Alto Rhapsody

Alto Rhapsody
Choral composition by Johannes Brahms
Johannes Brahms 1866.jpg
The composer c. 1866
Full titleRhapsodie für eine Altstimme, Männerchor und Orchester
OccasionWedding of Julie Schumann
Textfrom Goethe's Harzreise im Winter
Composed1869 (1869)
Duration12 minutes
  • alto
  • male chorus
  • orchestra

The Alto Rhapsody, Op. 53, is a composition for contralto, male chorus, and orchestra by Johannes Brahms, a setting of verses from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's Harzreise im Winter. It was written in 1869, as a wedding gift for Robert and Clara Schumann's daughter, Julie. Brahms scholars have long speculated that the composer may have had romantic feelings for Julie, which he may have integrated into the text and music of the Alto Rhapsody. The text, with its metaphysical portrayal of a misanthropic soul who is urged to find spiritual sustenance and throw off the shackles of his suffering, has powerful parallels in Brahms's life and character.

The work is in three sections: the first two, in a chromatically dense and wandering C minor, are for the soloist and orchestra and describe the pain of the misanthropic wanderer. The second section is an aria in all but name. The third section, in a nominal C major, brings in the male chorus, which joins the soloist in a plea to a celestial spirit for an abatement of the wanderer's pain. The third part of the Rhapsody has similarities of vocal and choral style to A German Requiem, which was written the previous year.

The work typically takes between twelve and fifteen minutes in performance. See recordings, below, for indicative timings.

The work was first "tried out" on 6 October 1869, at the dress rehearsal for the Karlsruhe season's first orchestral subscription concert. Amalia Boni sang the solo part; the conductor Hermann Levi was on hand, but there was no male voice chorus, and it is unclear whether Boni was accompanied by orchestra or simply on piano. Brahms and Clara Schumann were present, but there was certainly no other audience. It received its first public performance, and its first definitely known proper performance, on 3 March 1870, at Jena. The soloist at the first performance was Pauline Viardot and the conductor was Ernst Naumann.

The text Brahms set is:

Aber abseits wer ist's?
Im Gebüsch verliert sich sein Pfad;
hinter ihm schlagen die Sträuche zusammen,
das Gras steht wieder auf,
die Öde verschlingt ihn.

Ach, wer heilet die Schmerzen
dess, dem Balsam zu Gift ward?
Der sich Menschenhaß
aus der Fülle der Liebe trank!
Erst verachtet, nun ein Verächter,
zehrt er heimlich auf
seinen eigenen Wert
In ungenügender Selbstsucht.

Ist auf deinem Psalter,
Vater der Liebe, ein Ton
seinem Ohre vernehmlich,
so erquicke sein Herz!
Öffne den umwölkten Blick
über die tausend Quellen
neben dem Durstenden
in der Wüste!

But who is that apart?
His path disappears in the bushes;
behind him the branches spring together;
the grass stands up again;
the wasteland engulfs him.

Ah, who heals the pains
of him for whom balsam turned to poison?
Who drank hatred of man
from the abundance of love?
First scorned, now a scorner,
he secretly feeds on
his own merit,
in unsatisfying egotism.

If there is on your psaltery,
Father of love, one note
his ear can hear,
then refresh his heart!
Open his clouded gaze
to the thousand springs
next to him who thirsts
in the wilderness!


The Alto Rhapsody is not frequently performed in concert, perhaps because of the expense of hiring a soloist and chorus for a short piece, but it has been recorded many times both by contralto and mezzo-soprano singers. A selection of recordings available as of 2012 illustrates the wide range of tempi adopted by different interpreters of the Rhapsody, with playing duration ranging from 11 minutes 15 seconds to 16 minutes 10 seconds.

Soloist Date Choir Orchestra Conductor Duration
Marian Anderson 8 Jan. 1939 Philadelphia Orchestra Eugene Ormandy 13:10
Dame Janet Baker 1968 BBC's Men's Chorus BBC Symphony Orchestra Sir Adrian Boult 13:51
Dame Janet Baker 1970 John Alldis Choir London Philharmonic Orchestra Sir Adrian Boult 11:45
Stephanie Blythe ? Ensemble a sei voci Ensemble Orchestral de Paris John Nelson 12:14
Brigitte Fassbaender 1982 Prague Philharmonic Chorus Czech Philharmonic Giuseppe Sinopoli 14:28
Kathleen Ferrier Dec 1947 Male choir London Philharmonic Orchestra Clemens Krauss 15:53
Kathleen Ferrier 14 Oct 1949 Oslo Philharmonic Chorus Oslo Philharmonic Erik Tuxen 13:10
Ann Hallenberg 2011 Collegium Vocale Gent Orchestre des Champs-Elysées Philippe Herreweghe 11:15
Aafje Heynis Feb 1958 Royal Male Choir, "Apollo" Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Eduard van Beinum 12:43
Marilyn Horne ? Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Robert Shaw 14:01
Maiju Kuusoja [fi] 1961 Male chorus Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra Paavo Berglund 14:49
Marjana Lipovšek Sep 1988 Ernst-Senff-Chor Berlin Philharmonic Claudio Abbado 13:04
Christa Ludwig 1962 Philharmonia Chorus Philharmonia Orchestra Otto Klemperer 12:27
Christa Ludwig 1976 Wiener Singverein Vienna Philharmonic Karl Böhm 16:10
Mildred Miller 11 Jan 1961 Occidental College Chorus Columbia Symphony Orchestra Bruno Walter 12:25
Jessye Norman 1989 Choral Arts Society of Philadelphia Philadelphia Orchestra Riccardo Muti 12: 28
Anne Sofie von Otter 1995 Arnold Schoenberg Choir Vienna Philharmonic James Levine 12: 38
Nathalie Stutzmann Nov 2007 Monteverdi Choir Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique John Eliot Gardiner 12:57
Dunja Vejzović ? Houston Symphony Orchestra Chorus Houston Symphony Christoph Eschenbach 13:55

This page was last updated at 2023-03-26 02:16 UTC. Update now. View original page.

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