Reflections on Vier Ernste Gesänge, opus 121

- by Njål Sparbo

The following reflections on Brahms’ Four Serious Songs, opus 121, are based on an investigation, a lecture and a performance by the singer Njål Sparbo (the author of this text) and the pianist Håkon Austbø in conjunction with the project, The Reflective Musician, at The Norwegian Academy of Music (NMH) in 2014-15.


Serious texts

We approached the texts from three angles. First, we addressed the obvious - trying to understand the words of wisdom anchored in the Christian faith. Second, we sought to colour our understanding with the romantic notion of Weltschmerz (a sense of hopelessness based in the loss of faith and meaning). Finally, we tried informing our conception through elements from the philosophy of Schopenhauer, especially his thoughts concerning the dichotomy between the intrinsic will of humankind and the notion of holding back one’s own ego, thus gathering a transcendental clarity and a broader perspective on human fates in a world full of injustice and suffering. The essence of this conglomeration of perspectives suggests a way to overcome frustration-filled and fundamentally painful human conditions via artistic, moral and ascetic forms of awareness. Somewhere beyond our understanding, a glimpse of hope lingers, waiting to embrace us - giving our lives meaning and enlightenment in retrospect. Brahms avoided direct references to God or Jesus; he seems to focus solely on human ethics and on the inadequacies of human understanding, which are only to be overcome by patience, humility and an attitude of love and compassion. These are indeed songs to be taken seriously.


The state of a singer’s mind is reflected in the way the vocal register is utilized, and pitch is a natural and necessary part of verbal communication. The highest notes of the voice have a sense of desperation or toughness about them, which contrasts with the more reflective or tender character of the notes in the upper middle register. Njål Sparbo (the singer) has a low voice and, since he was convinced that Brahms was aware of this particular aspect of the human voice, we decided to transpose all of the songs to a lower key in order to maintain the appropriate vocal timbre that expresses the textual/musical content in the most natural way. We found this to be more important than maintaining the original keys, keeping in mind that the piano part becomes rather low and somewhat less distinguishable. We decided to keep the relationship between the songs, transposing all the songs a major second, whereas, for some reason, the Schott low voice edition transposes no. 2 only a minor second down. Although the editor of the low voice edition modified a passage like that from bar 11 in the first song, we decided rather to keep Brahms’ original use of the low octaves, while articulating in a clear way and making a good balance between bass and middle register. Similar adjustments were made in several other places.

The lower voice gives more gravity and depth to the vocal line, which we found rather suitable to these masculine, paternal songs. However, the higher voices can give an impression of naïve innocence and natural straightforwardness, and we tried to incorporate this aspect in relevant places by lightening the vocal timbre, and by giving some of the lines a slightly faster tempo, thus reducing the gravity of the character somewhat. Such minute variations of intonation, timbre and tempo form an interesting balancing act, crucial to the interpretation of songs, and especially in the romantic German Lieder tradition.


The personae of the performers are also relevant to the interpretation, and to the way in which the audience perceives these four songs: who is the speaker of the words? 

•Is it the performer of the words - the singer?

•Are the words spoken on behalf of the authors of the lyrics - Jesus Sirach, King Solomon and St. Paul?

•Are the words to be performed as if they were statements by Brahms himself? 

•What is the role (persona) of the pianist? Does he add his own intentions, or does he merely accompany the singer, mirroring the personae that are reflected in the vocal element of the performance? 

We decided to use a combination of all of the above personae, carefully following the narrative and switching the colouring of the lines in rather subtle ways, thus allowing the audience the freedom of their own interpretations.

Hidden disgust and pity

Whoever the personae may be, we found some places where an underlying kind of disgust emerged, both in the text and the music, a moralistic undertone, revealing a disdain for people who impatiently follow their egocentric and greedy desires. We decided that it would be natural to emphasise this as an artistic contrast to the genuine pity for those who are poor, sick, unfortunate and humble. By increasing these opposites, the perceived effect of both became enhanced.

Holding back

In all instances, ‘holding back’ is relevant. Making authoritative, one-dimensional statements seems to be impossible to combine with the truly philosophical tone in the poems; and, the notion of controlling, and holding back of one’s own ego (will) seems to be connected with the true wisdom behind the words. We thought that this needed to influence way the details and all of the culmination points were performed. The flow of information, the phenomenological distance to the powerful, dramatic scenes being painted, strongly affect the phrasing of the musical material. In practical terms, this means leading the phrases through the cadences, always moving towards the next line, never stopping to enhance a single statement at the expense of the flow of these timeless words. Performing the various statements in more ambiguous ways makes multiple interpretations possible, resulting in several outcomes of meaning simultaneously.

Illustration - or not?

Brahms’ music seems to colour the textual content, sometimes in an illustrative way – giving food for thought about the discourse on ‘absolute music’ in the composer’s time. [cf. Carl Dahlhaus: The Idea of Absolute Music, 1989]. How should one relate to the musical illustrations, or even kinds of leitmotifs, that are present in the score? 

In the first song, the initial three-note motif D-E-F [1], constantly turning upon itself, could be interpreted as statements such as: “the cycle of life and death / hope and despair / rebirth in afterlife or final death”. It literally goes up with the text ‘Wer weiß, ob der Geist des Menschen aufwärts fahre’ (‘Who knoweth if a man’s spirit goeth upwards’), and down with ‘und der Odem des Viehes unterwärts unter die Erde fahre’ (‘..the spirit of the beast goeth downward’). Much in the same way, the descending thirds both in the second and third song represent despair and death, whereas, when this turns to a positive ‘O Tod, wie wohl tust du!’ (‘O death, how welcome art thou!’) in no. 3, the third has become a rising sixth, preserving the same pitches, albeit that E minor has become E Major, which reinforces this psychological turn. In the fourth song, the three-note motif is turned upwards for the positive narrative of the text: love gives meaning to life. 

Both motifs are very common in Brahms’ oeuvre. Consider the opening of the Fourth Symphony for the falling thirds, where the pitches are identical to those of the third song, or his use of the three-note motif in the piano pieces, op. 118, discussed elsewhere on this exposition.

One may choose to emphasize these motivic illustrations in the performance, or to conceal them. In the places where the musical illustrations are obviously present, we found no reason to enhance them any further. On the contrary, keeping the flow of energy, always moving through the places of resignation (descending and declining) and “holding back” on the top notes was important to maintain a classical balance, restraining the pathetic impulse and always staying in touch with the aspect of wisdom and timelessness. In these places, we kept our emotional distance, deciding to trust the music to speak for itself.

Our overall approach was to actually focus on multiple things simultaneously, for instance by deconstructing the layers between the text and the subtext, using the agogic of the text to suggest a second meaning, or by moving the phrasing of a line away from the obvious, suggesting multiple flows of energy and culmination points. 

Rhythmical structures

The music is full of metrical displacements (hemiolas and hypermeter) –  other rhythmical structures than suggested by the bar lines, and Brahms had constant battles with his engraver over beaming of notes – he wanted the beamed groupings to reflect the rhythmic structures, while the engraver was insistent on the convention of grouping notes according to the bar lines. We decided to follow our ears, and not our eyes, giving way to the changing rhythms, deconstructing the vocalist’s line versus the pianist’s lines, even juxtaposing the two hands of the pianist into separate rhythmical entities, thus somewhat destabilizing the traditional way of reading romantic music. These are the last songs by Brahms (opus 121) written in 1896, and we felt that he was leaning forward into the aesthetics of the twentieth century.


Working with tempo is not only about finding a congruent flow of the music, but also about the tempo of the audience’s apperception process. Some of the information is presented as a logical narrative, but some of the statements require more reflection, and reflection needs to be prepared and cherished. The tempo of the music and the timbre of the voice can be perceived as a kind of warning, preparing the audience with a presentiment that something important is about to be spoken, or giving some space for afterthought. Another aspect of tempo can be acquired by altering the sense of urgency, even if the same ‘objective’ tempo is maintained. We referred to this as ‘the psychological tempo’, meaning the inner tempo of the performers, creating tensions between the inner tempo and the objective tempo.

Review of the concert

Our reflections seemed to come through in the performance, at least to the critic Henrik Holm, who wrote a review in Ballade, concluding: ‘The performance did not abide by the melancholy (a great danger for Brahms interpretation). It did not merely communicate emotions (an even bigger danger), but led us to Brahms as a philosopher. Brahms’ music does not try to convince us that something is true, but opens up a quest for true thoughts about life. Brahms does require very much of his interpreters when it comes to thinking with and through the music. Yesterday's interpretation was a highlight in Norwegian Brahms interpretation. Rarely do musicians manage to render the mind of Brahms in such a way. 


Brahms works with many levels of reflection in all his music. The late Brahms moves along the outer limits of cognitive reflection. It makes him profound, and it opens up a space where we can get food for thought about life and death’. [2]  

The entire review can be read here

Concert video: 

Video from seminar:

[1] In the original key D minor. [back]

[2] ”Fremføringen forble ikke ved melankolien (en stor fare for Brahms-interpretasjonen). Den formidlet ikke bare følelser (en enda større fare), men førte oss til Brahms som tenker. Brahms’ musikk prøver ikke å overbevise om at noe er sant, men åpner opp for å søke etter sanne tanker om livet. Brahms krever svært mye av sine fortolkere når det gjelder å tenke med og i musikken. Gårsdagens fortolkning var et høydepunkt i norsk Brahms-interpretasjon. Sjelden greier musikere å gjengi tankene hos Brahms på en slik måte.

Brahms arbeider med mange refleksjonsnivåer i all sin musikk. Den sene Brahms beveger seg ved tenkningens grenser. Det gjør ham dyp, og det åpner for et rom der vi kan komme til ettertanke om livet og døden.” [back]

Press reactions: Contemplating Brahms