisp of a Scherzo.” He later inscribed the score to his friend Billroth as “a bunch of little piano pieces.”

Brahms the man took great pains to protect his privacy and to shield some of the painful emotional truths of his own life from unsympathetic listeners. However, like Dmitri Shostakovich, he couldn’t resist filling his instrumental music with coded messages revealing deeper and more complex, more intimate truths. Where Shostakovich’s hidden meanings are often political and social, Brahms’ are overwhelmingly painfully personal.

Brahms primary means of musical coding was the quotation or reference of song, and like Mahler, the relationship between song and symphony in his music is extremely interesting and complex (but much less well-understood or documented).

Take the case of the slow movement of the extraordinary Second Piano Concerto.  On first glance, this extraordinary Andante seems simply the epitome of the Romantic concerto slow movement, where the solo piano speaks in rapt dialogue with the instrumental soloists of the orchestra. The opening of the movement is one of most moving passages in all of Brahms’ instrumental music, an exceptionally long (and exposed) melody for solo cello. Gradually, the solo cello seems to be joined by other voices, notably the solo oboe and the viola section. When the piano finally enters about three minutes into the movement, we seem to be truly in the world of dreams.

In the world of dreams indeed. And here, we discover that this musical symbolism is no accident. Some years later, Brahms returned to this music, using the cello theme as the basis of the song “Immer leiser wird mein Schlummer,” or “My slumber grows ever more peaceful.”


Immer leiser wird mein Schlummer My slumber grows ever more peaceful
Immer leiser wird mein Schlummer, Nur wie Schleier liegt mein Kummer Zitternd über mir.Oft im Traume hör ich dichRufen drauß vor [meiner]1Tür,Niemand wacht und öffnet dir,Ich erwach und weine bitterlich.Ja, ich werde sterben müssen,

Eine Andre wirst du küssen,

Wenn ich bleich und kalt.

Eh die Maienlüfte [wehen,]2

Eh die Drossel singt im Wald: Willst du mich noch einmal [sehen,]3 Komm, o komme bald!

My slumber grows ever more peaceful;and only like a thin veil now does my anxiety lie trembling upon me.Often in my dreams I hear you calling outside my door;no one is awake to let you in,and I wake up and weep bitterly.Yes, I will have to die;

another will you kiss,

when I am pale and cold.

Before the May breezes blow,

before the thrush sings in the forest:

if you wish to see me once more, come, o come soon!

Not only does the first entrance of the piano seem to perfectly reflect the image the opening stanza, the more frenzied music that follows at letter B could be an evocation of the line “I wake up and weep bitterly.”

Knowing of this connection between the concerto and the song greatly enriches our understanding of the many often contradictory levels the music works on. Yes the opening is blissfully beautiful, and the first entrance of the piano is peace itself, but it is the piece of slumber in expectation of death.  “A thin veil of anxiety” lies trembling upon the poet. For all the apparent serenity, it is at least as sad as it is happy, at least as anxious as it is serene.  And it is both abstract and programmatic, universal and painfully personal. (The movement begins at 6:38)

Near the end of the movement, there is an even more rapt and still episode for the solo piano and two solo clarinets. (about 3:30 into this excerpt)


It turns out that this music is from his song “Todessehnen” or “Longing for Death,” written at nearly the same time (the concerto is opus 83, the song from opus 86). If you haven’t had a good sob lately, listen to the excerpt above while reading the text below.

Todessehnen Longing for Death
Ach, wer nimmt von meiner SeeleDie geheime, schwere Last,Die, je mehr ich sie verhehle,Immer mächtiger mich faßt?Möchtest du nur endlich brechen,Mein gequältes, banges Herz!

Findest hier mit deinen Schwächen,

Deiner Liebe, nichts als Schmerz.

Dort nur wirst du ganz genesen,

Wo der Sehnsucht nichts mehr fehlt,

Wo das schwesterliche Wesen

Deinem Wesen sich vermählt.

Hör’ es, Vater in der Höhe,

Aus der Fremde fleht dein Kind:

Gib’, daß er mich bald umwehe,

Deines Todes Lebenswind.

Daß er zu dem Stern mich hebe,

Wo man keine Trennung kennt,

Wo die Geistersprache Leben

Mit der Liebe Namen nennt.

Ah, who will take from my soulthis secret, heavy burdenthat, the more I conceal,the more strongly it grips me?Don’t you wish finally to breakmy tormented, anguished heart?

You find here with your weaknesses,

that your love is nothing but pain.

You will only become fully healthy

when you no longer lack the things you yearn for,

when a sisterly nature

becomes wedded to your own nature.

Hear me, Father in the Heavens,

In a foreign land, your child is pleading:

Grant that he will surround me

with the life-giving wind of Your death.

That he will raise me to the stars,

where one knows nothing of separation,

where the spirit-language gives Life

the name of Love.

I’ve always found melodramatic or overly sentimental evocations of Brahms’ unrequited or perhaps only unfulfilled love for Clara Schumann a bit cringe-worthy in relationship to the music. It seems almost to cheapen such profound music from such a private man to reduce it to romantic clichés. Saying this or that Brahms’ piece is about his longing for Clara seems to reduce something complex and universal to something simplistic and singular. Maybe I’m just uncomfortable with it because for so many people, Brahms’ relationship with Clara seems almost, well, cute.

Brahms was an almost perversely private man, seemingly desperate to hide any vulnerability from peers and a prying public. His ruthless destruction of countless completed works that he felt didn’t meet his standards and his determination to eradicate all evidence of his compositional process is just one example of his need to keep his inner life and inner torment private.

And yet, another side of him seems to have needed to not only express this private pain in abstract terms, but in very direct poetic terms. It seems that for the listener who cares enough to follow the breadcrumbs, Brahms is willing to lay bare his feelings like few before him.  The clues are all there.  When Brahms uses the music of the coda to set this text:

That he will raise me to the stars,

where one knows nothing of separation,

where the spirit-language gives Life

the name of Love.

Hear me, Father in the Heavens,

In a foreign land, your child is pleading:

Grant that he will surround me

with the life-giving wind of Your death.

This is music by a man who knew inner pain such as few of us could probably withstand. Whether it was longing for Clara or simply longing, Brahms’ inner anguish was complex and universal. His pain became the love of his life, his companion, even, perversely, his source of solace.

Often in my dreams I hear you calling outside my door;

no one is awake to let you in,


Translations from by Emily Ezust.

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at

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4 comments on “Brahms’ Coded Confession”

  1. Barney Sherman

    Ken, thanks for the great post, which relates to a question that’s puzzled me for years. This movement is the only one in Brahms with a really strange metronome mark: quarter note=84, about 50% faster than most pianists play it. It’s the only MM mark in Brahms that’s way removed from what musicians actually do; a few of his other MMs are on the fastish side, and many more are on the slowish side, but most are pretty close to intuitive practice. So why is this one so far off? It’s not a mistake: Brahms was very careful about MMs, providing them only for a handful of works, and only after much care and thought. Further, the MMs in this concerto were meant to guide conductors of his upcoming performances when he toured the concerto – testing it out in Meiningen, premiering it in Budapest and then around Europe.
    I’ve heard various theories for the movement’s speed. The pianist/composer Gianluca Cascioli points out that this movement has a 2-against-3 meter; the “3” is only in the bass line, and, he notes, is only audible at the fast tempo. The great musicologist Walter Frisch argues instead that it’s a matter of genre: Brahms heard this movement as a “serenade,” a type of orchestral work which was lighter and faster than a symphony.
    Still, to most performers none of this matters: it feels right at a slower tempo. I suspect this has to do with the profound emotional content, and I think your comments about the song and its text gets to the source of this intuition. (Although the song is in cut time!) Perhaps Brahms was afraid the movement would sound sentimental-schmaltzy if played for deep feeling – i think your comments on that are also right on – but if so, he has been proved wrong time and again. I’d like to hear a pianist try it at the MM (actually, Horowitz and Toscanini come fairly close, so I have my wish), but I don’t think it will ever catch on. There’s just too much there there.

  2. Kenneth Woods

    @Barney Sherman

    Incredibly interesting question about the MM in this mvt. I got the score and the metronome out, as I hadn’t checked it in a long time, and the beginning sounds alarmingly fast at that speed. However, the passage at letter B, for instance, works very well and it’s not unusual for some pianists to speed up to something like 80 or 84 there. Of course, the most important thing is for the Piu Adagio to be slow enough. I do think the MM ought to at least be a reminder that the opening is Andante- not Adagio. To me, 90% of the performances I hear are too glacial and static, and I agree that if it is too slow, Mr Cascioli’s hemiolas don’t come through. About 72 feels good to me, but I’ve heard it down around 48 more than once.

    Maybe rather than being wrong, which we know it isn’t, it is somehow over-cautionary.

    Beethoven’s the most famous example, but there is a tendency of composers to write MMs that seem consistently fast. I’m working on the Britten Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge- all but 2 of the MMs are faster than his own recording and he was very much an expert conductor of the highest order. However, the MMs are very much in the character of the mvts. For instance, the MM of 84-92 for the Walzer is impossibly fast, and BB takes it about 69-72 on his performance, but the message seems to be that it should be clearly faster than a typical Viennese tempo di valse. The Bouree is marked 116-126, BB goes about 100-104, but with the cut time and the Allegro peasante, some conductors have been known to trudge along at about 63, so he was right to be worried. The final Fugue is totally impossible at 184, which he marks, but the message is clear- as fast as possible!

    So, maybe the message of the Brahms is “faster than you might think on first glance” or better yet, “more flowing than you might think on first glance” rather than 84 exactly. When we recorded the Gal Serenade for Trio last year, we found out that tempo of the Cantabile was originally 69, revised down to 50. That’s quite a change! Almost all the other MMs had been revised down, but the fast music is still on the edge of uplayability. I think it’s just human nature to hear things in your head differently than they work in real life- that doesn’t mean you throw out the MM, but it’s more about capturing the feeling and mood implied by the MM, rather than trying to match it exactly.



  3. Barney Sherman

    GREAT reply, Ken, which somehow I’ve only just now read. Re tempo: I do feel that fast MM tells me more about the part where the piano decorates the main theme than about what the cello soloist shd do at the start. It clearly IS too fast as it stands even for that piano passage, but suggests that the passage should sound rhapsodic. Re Clara: her piano concerto in a minor, op 7 – which she began composing in the year of Brahms’s birth, 1833 – also has a significant cello solo in the slow movement. Brahms’s use of the cello is a clearly allusion to that, yes? I’d say that strongly supports your hypothesis that this (like the first movement of Symphony 1) is a “Clara” movement…
    Finally, someone, somewhere, should do a study of composers and MMs, where we have recordings and airchecks – everything I’ve personally come across strongly supports your well-made point! Someone really shd tell Sir Roger before he makes his next Beeethoven cycle, but that’s another topic….

  4. John Broggio

    Barney & Ken – a little late in the day perhaps, but caught this thanks to Ken’s tweet earlier.

    re: tempo choices, isn’t it sometimes a case that we’ve grown up accustomed to a particular pace of a piece that could easily be argued to be fundamentally against the intentions of the composer. As LvB was raised, I’m thinking of (say) Klemperer’s rather trudging “allegro’s” when compared to the norm nowadays (old-school mimics like Barenboim aside), where the sheer speed adds to the exhilaration and power to me of the symphonic argument.

    Someone growing up now used to (say) Abbado’s current pacing will struggle to comprehend how anyone could (or indeed want to) perform that music a la Wagner! These changes take time or a great deal of immersion in the “brave new world” for more stuck-in-our-ways performers/listeners to sound & feel natural to both but we have to remember that we learnt one stylistic convention and neither is necessarily what the composer intended (or that the other would have met the composers disapproval).

    Enough wittering, perhaps you consider how performance practice has changed over time (for good & ill)?

    Great blog!

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