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Detlev Glanert on his new orchestration of songs by Brahms

(July 2006)

Detlev Glanert discusses his new orchestration of songs by Brahms

Brahms's Four Serious Songs are heard in a new orchestration by Detlev Glanert at the BBC Proms on 28 July, combined with Glanert's own linking Preludes.



What does Brahms represent for a 21st century composer?
 
Brahms stands for "modernism" in the sense of Schoenberg, while also representing the highest standard of creative self-criticism and the most scrupulous care over ideas and musical material.
 
Where do you stand on the Brahms the Progressive versus Brahms the Reactionary debate?
 
Of course I view Brahms as a Progressive. I think the debate about the reactionary Brahms ended 100 years ago.
 
What appealed to you in orchestrating the Serious Songs?
 
First of all the texture of the songs is nearly out of the reach of a pianist’s fingers and thus beyond the world of piano sound alone. Brahms himself planned an instrumentation, probably as a Fifth Symphony with voice(s) - there remains at least one sheet of instrumentation sketches (printed in Kalbeck's Brahms biography). The colour of the orchestral instruments is able to sharpen structure and expression, clarifying the sonic relief of the composition.
 
Why are the Serious Songs special in Brahms's output?
 
They are one of his most personal works. Brahms was hard to ‘know’ as a person (as all his contemporaries testify), but here you have, for a few moments, access to the open soul of a melancholic believer in God, who knows that life will end and that there is probably no Paradise. Within his output it is the most elaborated song setting in his unquestionably accomplished late style, absolutely unique both as a conception and a composition.
 
What aspects do the texts explore?
 
Brahms’s selection of texts negotiate the existence of a life after death. He mixes familiar and not so well-known sacred texts, combining both biblical and poetic sources. He was convinced that a public performance of the songs would be impossible because of the church-motivated censorship in old Austria. The texts are very pessimistic: here speaks an old man awaiting death; but very clearly you can feel and see a division between the first three songs and the fourth, both theologically and stylistically, because he wrote the fourth some years earlier then the others. However the optimism of No.4 is not so strong as one first thinks - the whole cycle focuses on that most critical point of human existence - death.
 
You've orchestrated in Brahms's style rather than hinting at your own idiom. What are the key characteristics in the instrumentation?
 
Other than the occasional use of brass and percussion, all remains in the Beethoven style. Brahms quite often doubles the middle voices producing a dark colour and has a characteristic penchant for using octave thirds in the complete wind section. As there are so many Brahms fingerprints in the instrumentation, and for reasons of respect to him, I tried to set it for orchestra as distinctively and scrupulously as he himself would have done.
 
The version to be heard at the Proms expands the songs with a newly composed series of Preludes. What is the material for these?
 
Nearly all the material in the Preludes comes from Brahms and I tried to use it and transform it like a stylistic muscle, so that the music starts in his world, is sliding slowly into our world, and then falling back again. On the other hand the Preludes are working like a theological comment on the statements in the singer’s text, and this parallel purpose is especially important in the fourth prelude.
 
How in musical terms have you achieved the stylistic transitions from Brahms into Glanert?
 
For example the very beginning of the first prelude is a backwards version of the end of the first song, transformed into a melancholic expression, then developed up to a harsh 12 tone chord for an angry outburst, then travelling back to Brahms’s first song by a different route. In the third prelude I transformed some of his motives into angry waltz music, referring to the Hamburg baroque tradition of the Totentanz (death dance) which Brahms knew very well and actively collected. In this way I could enter a play of motivations and consequences between Brahms' music and my own. The best way to gain an understanding of what I tried to do in the Preludes is to have in mind the texts of the preceding and following song.

Interview by David Allenby


> Further information on Work: Vier Präludien und Ernste Gesänge

Glanert photo by Thilo Beu

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