In the choral world, music and text go hand in hand. The powerful majesty in Handel's Messiah: "King of King, and Lord of Lords." The stupefying terror of Verdi's Requiem: "Dies irae, dies illa." The countless examples of word painting in the Baroque.
But not always.
Our friend Brahms, already known to us to color outside the lines (a requiem with no Latin text, c'mon??!!), has another approach in mind when writing his very last work for chorus and orchestra, the Gesang der Parzen (Song of the Fates), in 1882.
Musically dense, Brahms gives us a score heavy on the browns, grays and blacks as he sets Goethe's poem from the play Iphigenia in Tauris. It's a song Iphigenia recalls from her childhood that describes the all powerful gods and their callous disregard for the human race.
Mostly, Brahms's writing synchs with the ominous text...the crashing orchestral introduction, the rapidly shifting harmonies, the overlapping rhythms.
Yet the fifth verse...so sublime, so soothing. Marked in the score "sehr lebhaft und gebunden" ("very soft and legato") he shifts to major and 3/4 time. It's achingly beautiful, and quite disjointed from the text which says:
The rules turn away
Their blessing-granting eyes
From entire generations,
And refuse to recognize in the grandson
Quietly speaking features.
Which they once loved.
Huh? This is the Brahms of "Selig sind die Toten," of "Auch ein Klaglied zu sein im Mund der geliebten ist Herrlich"?
Thanks to my teacher Jan Harrington, who pointed me to a short blurb by Peter Petersen in the Deutsche Grammophon CD. "The discrepancy between the hounding of whole generations described in the text and the lovely, lulling character of the music is so obvious that the purpose of the setting must be to express rejection of the idea contained in the words."
I love that. Music and text in a tug of war...
It's a reminder that of the power of music's "voice," that can speak volumes over even the most potent words.