Sunday, 3 July 2011

Let nothing ever grieve thee

When asked what type of music I enjoy, my favourite conversation-stopping answer is ‘Renaissance choral polyphony’, and the majority of my CD collection (despite being an iPod user, I still have to purchase any tracks electronically) will bear testament to this. As with any rule, the glorious moment is finding an exception to it, and that is how I see Johannes Brahms’s Geistliches Lied.

For want of a generalisation, I object to the music of the Romantic era (not least because the label suggests anything written before about 1830 is free of emotion which is anything but true when much Renaissance music is considered) but this small scale sacred work for a mixed choir and organ cannot be overlooked. If you know it, I hope you will understand why I am choosing to write about it, if you dont, I hope you soon will.

The text was written by the little-know German poet and medical doctor Paul Fleming (1609-1640) and is simple but moving.
Laß dich nur nichts nicht dauren
mit Trauren,
sei stille,
wie Gott es fügt,
so sei vergnügt mein Wille.

Was willst du heute sorgen
auf morgen?
Der Eine
steht allem für,
der gibt auch dir,das Deine.

Sei nur in allem Handel
ohn’ Wandel,
steh’ feste,
was Gott beschleußt,
das ist und heißt das Beste. Amen
While I am not a German speaker, a comparison of printed editions of the music, a little judicious Googling and poetic licence gives this translation for which I do, if necessary, apologise.
Let nothing ever grieve thee or oppress thee:
Be still and trust God’s good will.

Why brood all day in sorrow, worrying about tomorrow?
God stands for all and will give you grace and mercy.

Be steadfast in all that you do and stand firm;
What God decrees brings peace. Amen.
I feel Fleming offers words of hope and reassurance in what is a beautiful prayer. The sentiment is simple, but effectively moving and it struck me during Evensong this week how suitable it would be for a funeral.

Brahms (1833-1897) wrote the song in 1856 and, as might befit the earlier years of a composer’s career, it could be seen as a technical exercise as it combines, in the Grove dictionarys words, chorale-like melodies with strict canonic procedures. However, for something that is so technically precise it retains a lyric beauty that belies its complexity.

It is the use of the canon that makes it so impressive. Non-musicians may remember singing Row, row, row your boat as a child and being delighted to discover that if one singer starts the nursery rhyme, a second singer can start singing the same tune from the beginning a bar later, a third singer can start another bar later and the parts fit together. This simplest form of canon is called a round.

Clearly writing a tune which fits with itself is a technical challenge, but in a canon this is made more difficult as the second voice comes in at a different pitch. In Geistliches Lied, the distance in pitch (or interval) between the starting notes of the two voices is an octave and one note (a ninth). Imagine playing two notes next to each other on the piano: it is always a dissonance and this is the challenge that Brahms sets himself.

However, not content with overcoming the problems of writing something musical as a canon at the ninth, Brahms writes two independent canons – both at the ninth and following the strict rules – which are sung at the same time. This means that
  • Voice 1 (soprano) starts singing tune 1 on an F, then
  • Voice 2 (tenor) starts singing tune 1 on an E flat four beats later.
  • Voice 3 (alto) then starts singing tune 2 stating on an F two beats later, and finally
  • Voice 4 (bass) starts singing tune 2 starting on an E flat four beats later

This pattern then continues for the entire piece with all four voices singing in their double canon at the ninth throughout and fitting together perfectly.

Writing a canon could be viewed as a mathematical puzzle and Brahams has given himself difficult constraints in which to solve the problem. But to solve it and in doing so write something so beautiful, blurs the boundaries between – for want of a better description – scientific precision and art.

A two hundred year old prayer, a mathematical challenge and a dash of genius: I am only sorry that after the (hopefully intelligible) description, I have to direct you to a tinny recording on YouTube of King’s College Cambridge singing it.

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