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The origin of Brahms's 'In Stiller Nacht.'

Johannes Brahms's two interpretations of the enigmatic folk song In stiller Nacht are among his best known and most beloved folk-song settings, a reputation justly deserved, for in each a poem is united with music of equal simplicity and poignancy. In the choral rendition, which opens the second volume of the Deutsche Volkslieder for mixed a cappella choir (1864; WoO 34 no. 8; see ex. 1), a rhythmically straightforward homophonic texture is softly colored with neighbor-tone dissonances to reinforce the expressive undulation of the melody and delicately orchestrated by reducing the voices to three treble parts or amplifying them with divisi alto or bass. The distinctive feature of the setting for solo voice, which was published thirty years later, in 1894, and occupies a place of honor as the last of the arrangements for solo voice in the forty-nine Deutsche Volkslieder (WoO 33 no. 42; see ex. 2), is the metrical displacement of the accompaniment: for much of the song the widely spaced piano part enters an eighth note in advance of the voice, creating a mood of hushed disquiet, which, over the course of the stanza, is intensified by a rise in dynamic level to forte. Metrically stable passages provide resolution within and at the end of each stanza.(1)

In the poem a lament, carried gently on the wind, is heard early in the night (ex. 3); it melts the heart with its bitter pain and sorrow, and tears flow from the eyes of the listener. All nature is moved, and the moon ceases to shine, the stars stop their gleaming, the birds no longer sing joyously, and the wild beasts grieve as well. The responsiveness of nature to human suffering harkens back to the poetry of the Minnesingers, and this "haunting, touching plaint of a heart stricken to death"(2) has been viewed as a secular lyric. But study of the provenance of this lovely "folk song" reveals that the lament issues from no ordinary mortal: the quiet night is the scene of Christ's suffering on the Mount of Olives.(3)

Just when and how Brahms came to know In stiller Nacht has long been a mystery. When queried by his friend and future biographer Max Kalbeck in 1894, Brahms was characteristically evasive: that the song would not be found among his books is all he would say.(4) Gustav Ophuls, who compiled an anthology of Brahms's song texts in 1898,(5) found a seventeenth-century sacred poem by the Jesuit poet Friedrich von Spee that opens with two lines similar to the initial verses of In stiller Nacht - "Bei stiller Nacht, zur ersten Wacht / Ein Stimm sich gund zu Klagen" ("In the quiet night, at the first watch, / a voice utters its cry") - and closes with two quatrains (out of fifteen) that match Brahms's second stanza. The poem, which is entitled Trawer-Gesang von der Noth Christi am Oelberg in dem Garten (Mourning-Song of the Suffering of Christ on the Mount of Olives in the Garden), first appeared in the Seraphische Lustgarten, published in Cologne in 1635, and was included in Spee's Trutz Nachtigal of 1649. (Max Friedlaender gives the first three stanzas of Spee's poem in his book Brahms Lieder.(6))

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The tune provided with this poem, though, was not the one subsequently used by Brahms, and Kalbeck initially concluded that Brahms had composed the melody himself.

In 1915, in an appendix to the second edition of the fourth volume of his Brahms biography, Kalbeck reopened the issue.(7) It had been brought to his attention that the four-bar melody of a Miserere mei Deus (Psalm 51) published in Paderborn in 1863 bore a strong resemblance to the initial eight bars of In stiller Nacht (see ex. 4a). Moreover, a sacred song about Christ's suffering on the Mount of Olives - "Bei finstrer Nacht zur ersten Wacht / ertont ein banges Klagen" ("In the dark of night, at the first watch, / an anxious lament rang out") - had appeared in Albert Gereon Stein's Kolnisches Gesangbuch: Sammlung katholischer Kirchenlieder mit Melodien of 1852 with a similar eight-bar melody (ex. 4b). Kalbeck suggested that Spee's poem had entered the folk tradition, where it remained and from whence variants of it reemerged in print in the mid-nineteenth century.

In the same appendix Kalbeck claimed to have found a copy of In stiller Nacht, with the title Todtenklage, in a manuscript in Brahms's library that bore the title Volkslieder aus dem Siebengebirge gesammelt von Prof. [Jacob] Grimm und Dr. [Friedrich Wilhelm] Arnold (Folk Songs from the Siebengebirge region [of Germany], collected by Prof. [Jacob] Grimm and Dr. [Friedrich Wilhelm] Arnold). In this compendium, Kalbeck reported, In stiller Nacht was immediately followed by the melody for the Miserere mei Deus, here entitled Antiphonarium coloniense. Yet, as Kalbeck continued,

the master contented . . . himself neither with the four bars of the [Latin] litany transmitted from the Volk nor with the eight-bar expansion of the [musical] period adapted to Spee's text, but worked further on it himself and concluded the song artistically. Moreover, he condensed a selection of Spee's four-line strophes into [two] eight-line stanzas, generalized the sacred passion scene into the secular garden night of a lamenting and bewailing soul, devised the moving Abgesang which gives the whole form and soul, added the wonderful accompaniment, and thus made himself the true creator of the masterpiece which he modestly designated as a folk song.

In his Brahms' Lieder (1922) Max Friedlaender adopted Kalbeck's view of the origins of In stiller Nacht (though not his interpretation of it as a secular song). Echos of Kalbeck's theory can be found in the writings of Karl Geiringer, Richard Specht, Eric Sams, Siegmund Helms, and others.(8)

Unfortunately, Kalbeck's case is based on unsound reasoning and inaccurate handling of the primary sources. To begin with, one need not conclude from Brahms's cryptic reply to Kalbeck's query about the source for In stiller Nacht that he had composed all or even part of the song himself. Furthermore, the manuscript in Brahms's library containing In stiller Nacht and the Miserere mei Deus is not his collection of Volks-lieder aus dem Siebengebirge (preserved in Brahms's estate; Vienna, Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde, A 129), as maintained by Kalbeck, but an entirely different manuscript - a pair of loose bifolia (double leaves) that are part of a large miscellany of folk-song manuscripts and contain twenty-eight songs that Brahms copied, as he labelled them, "Aus der Sammlung des Hrn. Arnold" ("From the collection of Herr Arnold"; Vienna, Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde, A 128). And finally, having found the melody and text for the first stanza of In stiller Nacht written out in full in a manuscript collection of folk songs copied from a collection compiled by Friedrich Wilhelm Arnold, Kalbeck nevertheless persisted in attributing the text of the whole song and the second section of the melody to Brahms, a gap in interpretation of evidence that is quite remarkable. In light of the manuscript situation, Brahms's reply to Kalbeck must now be reinterpreted as an expression of his pride in having found and arranged such a fine, yet generally unknown, folk song.(9)

The bifolia containing In stiller Nacht and its sacred counterpart (hereafter, the "Arnold" bifolia) bear no date, but the handwriting is entirely consistent with Brahms's text and music scripts of the 1850s.(10) Since as early as the late 1840s Brahms had been copying down folk music; part of a collection of folk songs and dances that he prepared during this period is now owned by the Library of Congress.(11) A sheet of Hungarian melodies, inscribed "Hannover, April 1853," stems from Brahms's contact with the violinist Eduard Remenyi (Hamburg, Staats- und Universitats-bibliothek),(12) and other manuscript collections of folk songs bearing the attributions "D[ussel]d[or]f, April [18]54" and "Ddf Mai 54" are preserved in Brahms's estate (also in the miscellany A 128). In June 1854 Brahms gave Clara Schumann a manuscript of ten Hungarian melodies and twenty-seven folk songs from various countries (Zwickau, Robert-Schumann-Haus), and in June 1858 he presented her with his first efforts at arranging folk songs - twenty-eight settings for solo voice and piano (WoO 32), and four arrangements for mixed choir (WoO 35 nos. 9-12).(13)

In the spring of 1854 Brahms was living in Dusseldorf, whence he had gone shortly after Robert Schumann's suicide attempt. Among the ways in which he assisted Clara Schumann was in keeping records of the Schumann family finances - Brahms's hand supersedes Robert's in the family account books in March 1854 - and in helping to deal with Schumann's

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publishers. One of these publishers was Friedrich Wilhelm Arnold, who lived in nearby Elberfeld, where, in addition to running a publishing business, he conducted research on German folk song.

In March 1854, Joseph Joachim wrote to Brahms that Arnold had heard about him and was interested in printing his music. It may not have been long after that the two first met and began an acquaintanceship that lasted a decade. The earliest documentary evidence of direct contact between Brahms and Arnold is found in letters from Brahms to Robert and Clara Schumann in February 1855, the discussion centering on the publication of Schumann's Gesange der Fruhe, op. 133.(14) Although Arnold never did publish any of Brahms's original compositions, in 1860 he undertook to bring out Brahms's four-hand arrangement of Schumann's Piano Quartet in E-flat major, op. 47. The edition was actually produced - the engraver's model, corrected proof sheets, and a single printed copy survive in the collection of Kurt Hofmann in Lubeck - but it was never issued, apparently because of the intervention of the work's original publisher, Gustav Heinze (Leipzig), who had just released a four-hand version by Carl Reinecke.(15)

Arnold was Brahms's elder by twenty-three years, having been born in Sontheim near Heilbronn in 1810; he died in Elberfeld on 13 February 1864.(16) To students of early German Renaissance music, Arnold is known as the co-editor of the first scholarly edition of the Locheimer Liederbuch, a fifteenth-century compendium of monophonic and polyphonic German song. This project was begun by Arnold and completed by Heinrich Bellermann, who published the edition in Friedrich Chrysander's Jahrbucher fur musikalische Wissenschaft in 1867, three years after Arnold's death.(17) Brahms owned a copy of the Arnold-Bellermann edition and from it arranged two "folk songs," All mein Gedanken and Ich fahr dahin.

In contrast with the edition of the Locheimer Liederbuch, Arnold's other major publication - nine volumes containing 136 Deutsche Volks-Lieder aus alter und neuer Zeit gesammelt und mit Clavierbegleitung versehen (German Folk Songs collected from earlier and recent times and provided with piano accompaniment) - has been almost totally neglected [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED]. Judging from the publisher's numbers and from references in nineteenth-century bibliographies, volumes in this collection began to appear in the early 1860s and continued to be issued until about 1870. Unlike Friedrich Silcher and other nineteenth-century folk-song arrangers who merely provided chordal harmonizations, Arnold took a more artistic approach to the writing of folk-song accompaniments. His piano parts, while supportive of the vocal line, are in themselves musically satisfying, and at times even inspired. More important, though, is the model that Arnold's compendium provided for Brahms's famous collection of forty-nine Deutsche Volkslieder of 1894. But, as we shall see, the influence flowed both ways.(18)

The two "Arnold" bifolia mentioned above document the earliest phase of Brahms's contact with Arnold and the Elberfeld circle of folk-song collectors (which also included Jacob Grimm and Karl Simrock) and establish the manner in which Brahms first came to know In stiller Nacht. Arnold must have encountered the song, with the full melody and text we know from Brahms's settings and with the title Todtenklage, in the course of his collecting activities; sometime in the 1850s he showed it, together with its Latin counterpart Miserere mei Deus, to Brahms, who noted them down, along with a number of other folk songs he learned from Arnold. Not long thereafter, Brahms set the melody for his women's choir in Hamburg, retaining the title Todtenklage (WoO 36 no. 1; cf. note 1). The other folk songs found both in Brahms's later publications and on the two "Arnold" bifolia are Soll sich der Mond nicht heller scheinen; Erlaube mir, fein's Madchen; and Es sass ein schneeweiss' Vogelein (WoO 33 nos. 35, 2, and 45, respectively). Choral arrangements of the first two of these songs also appear in the repertory of the Hamburg Frauenchor (WoO 38 nos. 19 and 4).

Three additional manuscripts provide evidence of Brahms's further contact with Arnold in the early 1860s and his continuing interest in the work of Arnold and his colleagues. The latest source is the one that Kalbeck incorrectly cited as containing In stiller Nacht: a compendium of folk songs from the Siebengebirge region copied from the collections of Grimm and Arnold by the Viennese scribe Franz Hlavaczek. This manuscript probably dates from the late 1870s, for that was when Brahms first employed Hlavaczek as a copyist; thus, it was prepared many years after Arnold's death. Among the numerous melodies in this collection are three that Brahms arranged, two of which, however, already appear in the partbooks of Brahms's Hamburg women's choir in the late 1850s; on the final page, in Brahms's hand, is the melody and text for Erlaube mir, fein's Madchen.

The remaining two manuscript sources, both from the early 1860s and thus prepared during Arnold's lifetime, provide additional information on the relationship between Brahms and Arnold. One of the manuscripts is another pair of bifolia, also preserved in the miscellany A 128, which contains a total of twenty-three songs copied from Arnold's holdings, including six from the Locheimer Liederbuch, among them All mein

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Gedanken. Brahms inscribed each bifolium in pencil "(F. W. Arnold) 1864"; apparently he was updating his portfolio of "Arnold" folk songs. From approximately the same time comes a second manuscript, now in a private American collection: a single bifolium in Brahms's hand containing critiques of several of Arnold's folk-song accompaniments (see fig. 2 for a facsimile of the first page).(19) With this source we see that the benefits of the Brahms-Arnold relationship were mutual. Before publishing his Deutsche Volks-Lieder, Arnold must have sent copies of some of his arrangements to Brahms for his reactions. As explained in a comment on the bifolium, Brahms entered some of his ideas directly on Arnold's originals (a source whose current location is unknown), while others he registered on this bifolium.

Brahms's opinion of Arnold's settings was generally positive, though he had a few reservations. Many of the arrangements are very successful, he observed; if only they were all as good as a few. (Brahms's frankness provides a hint of just how friendly and honest his relationship with Arnold was.) He singled out as "extraordinarily successful" one setting in F-sharp minor, very likely Arnold's simple but effective arrangement of Soll sich der Mond nicht heller scheinen (Deutsche Volks-Lieder, vol. 1, p. 6; see ex. 5). The influence of Arnold's setting on the one that Brahms included in his 1894 collection (WoO 33 no. 35; see ex. 6) is clear. On the other hand, Brahms felt there to be much that was "somewhat obstinate" in Arnold's arrangement of Es warb ein schoner Jungling, and he provided "an attempt to make it otherwise," drawing upon his own 1858 setting of the melody (WoO 32 no. 15, with the text Ach Elselein, liebes Elselein) to demonstrate how to accompany the opening bars (see fig. 2, upper brace). Arnold accepted Brahms's suggestion, adopting the "attempt," with a few variants, as his own (see ex. 7; Deutsche Volks-Lieder, vol. 4, p. 6).(20)

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Brahms gave Arnold the benefit of his ideas on several other arrangements as well, including a setting of In stiller Nacht. On the first page of the bifolium (see fig. 2, above second brace) Brahms wrote: "'Todtenklage' very good. But I believe you heard the bass quite differently; the title already indicates that. Play it once like this." Then follows a bass line for the song, with an indication that the second eight bars were to be repeated (the "etc." at the end). In this case it would seem that Brahms's critique was so thoroughgoing that Arnold decided to withhold his arrangement from print: In stiller Nacht is not to be found in Arnold's Deutsche Volks-Lieder. Thus, the joy of reintroducing this ancient song was reserved for Brahms, who savored the task fully, and who succeeded so well in blending old and new in his version for solo voice and piano that the great scholar of the German Lied, Max Friedlaender, would rank it "among the most impressive and moving impressionistic pictures in modern song," a position occupied as well by Brahms's exquisite choral setting.

Ex. 3. In stiller Nacht

In the quiet night, at first watch, a voice begins to lament; the night wind sweetly and gently carried the sound to me.

With bitter pain and sorrow my heart is melted: with pure tears I have watered all the little flowers.

The beautiful moon will set; for sorrow it does not wish to shine; the stars cease their gleaming; they want to weep with me.

No birdsong nor joyous sounds can be heard in the air; even the wild beasts grieve with me in rocks and in gorges.

1. The WoO (Werke ohne Opuszahl or works without opus number) designations used here are the ones established in Margit L. McCorkle, Johannes Brahms Thematisch-Bibliographisches Werkverzeichnis (Munich: G. Henle Verlag, 1984). The musical examples in this article are taken from the Johannes Brahms samtliche Werke, edited by Eusebius Mandyczewski and Hans Gal (Leipzig: Breitkopf & Hartel, 1926-28), unless otherwise designated.

A third arrangement - an earlier variant of the 1864 choral setting - survives in the manuscript part-books prepared by members of the women's choir Brahms conducted in Hamburg in the late 1850s. This version (WoO 36, no. 1), which was published posthumously by Henry S. Drinker as No. 23 in the University of Pennsylvania Choral Series (New York: Edwin F. Kalmus, 1938), is for four-part women's choir and bears the title Todtenklage. The majority of the extant partbooks from Brahms's women's choir in Hamburg were assembled by Sophie and Henry Drinker and are preserved in the Sophia Smith Collection at Smith College, Northampton, Mass.; see Jane P. Ambrose. "Brahms and the Hamburg Frauenchor: An American Footnote," The American Brahms Society Newsletter 5/2 (Autumn 1987): 3-5.

2. So described by Clara Schumann's daughter Eugenie in her Memoirs, trans. Marie Busch (London: Heinemann, 1927; reprint, Westport, Conn.: Hyperion Press. 1979), 172.

In their recollections about Brahms, both Eugenic Schumann and Edward Speyer remembered a particularly emotional performance by Brahms of the solo arrangement of In stiller Nacht. The setting was an impromptu after-dinner musicale at Clara Schumann's home in Frankfurt; the occasion was what turned out to be Brahms's last visit with his beloved friend, during the final days of October 1895. The singer whom Brahms accompanied was Antonia Speyer-Kufferath, Edward Speyer's wife:

After supper Clara Schumann asked Antonia to sing. Brahms sat down at the piano and a book of his Volkslieder was put before him. He turned the pages and stopped at In stiller Nacht, the song in which the accompaniment precedes the voice by a semi-quaver, this shifting rhythm sometimes creating a difficulty for the singer. "But can you sing this in time?" he asked, looking at my wife. "Oh, yes," she replied, "provided you can play it in time." He shook with laughter. During the performance of the song a deep growling sound made itself audible. I thought of a big dog that Frau Schumann used to keep, but the sounds emanated from Brahms. It was a habit of his in moments of strong emotion. (My Life and Friends [London: Cobden-Sanderson, 1937], 103).

3. Although Brahms entitled both of his collections simply Deutsche Volkslieder, they each contain settings of sacred as well as secular songs. Indeed, Brahms considered calling the 1864 publication Deutsche Volks- und geistliche Lieder (letter to J. Rieter-Biedermann, 18 September 1864; Johannes Brahms Briefwechsel, 16 vols., rev. ed. [Berlin: Deutsche Brahms-Gesellschaft, 1912-22; reprint, Tutzing: Hans Schneider, 1974), 14:103).

4. Max Kalbeck, Brahms, 4 vols., rev. ed. (Berlin: Deutsche Brahms-Gesellschaft, 1912-21; reprint, Tutzing: Hans Schneider, 1976), 1:389-90, note 1.

5. Brahms-Texte: Vollstandige Sammlung der von Johannes Brahms komponierten und musikalisch bearbeiteten Dichtungen (Berlin: N. Simrock, 1898; 2nd ed., rev. and enlarged, Berlin: Deutsche Brahms-Gesellschaft, 1908; 3rd ed., Berlin: Deutsche Brahms-Gesellschaft, 1923; 4th ed., rev. and enlarged, ed. Kristian Wachinger, Ebenhausen bei Munchen: Langewiesche-Brandt, 1983).

6. (Berlin and Leipzig: N. Simrock, 1922), 192; trans. as Brahms's Lieder by C. Leonard Leese (London: Oxford University Press, 1928), 244.

7. Kalbeck, Brahms, 4:559-62.

8. Friedlaender, Brahms' Lieder, 190-92; trans. 242-44; Karl Geiringer, in collaboration with Irene Geiringer, Brahms: His Life and Work, 3rd ed. (New York: Da Capo Press, 1982), 290, 293; Richard Specht, Johannes Brahms: Leben und Werk eines deutschen Meisters (Hellerau: Avalun-Verlag, 1928), 367: trans. as Johannes Brahms by Eric Blom (London: Dent and New York: Dutton, 1930), 339; Eric Sams, Brahms Songs (London: BBC Publications, 1972), 63; and Siegmund Helms, Die Melodiebildung in den Liedern yon Johannes Brahms und ihr Verhaltnis zu Volksliedern und volkstumliches Weisen (Kassel: Barenreiter, 1967), 98-103.

9. One is reminded of the great pride Brahms took in owning manuscripts of keyboard sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti that were unpublished and thus known only to him.

10. A facsimile of the page in the manuscript containing In stiller Nacht appears in Helms, Die Melodiebildung, 100.

11. A facsimile of one page of this collection appears in the first volume of Kalbeck, Brahms, facing page 184.

12. A facsimile of this sheet was published in Emil Michelmann's Agathe von Siebold: Johannes Brahms' Jugendliebe, 2nd rev. ed. (Stuttgart and Berlin: J. G. Cotta'sche Buchhandlung Nachfolger, 1930), facing page 92.

13. Descriptions of these manuscript collections of folk songs and listings of their contents can be found in McCorkle, Brahms Werkverzeichnis, 695-715 and 743.

14. Arnold bad published Schumann's Bunte Blatter, op. 99, in 1852 and his Albumblatter, op. 124, and seven Clavierstucke in Fughettenform, op. 126, two years later. He also issued Schumann's Des Sangers Fluch, op. posth. 139, in 1858 anti two volumes of his Romanzen and Balladen, opp. posth. 145 and 146, in 1860.

15. Kurt Hofmann, Die Erstdrucke der Werke von Johannes Brahms (Tutzing: Hans Schneider, 1975), xxiv and 412 (facsimile of title page).

16. Hugo Riemann, "Arnold, Friedrich Wilhelm." in Musik-Lexikon, 5th ed. (Leipzig: Max Hesse's Verlag, 1900), 47.

17. The publication also included an edition of Conrad Paumann's Fundamentum Organisandi, a collection of organ works based on the songs in the Locheimer Liederbuch and preserved in the same manuscript.

Riemann (ibid.) noted that Arnold also composed piano pieces and prepared arrangements of Beethoven's symphonies for violin and piano.

18. Copies of Arnold's Deutsche Volks-Lieder are extant in Brahms's estate at the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Vienna and in the Yale University Library, New Haven, Conn.

19. This manuscript first came to light in 1979, when it was offered for sale at auction (J. A. Stargardt-Versteigerungs-Katalog 618 von 27 und 29 November 1979, item 720). An annotated transcription of the bifolium appears in George S. Bozarth, "Johannes Brahms und die Liedersammlungen von David Gregor Corner, Karl Severin Meister und Friedrich Wilhelm Arnold," Die Musikforchung 36 (1983): 196.

20. Arnold's published arrangement of Es war ein Markgraf uberm Rhein provides another example of his following Brahms's advice. On the second page of the bifolium of critiques Brahms entered the accompaniment he had written for this folk song in 1858 (WoO 32 no. 5), terming it "another attempt, merely as a means for stimulation and reflection." In the Deutsche Volks-Lieder (vol. 4, p. 7), Arnold adopted Brahms's reading in toto, adding only a brief piano introduction and revising the left hand of the penultimate bar, where the reading in Brahms's manuscript is unclear. Scholars have wondered whether this arrangement was by Brahms or Arnold. Brahms's authorship is further confirmed by an entry he made at the end of the setting in his own copy of Arnold's Deutsche Volks-Lieder: "(von J. B.)." (For the arrangement of this folk song in his 1894 collection [WoO 33 no. 29] Brahms used the beginning of his 1858 setting to open the first two stanzas and the ending of that version to close the second two stanzas; the accompaniment in between was newly composed.)

George Bozarth serves as Executive Director of the American Brahms Society and a member of the music history faculty at the University of Washington. His essay on In stiller Nacht elaborates upon information first published in an article "Johannes Brahms und die Liedersammlungen von David Gregor Corner, Karl Severin Meister und Friedrich Wilhelm Arnold" in Die Musikforschung 36 (1983).
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Date:Dec 1, 1996
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