‘Brahmsian Sea Pictures: reflections on ‘Verzagen’ op. 72/4 and ‘Meerfahrt’ op. 96/4.’

It is often observed of Brahms’ songs that they emphasize rounded melody and harmony at the expense of textual nuance. Three ideas lie behind this view: that Brahms’ devotion to folksong as an ideal of self- sufficient melody limits his response to words both rhythmically and in imagery; and that this ideal also tends to an instrumental character that prioritizes musical development over poetic text; and, consequently, that he is therefore a lesser figure of song.

Yet, whilst these Brahmsian emphases are true, the criticism masks the extent to which Brahms also strove to explore the scope of the possibilities within his natural constraints. He often chose poems that offered potential for musical expression, but that also offered metrical challenges that could give flexibility in verbal delivery. 

Of the many examples, two songs offer more pointed comparison through both of their shared poetic themes: the mirroring of pessimistic human emotion in the power and mystery of the sea; and their similar poetic forms, as both poems have three strophes of four lines each. In Carl Lemcke’s ‘Verzagen’ (‘Despair’), the individual seeks peace whilst staring at the roaring sea, asking why his despair cannot be dispersed like the clouds and the spray, but must gnaw at his heart like the immovable sea. In Heine’s ironic ‘Meerfahrt’ (‘Sea Voyage’), two lovers in a boat on a calm sea cannot communicate. Rather they pass the enchanted isle that promises happiness through music and dancing, but float silently past.[i]

Consistent with its more tangible subject, ‘Verzagen’ has the more straightforward form: modified strophic. Verses 1 and 2 are repeated to the same music and verse 3 digresses only for lines 1 and 2, restoring the original music for the rest of the strophe. The setting is framed by an introduction and coda. ‘Meerfahrt’ retains the outline of the strophic poetic structure for verse 1, but the music is then continuous to the climax in verse 3 and coda. Its introduction is much longer and the whole setting has much greater dramatic contour.

Each can be examined from the standpoint of prosody, then in terms of musical character and process. 

‘Verzagen’ - Lemcke

Ich sitz' am Strande der rauschenden See

Und suche dort nach Ruh',

Ich schaue dem Treiben der Wogen

Mit dumpfer Ergebung zu.

Die Wogen rauschen zum Strande hin,

Sie schäumen und vergehn,

Die Wolken, die Winde darüber,

Die kommen und verwehn.

Du ungestümes Herz sei still

Und gib dich doch zur Ruh',

Du sollst mit Winden und Wogen

Dich trösten, - was weinest du?

Translation: [brackets indicate text repetitions in the song]

I sit by the shore of the raging seas and there I seek rest [there I seek rest]; I gaze at the motion of the waves in numb submission [in numb submission].

The waves crash on the shore, they foam and vanish [they foam and vanish]; the clouds, the winds above, they arrive and disperse [they arrive and disperse].

You unruly heart, be silent and take your rest [and take your rest]; you should find comfort in winds and waves; why are you weeping [weeping, why are you weeping].


Textual and Musical Prosody: ‘Verzagen’. 

The syllabic pattern of the three strophes of ‘Verzagen’ is asymmetrical. Verse 1’s pattern is 10/6/9/7 syllables, verse 2 is 9/6/9/6, and verse 3 8/6/8/7 syllables. Yet there is also an underlying 3-syllable pattern in many of the lines, and lines 2 and 4 are also unified in that the end syllables rhyme in each strophe, with the last strophe mirroring the first (‘Ruh’/‘zu’; ‘Ruh’/‘du’). Furthermore, in each case, the sense of the second half of the strophe complements and responds to that of the first. 

However, it is not these prosodic features that determine the musical setting. Rather, it is the longest and most irregular first line of verse 1 that sets the pattern, because it has been determined by the phrasing of the piano introduction, whose figuration continues to dominate the entire song. Indeed, the vocal opening fits this accompaniment so well that one might deduce that both it and the distinctive dotted figure of the accompaniment were conceived together as equal responses to its 32nd-note motion. This introduction is based on a 2-bar idea in ¾ metre, repeated in varied response of the same length making an introduction of 4 bars. 

The 10 syllables of line 1 fall naturally only into groups of 5+5. This establishes a fundamental idea, the rising minor third and falling minor second for ‘Ich sitz am Strande’ covering one bar. This figure then repeats in varied form for the balancing 5 syllable continuation ‘der rauschenden See’ (bars 5-7). However, the shorter second line ‘und suche dort nach Ruh’ cannot provide the necessary balance to these two bars without extension. Indeed, Brahms not only stretches the syllable on ‘dort’ and ‘Ruh’, but repeats this in augmentation to add another 11/2  bars to make a total of 6 bars for lines 1-2. Lines 3-4 accommodate their syllables to a variation of the opening motive more easily, covering 4 bars (bars 11-14), though here again a repetition of the second of these lines in augmentation over 4 bars provides a balance to the entire setting of the verse. 

In the repetition of this music for verse 2, the 9-syllable first line (again the most irregular) is accommodated by extending the syllables ‘hin’, ‘un’ and ‘gehn’. 

But in verse 3 the first line will no longer fit the original rhythm and is more irregular than the first line (essentially of 6 +2 syllables). It is here that Brahms takes his opportunity to focus on the poet’s cry of despair to grasp the dotted rhythm of the piano introduction to fit the rhythm ‘du ungestümes Herz’ (‘you unruly heart’) at bars 21-22, though quickly recalling the music of bars 16-18 in verses 1-2 and concluding as there. 

Musical character. 

All of these adjustments to the accentual patterns enable Brahms to balance the requirements of verbal prosody with his musical expression. A much more faithful musical realization of the accentual pattern could not do this, nor even make much musical sense. The adjustments create the basic musical scansion of the setting. But the distinctive character of the music as a response to text – that the piece is a musical expression of inexorability in which the singer cannot escape his fate any more than the poet – comes through the musical language: both the motivic focus of the vocal and piano part, and the harmonic vocabulary and its use. 

The vocal figure of bar 1 is omnipresent. It is rhythmically varied in bar 2; bar 3 combines both shapes and is itself repeated to create bar 4, leading to the cadential augmentation at bars 9-10. Even the contrasted shape at bar 11 conceals the same outline and the pattern is only broken at the last line where the falling second is extended to cadential purpose; the falling second recurs again at the repetition at bars 15-17. The quote of the piano figure at verse 3 (bar 21-22) is only a brief digression, as shown. 

Harmonic processes complement and reinforce this sense of inexorability. The underlying tonality is never in doubt, with a clear direction from F sharp minor to the dominant C sharp major (bar 11); in verse 3, a stronger movement towards C sharp briefly suggests modulation, but quickly resumes the dominant function. But within each section, the progressions show an obsessive emphasis on certain progressions Inexorability is impressed particularly by the nagging obsession with the basic progression i - iv7dim -i (bars 5-8), already anticipated in the falling third pattern of the introduction I - VI- iv - [I] [F sharp minor- D-b minor [F sharp]. The sense of restriction is also achieved by implied and not realized local modulations, as towards A major/ minor in bar 9 (hinted at again in bars 14-15), and intensified by chromatic bass movement. The unchanging pitch of the piano figure against changing harmony (bars 1-4) adds to the effect. 

The constant 32nd-note figuration of the piano part ties all the processes together with its visual imagery: as well as the restless sea, even the ebb of the water is captured as the descending semiquavers at bar 2 2-3 respond to the swirling opening. 

‘Meerfahrt’ - Heine

Mein Liebchen, wir sassen beisammen

Traulich im leichten Kahn.

Die Nacht was still und wir schwammen

Auf weiter Wasserbahn.

Die Geisterinsel, die schöne,

Lag dämmrig im Mondenglanz;

Dort klangen liebe Töne

Und wogte der Nebeltanz.

Dort klang es lieb und lieber

Und wogt es hin und her;

Dort aber schwammen vorüber

Trostlos am weitem Meer.


My darling, we sat lovingly side by side in the light skiff. The night was silent and we floated alone on a wide waterway [on a wide waterway]. 

The beautiful haunted island lay glimmering in the moonlight. There sweet music resounded and the dancing mists swirled. The sound grew ever sweeter, the mists swirled this way and that; but we floated past, forlorn on the wide sea [forlorn on the wide sea, on the wide, wide sea].[ii]


Textual and Musical Prosody: ‘Meerfahrt’

In purely syllabic terms, the poem of ‘Meerfahrt’ might seem to lend itself even more easily to a strophic or modified strophic design. The syllabic structure has many similarities with ‘Verzagen’. Its 3 strophes are patterned 9/6/8/6 ­­– 8/7/6/7/ –7/6/8/6, again with 6 syllables for the second line and a similar tendency/capacity to resolve into groups of 3 syllables. And in this case there is an even stronger relationship of rhyme, with alternate lines end rhyme in each strophe: (‘sammen’-/’Kahn’; ‘schwammen’/ ‘-bahn’ etc.). 

But once again, it is the syllabic pattern of the first line and its relationship to the introduction that sets the rhythmic pattern of the main idea of the first strophe, and thus determines the musical disposition of the rest of the strophe. Despite the asymmetry of the introduction, its conclusion establishes a clear pattern of 2 bar phrases in 6/8 metre (bars 11-14). 

Although the verbal accents of line 1 will fit into a pattern of three equal syllables, beginning with an upbeat (‘Mein/ Liebchen’; ‘wir/sassen’), potentially filling only a half bar, Brahms extends the syllables ‘Lieb’ and ‘chen’ to fill one bar and enable the rest of the line to create a 2-bar period. More extensions at ‘Trau-’, ‘leich-’ and ‘Kahn’ create a 4-bar continuation to create a 6-bar period for lines 1-2. These extensions enable the phrasing and mood of the introduction to be preserved. They establish a pattern to be balanced with a further six bars for lines 3-4. But the structural needs of modulation as well as balance lead Brahms to repeat the last line beginning ‘Auf weiter’ for three bars. Thus, verse 1 covers a total of 15 vocal bars. 

In verse 2 there is no repetition of the last line of text. This is partly because of the close verbal parallel with the following first line of verse 3 (‘dort klangen’ / ‘dort klang es ‘), but also because the intensification of the text demands musical continuity, and the verse is thus covered in 11 bars. Indeed, Brahms continues directly to strophe 3 which he completes in 13 bars, repeating the last line beginning ‘trost...’ in considerable extension to 7 bars to emulate the repetition in verse 1. Verse 3 therefore covers 20 bars, dovetailing into the coda of 3 bars. 

Musical character. 

By contrast with the musical features by which ‘Verzagen’ expresses the sense of inexorability, ‘Meerfahrt’ offers the gradual unfolding of a sense of alienation and detachment made ironic by musical features. The irony of Heine’s understatement is expressed by Brahms by the use of the most familiar of archetypes for water-borne relaxation; the barcarolle. But the peace is not to be what it first seems. The gentle rocking motion of the opening bar in A minor is immediately subverted through a biting major sixth of the motive E- F sharp (bar 3) and by the asymmetrical phrasing: this can be read (including the upbeat) as phrases of 11/2; 3; 11/2; 2; 1; 1; 2; 2; bars to a total of 141/2 bars to the final downbeat, including overlapping, with the continuity further ensured by motivic evolution. 

Verse 1 retains the innocent barcarolle music for the opening line, into which Brahms introduces the unsuspecting tone of what might be heard a gondolier’s song. Lines 3-4 repeat same theme with intensified intervals modulating to the minor key on V (E minor), with a motivically varied repetition of the last 3 bars to a compressed rhythm (bars 26-29). Only at the end of this verse does the cadence dovetail into the stabbing major second figure in the piano part (now E-C sharp in E minor: b. 29). Verse 2 now intensifies the vocal line, gradually reintroducing the introductory piano material to represent the growing excitement of the prospect of the happy (but mysterious) isle directly into verse 3 at the ‘sweet sounds’, 

But then a suddenly slower tempo ‘allmählich wieder langsamer’ and rhythmic augmentation in the vocal part change the mood entirely as the boat sails past (‘wir aber schwammen vorüber’), setting up the climax at the word ‘trostlos’ (‘comfortless’) at bar 54, echoing the piano’s recall of the dissonant opening F sharp an octave higher (and doubled for intensity); and at this point Brahms marks the return of Tempo 1, further reinforcing the hopeless consequence until then hidden: that the lovers are ‘trostlos am weitem Meer’. The extended repetition of this (bars 58-64) resumes the course of the piano’s introduction from this point to round out the emotional curve of the whole song, dying to nothing as the boat disappears in the distance.

In the unfolding of this drama, harmony plays a larger structural role than in ‘Verzagen’. The large tonal progression is designed to give a climactic return to the tonic, A minor, with the opening piano figure at the climax of the text ‘Trostlos’. Verse 1 moves from A minor to E minor; verse 2 from E minor to an implied dominant of E major (repeated chords of B major) as implied dominant of the tonic. But rather than moving directly towards tonal closure, the continuity into verse 3 takes on a dramatic turn by moving to the major mediant of E (G sharp major. notated as A flat), the furthest possible point from the tonic A minor, to match the climax of the text. Brahms returns to the tonic chromatically by ingeniously using the upper note F natural of the diminished seventh chord on G sharp as the bass of an augmented 6th chord on VI of the tonic.

Much of the sense of ambiguity comes from Brahms’s typical use of substitute harmonies. This character is already established in the introduction. In bar 9 Brahms writes G minor instead of the expected E minor. At bars 11-12 the 6/4 chord of the tonic, A minor, proceeds to V over the dominant pedal via a chromatically lower A flat in the inner part and – more unexpectedly – the following 6/3 chord is of C. 

As with ‘Verzagen’, total mood is ultimately projected through the pianistic character: here the relentless rhythm of the barcarolle that never gives up, taking on an ever more sinister role as the song progresses.


‘Meerfahrt’ is one of the most widely admired of Brahms’s songs. His close friend and critic of his work, Elisabet von Herzogenberg was overwhelmed by it - not only the power of the climax at ‘trostlos’ and the ‘inconsolable F sharp’ (bar 3), but its ‘noble outline’, and ‘restraint’. But Brahms song scholar Max Harrison questions its quality: “Brahms’s barcarolle-type response ... is used too literally for Heine, a poet noted for his subtlety. Surely what he means to tell us in ‘Meerfahrt’ is that the couple are uncertain of how to act, they are ‘at sea’ in the metaphorical sense”.[iii]

This raises a basic question regarding all song setting: to what extent music can capture poetic nuance and implication, or should seek to. Music has its own laws, and it needs tangible poetic images for musical realization (at least within this historical and style period). Many literary specialists discount musical settings of fine poetry for this reason. 

Lovers of art song must draw their own conclusions. But, within his own terms, Brahms brings together such a balance of elements – the thoughtful response to the poetry and its form, clarity, yet flexibility of musical form, dramatic focus, and a vivid evocation of mood through the piano writing, that he surely has his place in the canon of great song composers. 

[1] Carl Lemcke [1831-1913], Lieder und Gedichte (1861); Heinrich Heine [1797-1856], Trägodien nebst einem lyrischen Intermezzo (1823).

[2] Translations from Eric Sams, The Songs of Johannes Brahms, New Haven and London, 2000, pp. 299, 243.

[3] Letters to Elisabet von Herzogenberg to Johannes Brahms of 21/22 and 24 May, 1885 (Brahms Briefwechselvol. II, pp. 61-62; 67: quoted, translated and commented upon in Max Friedlander, Brahms’ Lieder. Einführung in seine Gesänge für eine und zwei Stimmen, Berlin und Leipzig, 1922, tr. C. Leonard Leese, London, 1928, pp. 165-6; Max Harrison, The Lieder of Brahms, London, 1972, p. 101.

Michael Musgrave 27 September/ 9 October 2013