Johannes Brahms, ‘Schöner Augen schöne Strahlen’

Deutsche Volkslieder (Berlin, 1894)

You would be forgiven for asking yourself why we would begin our exploration of Medievalist and Orientalist elements in the Lied during the long nineteenth century with an example which is both at the outer extreme of our temporal period and makes little use of immediately recognisable Medievalist and Orientalist topics. You would also be forgiven for wondering why we have chosen a Volkslied, which, at least by its title, suggests a mode of song a far cry from artifice of the Kunstlied, whose dignity would be better represented by the titans of the genre: Robert Schumann’s ‘Widmung’ or Franz Schubert’s ‘Erlkönig’. The rebuttal to the second of these questions can be simply put. By selecting a song that had been doing the rounds in Volkslied anthologies since at least first decade of the nineteenth century and by subjecting that text to the dominating language of musical Romanticism, Brahms’s ‘Schöner Augen schöne Strahlen’ perfectly encapsulates the confected nature of Romantic song — a point that we must all bear in mind when considering the currency of Medievalist and Orientalist motives. And in response to the first of your potential misgivings: if the purpose of our series of recorded discussions and blogposts is to uncover the pervasive and often underappreciated Orientalist and Medievalist strains in the German Lied, it also aims to expose their ultimately artificial — or constructed — quality. In short, Brahms’s ‘Schöner Augen schöne Strahlen’ is a Volkslied with sprinkles on top (or sprinkles with a Volkslied on top), summing up neatly the paradigmatic processes that undergird many of the Lieder that we are going to consider.

The text and tune for ‘Schöner Augen schöne Strahlen’ were well-known. The earliest attestation of the text and melody that we have found lives under the title, ‘Die Ungetreue’ (the Unfaithful Woman) in Büsching’s Sammlung Deutscher Volkslieder (1807).[1]

The title captures perfectly in textual terms the protagonist’s complaint against the chains of marriage and the ignominy of an unrequited love, drawing on a long line of Lied complaints against the torturous mutability of amorous relationships. Büsching specifies his source as a Flugblatt (broadside), a loose sheet of paper featuring music and text carried around by poets to be sold cheaply at social spaces, but provides no further information on its provenance. It is unlikely that Büsching’s source is as ancient as the attestation of Flugblatt implies.

The minuet-like rhythm and the upper neighbour-note paint a contrast to the rising fourths and conjunct motion of many of Volkslieder featured in the collection. The minuet-like rhythm and the lilting triple time are two examples that point — albeit groggily — to the Volkslied’s origin as a Tanzlied (as in a Sorbian collection which gives the last stanzas in the section on dance songs).

But whatever the origins — and this is exactly the point — Büsching’s collection cemented itself as the authoritative source of ‘Schöner Augen’’s melody and text in the first half in the nineteenth century. For instance, when Karl Friedrich von Erlach compiled his Die Volkslieder der Deutschen in 1835, he encourages the reader to return to Büsching’s authoritative source (“Siehe Büsching”) to seek ethnographic corroboration.[2] By the time the melody was featured in Ludwig Erk and Karl Böhme’s monumental collection, Deutscher Liederhort (1856), published in the same year as ‘Schöner Augen schöner Strahlen’, the title, ‘Die Ungetreue’, had changed to ‘Die Unbeständige’ (the inconstant woman) and the source attribution had morphed from Flugblatt to ‘word of mouth’ (mündlich).[3] Just before, when Gottfried Fink, editor of the Leipzig-based Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung, set the tune in his comprehensive, if artfully lacking, Musikalischer Hausschatz der Deutschen (1843), it seems the text and tune had a become public cultural property to be appropriated and manipulated at will.[4]

Although scholars have suggested that Brahms relied on Kretzschmer and Zuccalmaglio’s collection, published in 1840, for folkish inspiration, the fact that Brahms’s text differs from Kretzschmer’s and Zuccalmaglio’s suggests that he might have either encountered the Lied in a different source (or orally, lending weight to Erk’s claim) or conscientiously switched the stanzaic order and profiled particular words to suit his narrative purpose.[5]

“At walking pace, with vivacious expression”

  1. Beautiful eyes’ beautiful radiance,
    beautiful red cheeks’ brilliance;
    beautiful red lips,
    beautiful marble cliffs
    attract my gaze.
  2. Among all those beauties
    only one ever pleased me;
    but on her account
    to enchain myself,
    that I’ll never do.
  3. I want to keep my freedom forever,
    to pass my time in pleasure,
    and during my young years
    to guard my heart fully
    against love’s pain.

The first stanza is aggressively simple: the same nil adjective “schön” (nice) is repeated when taking the traditional praise from top to toes applied everything from the glance of the eyes via the cheeks and red lips to the breasts (“marble cliffs”) to make up a generic beauty. In the earlier collections this trivial take is even more pronounced since the first line reads as a list “Schöne Augen, schöne Strahlen” while in Brahms’ version the radiance (Strahlen) is linked back to the eyes from which they cast. In any case this stock-taking abruptly stops in the last line which is shorter than the two preceding rhyming couplets and throughout the poem works as a punch-line; it turns to put all emphasis on the lover’s gaze (liebt mein Gesicht). The second and third stanza then declares that among those conforming to the beauty norms there is only one woman who would be worth the effort but that he — and it is only here that the gender of the singer becomes clear in Brahms’ version — could not be bothered since just wants to have fun without commitment. So far so good or clichéd; Brahms adds after each of these first three stanzas the same little postlude, mimicking the triviality of the man’s take on commitment.

4. Go away, you false soul,
I won’t agonize over you,
if you won’t love me
rather just sadden me,
stay where you are.

5. Now I am thus resolved
nevermore to return to you,
since you are from Flanders,
loving one after another,
for that I hate you.

6. Who knows how much it hurts
when someone else flirts with her,
targeting with his eyes,
suggesting with his lips,
simply to annoy me.

But then something changes drastically: the last three stanzas paint a “Wechselbad der Gefühle”; the singer is suddenly torn between anger, agony and jealousy; very far from not committing himself, he accuses the woman of tormenting him, accuses her of promiscuity which he links — for whatever reason -to her being a foreigner from Flanders, and paints a picture of living hell while watching others flirt with her. Historically, this change from frivolity to emotional turmoil can be explained by the fact that different versions of the song, some of them from a man’s, some from a woman’s perspective, are mashed up as is often the case with orally transmitted songs which can be remixed as the performance situation requires and do not have the fixed order and narrative of a poem signed off by a known poet and restricted by copyright and compositional plans. Brahms seems to have relished the freedom which the anonymity of the song gives and embraces the non-sequitur of the verses where a bout of jealousy follows after the split-up. The postlude he puts after the second set of three stanzas is markedly different from the one after the first set — and the musical pivotal moment comes in these last bars.

The outwards-in figuration in the final play-out– the symmetrical moving of the hands to meet in the middle of the keyboard — is elaborated by a kink that sees the bass employ a tripletised figure and the right hand retain the duple divisions of the original melody, which is known colloquially as ‘3 against 2’. This would be inconsequential were it not for the fact that Brahms retains the ‘3 against 2’ hyperrhythmical pattern for his most connivingly artful moments. The paradigmatic example is perhaps to be found in the Intermezzo in A major from the Sechs Klavierstücke, op.118. Published one year before ‘Schöner Augen’, in 1893, the collection is characterised by the introspective quality endemic to Brahms’s later piano music. We might say that it accords with our conceptions of the aged, avuncular Brahms — yes, that Brahms, whose long beard and longing gaze was captured by the Berlin photographer, Brasch, around the same time that ‘Schöner Augen’ was marshalled into the Deutsche Volkslieder. The resembling passage in question, the F sharp minor B section (of an ABA Liedsatz structure, for those who incline towards analysis), weaves a cloak of triplets around the duple-time melody, which is first heard in pure guise and then in inversion. Here, at the affective apex of the Intermezzo, the music strikes the same tone as the play-out of ‘Schöner Augen schöne Strahlen’ not only in terms of their physicality and gestural contour, but also by a gleaming, heart-on-the-sleeve quality. To his community of enthusiastic (and thoroughly middle-class) music-lovers, the thematic and rhythmic overlaps between the Intermezzo and the Volkslied would have been clear.

It is likely that the majority of Brahms’s listeners would have regarded this Volkslied as the real deal on account of its participation in the long history of musical and textual recycling and reworking that had taken place after the initial Flugblatt’s circulation in Büsching’s source. After all, the Volkslied, whose existence in a way depended on its subtle alteration, was designed to be deployed in myriad circumstances. But a sizeable number of Kenner amongst them would also have recognised Brahms’s generous sprinklings of artifice in the accompaniment. To them, and to us, the sprinkles make this particular Volkslied all the more delectable.

[1] Büsching, Johann Gustav Gottlieb and Friedrich Heinrich von der Hagen, Sammlung Deutscher Volkslieder: mit einem Anhange Flammländischer und Französischer, nebst Melodien (Berlin, 1807), pp. 39 and 274.

[2]Erlach, Karl Friedrich, Die Volkslieder der Deutschen, Band III (Mannheim, 1835), p.164.

[3] Ludwig Erk, Deutscher Liederhort (Berlin, 1856), p.265.

[4] Gottfried Wilhelm Fink, Musikalischer Hausschatz der Deutschen: Eine Sammlung von 1000 Liedern und Gesängen (Leipzig, 1843), p.12.

[5] Loges, Natasha, ‘How to make a ‘Volkslied”: Early Models in the Songs of Johannes Brahms’, Music and Letters 93/3 (2012), p.318.

An experimental channel for discussing music & literature by Anhad Arora and Henrike Lähnemann