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The Five Ophelia Songs of Johannes Brahms

Johannes Brahms

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The Five Ophelia Songs of Johannes Brahms

April marks a happy time for fans of the Bard. William Shakespeare was born this month in 1564 – April 23rd to be exact! So why not start this celebratory month with an examination of one of his best known and oft-studied characters as heard through the music of Johannes Brahms?

Alexandre Cabanel’s “Ophelia”

Poor, Ophelia. The daughter of the King’s chief council Polonius, and the sister of Laertes the man who eventually murders the on again off again object of her affections Hamlet. A woman who is driven mad by her father’s death at the hands of her would be lover, and eventually takes her own life in what seems to be an accidental drowning.

It was the madness that captured the imagination of Johannes Brahms. In 1873, he was approached by actor Joseph Lewinsky to compose several melodies for a production of Hamlet that was being staged in Prague and starring his fiancée Olga Preicheisen as Ophelia. Lewinsky wanted composed melodies for Preicheisen to sing during Ophelia’s first appearance during Scene 5 of Act 4, when she is overcome with madness and grief after learning of her father’s death. Ophelia’s rambling responses to Queen Gertrude are peppered with nonsensical, folk-like songs.

Brahms composed the five songs purposely in that matter. They are short – all five can be sung in under four minutes. They were meant to be sung a cappella in performance, which Preicheisen did, but Brahms composed simple piano parts for rehearsal. The texts are sad or bawdy in nature, starting with the lament of a lover dead and gone, to a woman who secretly spends an evening with man she loves on St. Valentine’s Day.

Brahms never seemed to see these works as serious parts of his musical catalog as they were never noted with an opus number, nor were they published until after Brahms’ death. At least now, for fans of Shakespeare’s tragic heroine, we can hear her madness through the pen of Johannes Brahms.

To purchase a copy of Jessye Norman and Daniel Barenboim performing these songs, click here.

William Shakespeare

Celebrate with more Shakespearian events this April with the LA Choral Lab, The Huntington’s Shakespeare Day, a celebration of Shakespeare with the Festival of Books, and a reading at the Shakespeare Center.

Written by:
Jennifer Miller Hammel
Jennifer Miller Hammel
Published on 04.01.2019