Best Buddies, or just Goethe Friends? cover

Best Buddies, or just Goethe Friends?

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Brahms and Tchaikovsky shared a birthday. Though they may not have liked each other much, was there anything else they may have had in common?
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Best Buddies, or just Goethe Friends?

On May 7, Brahms and Tchaikovsky shared a birthday—an annual event since Tchaikovsky waltzed into the world in 1840, seven years after Brahms. While the composers may not have cared much for one another, at this great historical remove we can appreciate the music of both men without worrying about offending the other camp—there is such a thing as “borschtwurst,” (or is it “bratscht?” If not, it should exist).

It struck me that recognition of this coincidentally shared date might provide an excuse to look in the Library’s depths for any links between our Tchaikovsky and Brahms collection items. It did not take too long to realize that a direct link was not likely; while our Brahms collection is sizeable, we do not have as many documents in Tchaikovsky’s hand.

P.I. Tchaikovsky, Quotation from Tscharodeika, Library of Congress, Moldenhauer Archives, Box 53.

I did locate one scrap of Tchaikovsky’s music in manuscript: a few measures from the overture to his opera Tscharodeika (or Charodeyka, “The Enchantress,” composed between 1885 and 1887) in a piano reduction (I believe the ornamental arpeggios and registers here are unique to this version, though variants of it appear in the second statement of the theme in the orchestral version).

In the same box from the Moldenhauer Archives, there is an interesting document that was signed by numerous luminaries at the Moscow Conservatory, then only recently formed, where Tchaikovsky taught for over a decade.

It is a document referred to as the “Cossmann Testimonial,” a three-page encomium given to the cellist Bernhard Cossmann (still known today for his pedagogical pieces and a solo cello transcription of Schubert’s Erlkönig, among other things) when he left the conservatory around 1870. Tchaikovsky signed the document, along with ten others.

Many of these figures, in addition to their significance in Tchaikovsky’s life, played a prominent role in the Liszt/Wagner nexus (such as Nicolai Rubinstein, the great pianist who still managed to shine in his more famous brother Anton’s shadow, and Carl Klindworth, the pianist Wagner would come to entrust with the preparation of the piano reductions for his music dramas).

Cossmann himself played as a cellist under Liszt in Weimar (their relationship went back to their Paris days)—but his abilities were something of a bridge across the trenches of Romanticism, as Cossmann also played at the Gewandhaus in Leipzig at Mendelssohn’s request. In Leipzig Cossmann also met Joseph Joachim, who would soon become such an invaluable friend to Brahms.

The Cossmann Testimonial, p.1, Library of Congress, Moldenhauer Archives, Box 53.

Cossmann’s relationship with Brahms would develop after his return to Germany from Moscow, but the trail becomes cold at this point with respect to a particular link between these documents and the Brahms collection at the Library.

Perhaps we would progress further if we were to come at it from the other side? Since the tiny scrap of Tchaikovsky’s music above is rather obscure, it is only fair to search out something in a similar vein in Brahms’ output. I would say an opera, but that was one of the two things Brahms famously never tried (the other being marriage).

How about something close? The Library has Brahms’ own piano duet transcription of Ein deutsches Requiem (op. 45, 1865-8), the full version of which was first performed with all of its movements in February of 1869. That fits the bill as a large choral work, but it is hardly obscure (though perhaps not everyone knows of Brahms’ arrangement).

The Cossmann Testimonial, p.1, Library of Congress, Moldenhauer Archives, Box 53.

Thinking ahead to the significance it would have on this blog posting about a century and a half later, Brahms immediately followed (in the same month!) the full premiere of Ein deutsches Requiem with that of his ill-fated cantata for tenor, male chorus and orchestra: Rinaldo.

Rinaldo (op. 50, 1863-8) was something of an experimental foray for Brahms, and perhaps as close as he came to operatic writing.

After the immediate success of the Requiem, Rinaldo’s decided lack of it was a disappointment to Brahms, who would never really return to the same realm in his vocal music—which is not to say that he did not write significant dramatic music for the voice and large forces thereafter; he regrouped with the Alto Rhapsody (op. 53) and Schicksalslied (op. 54), for instance, composed between 1868 and 1871. The Library of Congress houses the holograph manuscript of Rinaldo, also a part of the Moldenhauer collection.

Johannes Brahms, Rinaldo, Moldenhauer Archives at the Library of Congress

You may notice that the title listed here is different than it is in the published version. In the manuscript it is Rinaldo v. Göthe; at first glance one could be excused for thinking that this refers to the famous title bout in which Rinaldo thoroughly trounced Göthe, tossing him from the ring…

But since that never happened, we realize that the “v. Göthe” is a specification of the text’s origin, or at least the German text’s origin. The text for Rinaldo was drawn from Goethe’s adaptation of the fourteenth canto of Tasso’s epic Gerusalemme liberata.

Tasso’s musical legacy is richly represented at the Library (we have Liszt’s major orchestral work Le triomphe funèbre du Tasse, for instance), and of course there is the more well-known opera Rinaldo by Handel (which includes the popular and beautiful aria “Lascia ch’io pianga”); although we do not have the manuscript, the Library of Congress does have several early editions of selections from Handel’s Rinaldo dating from between 1711 and the early 1720s.

Looking at his total vocal output, Brahms did not set many texts by poets of Goethe’s stature and ability, perhaps in recognition of the old chestnut that it is difficult for music to add much to great poetry. Yet Brahms did set over fifteen texts by Goethe, with a concentrated grouping (though widely dispersed in type) between 1859 and 1874.

These include Rinaldo and the Alto Rhapsody, but we do not find some of the standard poems that attracted many composers from Goethe’s friend Carl Friedrich Zelter to the present, such as the “Wandrers Nachtlied” (I and II) or the songs of the character Mignon from Wilhelm Meister’s Years of Apprenticeship.

Here is where we come back to Tchaikovsky—I had such a “longing” for this to happen, a “Sehnsucht” if you will, that I practically willed a connection to exist between what was occupying the compositional time of both Tchaikovsky and Brahms between 1868 and 1870.

As it happens, around the time Rinaldo was receiving its premiere in Vienna, Tchaikovsky was writing his op. 6 Romances, which includes one of only three Goethe settings (adapted in Russian) by the composer of which I am aware. It belongs to that above-mentioned group of Mignon’s songs from Wilhelm Meister, and numbers among its most famous settings: “Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt.” This is often referred to in English as “None but the Lonely Heart,” but a deposit at the Library shows that this was not always the case. A translation from an American publication of 1883 offers the English version as “No One My Grief Can Feel.”

With that I cease this particular search for connections in our collections between these two composers who did not really get along with each other. Other paths could have been taken, but this at least introduces a few lesser-known items from the Library’s collection.

Even if Brahms and Tchaikovsky do not obviously share much more than a birthday, they did both “know the land where the lemons bloom” (Kennst du das Land, wo di Zitronen blühn…?). And where there are Zitronen, there is the possibility of Zitronen-ade, and with it the shared interests of Goethe friends.