Between heaven
and earth

Johannes Brahms’s “Song of Destiny”

Johannes Brahms in his last photograph, taken in June 1896 by Maria Fellinger
(Photo: Hessian Music Archive of the Philipps University, Marburg )

Brahms’s Song of Destiny was first programmed by the Berliner Philharmoniker in November 1886. Since then the orchestra has performed it almost forty times.

Today we see him as one of the great symphonists of the nineteenth century, but Brahms – a native of Hamburg who had worked his way to the top thanks to his single-minded determination, self-discipline and abilities, emerging from a lower middle-class background to become one of the most highly-paid composers of his day – was equally successful in other areas of the repertory.

Before settling in Vienna as a freelance musician, he had worked as a choral conductor in various towns and cities and in the process developed a fine ear for choral music, especially music for orchestra and chorus. He made his breakthrough as a composer with his German Requiem in 1868, following this up with other works for mixed chorus and orchestra. One such work was his Song of Destiny, a setting of lines by Friedrich Hölderlin in which the poet describes the difference between our lives in heaven and on earth: in heaven’s light-filled heights there is a sense of blissful calm, whereas here on earth we wander around restlessly, while plunging into uncertainty.

Such a contrast cries out to be set to music. For the Elysian Fields Brahms created a musical atmosphere that is calm and weightless but at the same time filled with yearning, its harmonic writing proving particularly expressive. By contrast our life on earth is evoked by music that is dark, threatening and rhythmically driven.

Above all, Brahms succeeds in showing how humans are tossed to and fro and suddenly thrust into the unknown, which he depicts by means of falling string figurations that are impressively onomatopoeic. But whereas Hölderlin ends his poem with our headlong fall into the abyss, Brahms uses his orchestral postlude to return to the calm mood of the opening, offering a token of hope that is not found in Hölderlin’s poem.

A season’s highlight

When the Berliner Philharmoniker performed Brahms’s Song of Destiny for the first time under Joseph Joachim in November 1886, the critic of the Vossische Zeitung wrote fulsomely about a work “of the boldest aspirations and a triumphant command of the composer’s artistic resources, a work, moreover, that like few others must be well suited to winning him many new admirers and maintaining the support of those already loyal to him.”

Six years later the piece was played at a benefit concert for the Philharmonic Pension Fund. Although these concerts were normally conducted by Hans von Bülow, the conductor on this occasion was Siegfried Ochs, who had founded his Philharmonic Chorus in 1882, the same year as the orchestra was formed. Within five years it had grown from group of twenty friends to a leading ensemble with no fewer than 185 members.

It is clear from contemporary press reports that the Philharmonic Chorus’s concerts were regarded as the season’s highlights. Over the years that followed Ochs regularly performed Brahms’s Song of Destiny with the Berliner Philharmoniker and his choir.

Friedrich Hölderlin, Gemälde von Franz Karl Hiemer, um 1792
(Photo: Wikimedia commons/ Marbach am Neckar, Schiller-Nationalmuseum und Deutsches Literaturarchiv)

The poem’s philosophical content encouraged Ochs to programme it at memorial concerts in particular – in 1894 it was played on the death of Bülow, in 1897 in memory of Brahms, in 1902 at the memorial concert for Hermann Wolff and in 1907 for Joseph Joachim. Starting in 1906, a different conductor with a different choir performed the piece with the Berliner Philharmoniker: Georg Schumann and the Sing-Akademie, which often presented the work as part of a programme that also included the German Requiem or two of Brahms’s other choral works, the Song of the Fates and Nänie.

In May 1922 a performance of the Song of Destiny and the German Requiem under Schumann was part of the celebrations marking the fortieth anniversary of the foundation of the Berliner Philharmoniker and commemorating the orchestra’s dead conductors and musicians. As one reviewer noted at this time, “It is impossible to imagine a more beautiful or more appropriate musical obituary than the one that Schumann provided with his magnificent assistants”.

Beloved of great choral conductors

Until the late 1980s it was above all a series of great choral conductors who elected to perform Brahms’s Song of Destiny with the Berliner Philharmoniker: in addition to Siegfried Ochs and Georg Schumann, who programmed it at regular intervals, there are five conductors who deserve to be mentioned here by name: Hugo Rüdel with the Royal Court and Cathedral Choir, Bruno Kittel with his own Kittel Choir, Karl Forster with the Choir of St Hedwig’s Cathedral, Hans Hilsdorf with the Sing-Akademie and Helmuth Rilling with the Gächinger Kantorei.

Rilling’s appearance was eagerly awaited by the press, not least because his programme included not only the Song of Destiny but also Brahms’s Tragic Overture and Nänie and Schubert’s Mass in A♭ minor. The reviews noted that in the Tragic Overture Rilling did not yet have complete control over the orchestra, but his performance of the Song of Destiny was unanimously acclaimed. According to Die Welt, the chorus demonstrated “the powerful sonorities that it is capable of exploring. Here Rilling’s contact with the orchestra was better than at the beginning.”

Leading by example: Claudio Abbado

With Claudio Abbado’s appointment, Brahms’s Song of Destiny acquired a whole new significance. A great admirer of Hölderlin, Abbado programmed the piece on several occasions with the Berliner Philharmoniker, each time presenting it in a new context.

He first conducted it in September 1989, at which point he had not yet been appointed the orchestra’s principal conductor. The performance marked the start of the Berlin Festival and was also a memorial concert for Herbert von Karajan, who had died in the July of that year.

Particularly impressive was Abbado’s handling of the work’s orchestral postlude, which captures Hölderlin’s account of the descent into uncertainty and initially appears to be conciliatory in tone: “Humankind is left with a feeling of uncertainty,” wrote the critic of Der Tagesspiegel, “while Elysium is heard in the distance. This at least was the impression left by the interpretation that Claudio Abbado moulded with the Philharmonic Orchestra and the Ernst Senff Choir.” And the Song of Destiny naturally figured prominently in the Hölderlin cycle that Abbado initiated in 1993, a challenging project both artistically and intellectually.

As the conductor observed at this time, “Such a thing is possible in Berlin in a way that it is in few other cities.” Abbado conducted the Song of Destiny as part of a programme that also included other Hölderlin settings by Wolfgang Rihm, Richard Strauss, György Ligeti and Max Reger. The work also featured on the programme of the tour that Abbado and the orchestra undertook in 1996, when they visited Vienna and Italy, and it was heard at Abbado’s farewell concert in 2002, together with Mahler’s Rückert Lieder and Shostakovich’s King Lear, all of them works that revolve around the themes of doubt, withdrawal and uncertainty.

Following Abbado’s retirement, the only conductor to programme the Song of Destiny with the Berliner Philharmoniker has been Christian Thielemann, who included it at a concert in 2009 that also featured Nänie, The Song of the Fates and Schoenberg’s Pelleas und Melisande. According to Der Tagesspiegel, Thielemann’s “balm-like reading” risked “inducing a state of narcosis”.

Sir John Eliot Gardiner will be performing Brahms’s Song of Destiny with his Monteverdi Choir, another great conductor of the present day who will be offering his own interpretation and continuing the work’s very special performing history in Berlin.

Nicole Restle

Read more