The first half of my title refers to a wonderful piece of music: Johannes Brahms, Alt-Rhapsodie [Alto Rhapsody] for alto solo, male chorus, and orchestra, Opus 53 (1869) Regrettably, this masterpiece is rarely performed. Such a short piece, that requires such an unconventional combination of performers, is impractical. Therefore it has been recorded more than performed live. Even more regrettably, it has rarely been understood. Short as it is, it is complicated and intense, and rich in literary and musical associations.

The second half of my title refers to my repudiation of wrong-headed or foolish program notes about the Alto Rhapsody. All too often, program notes are pointless, irrelevant, and even incorrect, even when written by those who should have known better.

The worst program notes I have ever encountered were delivered orally at an afternoon concert at a museum. A nice lady addressed us, obviously pleased to share her profound insights. To prepare us for Beethoven's Seventh Symphony, she itemized the four movements, and used a CD to play us the first 20 seconds of each movement. Then she told us that, at the time Beethoven composed this symphony, his appearance was so unkempt that he was arrested in the street for vagrancy -- and that was the sum total of her lecture.

The Alto Rhapsody is complex and difficult. Both text and music can only be fully understood against the background of a context, whose extent is out of all proportion to the brevity of the work itself. That, however, is no excuse for foolish program notes. In this essay I also perpetrate program notes. Mine are unorthodox, but I dare to hope that they are not foolish.


The text of the Alto Rhapsody is an excerpt from a narrative poem, taken entirely out of context. Without the context, one might easily mistake its meaning, or miss the point altogether.

In 1774 Goethe published his novel Die Leiden des jungen Werthers [The Sufferings of Young Werther], The hero is madly in love with a woman who barely knows he exists, and finally he kills himself. It was a great success, and made Goethe a celebrity. It also caused the "Werther effect," an epidemic of copycat suicides. Goethe's subsequent works were entirely different. He regretted writing Die Leiden des jungen Werthers, he was embarrassed by its success, and he was insulted by ignorant admirers who had read nothing else that he wrote.

In 1777 Goethe published his narrative poem Harzreise im Winter [A Winter Journey in the Harz Mountains]. In one episode, he meets a victim of the "Werther effect," and tries to save him from his suicidal depression. The text of the Alto Rhapsody is taken from this episode (my English translation).

Aber abseits wer ist's?                                        But who is that solitary man?
Im Gebuesch verliert sich sein Pfad,                     He loses his way in the thickets,
Hinter ihm schlagen die Straeuche zusammen,     Branches spring together behind him,
Das Gras steht wieder auf,                                  The grass stands up again,
Die Oede verschlingt ihn.                                     The wasteland engulfs him.

Ach, wer heilet die Schmerzen                              Ah, who will heal his pain,
Dess, dem Balsam zu Gift ward,                           He, to whom balsam became poison,
Der sich Menschenhass                                       He, who hatred of mankind
Aus der Fuelle der Liebe trank?                             Drank from the fullness of love?
     Erst verachtet, nun ein Veraechter,                         First scorned, then a scorner,
     Zehrt er heimlich auf                                              He secretly wastes
     Seinen eigenen Wert                                              His own gifts
     In ungenugender Selbstsuch.                                  In fruitless introspection.
Ach, wer heilet die Schmerzen                               Ah, who will heal his pain,
Dess, dem Balsam zu Gift ward,                             He, to whom balsam became poison,
Der sich Menschenhass                                         He, who hatred of mankind
Aus der Fuelle der Liebe trank?                               Drank from the fullness of love?

Ist auf deinem Psalter,                                            If there is in your psalter,
Vater der Liebe, ein Ton                                          Father of love, one note
Seinem Ohre vernemlich,                                        That his ear can receive,
So erquicke sein Herz.                                            Then revive his heart.
     Oeffne den umwoelkten Blick                                   Open his clouded gaze
     Ueber die tausend Quellen                                       To the thousand springs
     Neben dem Durstenden                                            Near to him who thirsts
     In der Wueste.                                                         In the desert.
Ist auf deinem Psalter,                                              If there is in your psalter,
Vater der Liebe, ein Ton                                            Father of love, one note
Seinem Ohre vernemlich,                                          That his ear can receive,
So erquicke sein Herz.                                              Then revive his heart.


Authors of program notes have seen here mouth-watering opportunities to ferret out the autobiographical sources of these works. Sorry, but there are no such pearls in this oyster.

Die Leiden des jungen Werthers
was not autobiographical. Goethe's youthful friendship with Charlotte Buff was not a grand passion, and the suicide of his friend Karl Wilhelm Jerusalem did not traumatize him. The novel was fiction, in every sense of the word.

A program note said that the Alto Rhapsody "has powerful parallels in Brahms's life and character." Another quoted Clara Schumann saying that she felt it was "the expression of his own heart's anguish." Yet another said that Brahms's love for Schumann's daughter Julie was unrequited, and so "Brahms's reaction was to turn to composition as a solace." The only actual fact is, that Brahms dedicated the Alto Rhapsody to Julie. The rest is sentimental claptrap, and a childish conception of Brahms and his art.

Shakespeare was not Falstaff, and Ibsen was not Peer Gynt, and Thurber was not Walter Mitty -- and Goethe was not Werther, and neither was Brahms.


The Alto Rhapsody contains historic references, allusions to traditional musical elements. To perceive it merely as beautiful music is to overlook this additional dimension.

Brahms's model for the ground plan of the Alto Rhapsody was the operatic gran szena [great scene], originally intended for the displays of virtuoso castrati [male eunuch singers in female roles]. It consisted of a recitativo accompagnato [an emotionally charged recitative with orchestral participation]; an introverted/negative aria-da-capo [in the form A-B-A, the first stanza repeated after the second stanza]; another (optional) recitative; and a second extroverted/positive aria-da-capo Examples:
     Handel, Rodelinda, Act 1 Scene 1, Ho perduto il caro sposo [I have lost my dearly beloved spouse]. Two consecutive arias-da-capo for Rodelinda, the first Largo and the second Allegro, with a short recitativo secco [accompanied by isolated chords on the harpsichord] between them. The standard opening recitativo accompagnato was replaced here by a Menuet for orchestra.
     Mozart, Cosi Fan Tutte, Act 2, Ei parti -- senti -- ah no! [He is going -- listen -- ah no!]. Recitative and Rondo for Fiordiligi. The text returns as in a rondo. but the music is a gran szena. The beginning of the Rondo text, Per pieta, ben mio [Have mercy, my beloved] returns in the middle with the same music, but when it returns again at the end, the tempo changes from Adagio to Allegro moderato, and the music is entirely new, with coloraturas -- just as if this were the requisite second aria.
     Donizetti, Lucia di Lammermoor, Act 3 Scene 2, Il dolce suono [The sweet sound], the "Mad Scene" for Lucia.
     Verdi, La Traviata, Act 1, E strano [It is strange], gran szena for Violetta.
     Beethoven employed this ground plan in the last movement of the Piano Sonata in A-flat major, Opus 110: Recitativo, Arioso, Fuga, Arioso repeated with more ornaments, Fuga repeated with inversions, augmentations, and diminutions.
     Beethoven also employed this ground plan in the last movement of the Ninth Symphony, Opus 125: a recitative and a set of variations on the famous theme, played by the orchestra, followed by a similar recitative and another set of variations on the same theme, with the voices.

In the Alto Rhapsody, the text is laid out on this ground plan as follows:
     orchestral introduction = ritornello
     lines 1-5 = recitative, with the orchestra repeating the ritornello
     lines 6-9,10-13,6-9 = first aria-da-capo in minor
     lines 14-17,18-21,14-17 = second aria-da-capo with male chorus, in major
     line 17 = coda [ending] and Amen

Brahms's model for his orchestral introduction was the ritornello, the instrumental thematic statement at the beginning of any Baroque aria. Subsequently it supported the singer's part, and returned (hence its name) between stanzas the end. In the Alto Rhapsody, the orchestral introduction performs this function for the recitative, not for the arias. Nevertheless, the basic idea  is the same: the orchestra plays a ritornello, and then repeats it as support for the singer.
     In Don Giovanni, Act 2, Crudele! Ah, no [Cruel! Oh, no]. Recitative and Aria for Dona Anna (also suspiciously like a gran szena) the orchestra states the aria theme at the very beginning, even before the singer begins her recitative -- so there was some sort of a precedent for Brahms's unorthodox procedure.

In the first aria-da-capo, Brahms employed the hemiola, a rhythmic trick that dates from the Renaissance. Measures of six beats are grouped alternately, some as 2+2+2, others as 3+3. An amusing example is the fugue in J.S. Bach, Toccata, Adagio, and Fugue in C major, BWV564. The rhythm of the expositions [containing the fugue subject] is 2+2+2 but that of the episodes [without the fugue subject] is 3+3. In the Alto Rhapsody, it begins thus:
     Ach,    wer / hei- let   die / Schmer- zen
     xx xx   xx /  xx   xx   xx /  xxx        xxx

The last two chords of the Alto Rhapsody are sung to the last two words of the text: sein Herz [his heart], but the chords themselves are a plagal cadence, IV-I, the standard formula for "Amen." A specific example is the hymn by Bourgeois, Old Hundredth, in the Geneva Psalter, Pseaumes Octante Trois de David [Eighty-Three Psalms of David] (1551). Since then, Protestant hymns have ended with this "Amen"-formula.


Everyone knows -- even the scribblers of program notes -- that Brahms was a traditionalist, that his style was rooted in historic elements, and that he was esteemed as a bulwark against the iconoclasm of Wagner. Everyone cites the standard examples: Brahms's First Symphony that is called "Beethoven's Tenth," the chaconne in the finale of his Fourth Symphony, the variations, the fugues, etc. Nobody, however, cites the Alto Rhapsody as an example.

Most program notes overlook the presence of the two consecutive arias-da-capo. Tovey mentioned the da-capo in the second section without using the word "aria," but failed to notice that there is another da-capo in the third section. Another program note said: "The second section is an aria in all but name," and left it at that. Everyone seems to have ignored this most obvious clue, and thus failed to recognized the origin of the form of the Alto Rhapsody.

William Caplin denied the existence of the "Amen" that has been sung in churches for hundreds of years, He wrote: "Inasmuch as the progression IV-I cannot confirm a tonality (it lacks any leading-tone resolution) it cannot articulate formal closure." Like the man who saw a giraffe for the first time, and declared that there is no such animal.


The Alto Rhapsody.superbly expresses and enhances the meaning of its text, and contains lovely allusions to musical tradition -- but above all it is quintessentially Brahmsian. From the first note, there is no doubt who composed it.

Brahms was fond of unique ensembles that produce unique timbres. Examples:
     Four Songs for Female Chorus, Two Horns, and Harp, Opus 17
     Trio for Violin, Horn, and Piano, Opus 40
Brahms was especially fond of the lower registers of voices and instruments. Examples:
     Serenade No. 2 in A major for orchestra without violins, Opus 16
     Two Songs for Alto, Viola, and Piano, Opus 91
The Alto an outstanding example of both, with its unique combination of an alto solo with a male chorus.

In this work Brahms employed a melodic motive typical of the Romantic period: an ascending second. followed by an ascending third, ending with a descending second. This could be seen as applying the rule we learned in counterpoint exercises, that a leap should be followed by a stepwise reversal of direction to "fill in" the leap. I prefer to think of this motive as the shape of a wave breaking on the shore. The following lists the most obvious examples:
measures     text                                           reprise       text
1-4               orchestra                                   20-23         orchestra
48-50            Ach wer heilet die Schmarzen     90-92         Ach wer heilet die Schmaerzen
54                 orchestra                                  96             orchestra
69-72            orchestra                                   108-113     orchestra
82-83            im ung'nuegender Selbsucht    
84-89            orchestra
135               orchestra                                   141            orchestra
158               orchestra                                    162           orchestra

Brahms was fond of phrases with a wide range. The following lists phrases in the Alto Rhapsody.whose range is an octave or more:
measures     text                          reprise     text
7-9               orchestra                  26-28       orchestra
10-11            orchestra                  29-30       orchestra
11-13            orchestra                  30-32       Schlagen die Straeuchen zusammen
34-36            orchestra
38-40            orchestra
64-69            Aus der Fuelle          103-108    Aus der Fuelle der Liebe trank
                      der Liebe trank
120-121        Ein Ton seinem          150-151   Ein Ton seinem Ohre vernehmlich
                      Ohre vernehmlich

In the third section, not only does the text shift from pessimism to optimism, not only is the male chorus added, not only does minor change to major -- but the exact opposite of the above is added to the melodic material. This consists of involuted chromatic phrases whose range is no more than a second or a third, mostly used to set the key word erquicke [revive], but not exclusively. The following lists the most obvious examples:
measures     text                 reprise     text
120-121        so erquicke     152-153    so erquicke
124              so erquicke      154          so erquicke
132              neben den        138          neben den
161-172        erquicke


A program note informed me that the Alto Rhapsody was composed a year after Ein Deutches Requiem, Opus 45, and therefore it is similar in style. Such a truism is not noteworthy, nor is it of use to the listener. On the contrary, it would have been amazing if it were not so.

Program notes informed me that Brahms played the Alto Rhapsody to Clara Schumann, and that her daughter Julie heard him playing it to Clara in the next room. The place for such anecdotes is a definitive academic biography, not program notes for the listener. Moreover, imagine how inadequate that performance must have been, with Brahms playing a piano reduction while singing the vocal parts (perhaps out of tune?)

Program notes informed me that the Alto Rhapsody was first "tried out" at a "dress rehearsal" without the chorus and probably with a piano instead of an orchestra. Again, that performance must have been woefully inadequate. Again, such an anecdote may be amusing, but it does not contribute to an understanding of the work. The same may be said for program notes that give the exact date and place of its first public performance and the names of all the performers.

A program note informed me that the fastest recording of the Alto Rhapsody lasts only 11 minutes and 45 seconds, while the slowest lasts 16 minutes and 10 seconds. When the Alto Rhapsody becomes an event in the olympic games, that information will doubtless be of inestimable value.

Brahms said, as he left a gathering of friends: "If there is anyone here whom I have not insulted, I beg his pardon."