The Liebeslieder texts: who was G. F. Daumer?
The title pages to both Liebeslieder Walzer Opus 52, and Neueliebeslieder Walzer, Opus 65, contain the subtitle Aus “Polydora” von Daumer. I thought it prudent to track down this reference. It turns out that philosopher and poet Georg Friedrich Daumer (1800-1875) was Brahms’ favorite poet; the composer set about twenty of Daumer’s poems, in addition to the thirty-two contained in the two sets of waltzes. I read that Daumer was particularly drawn to Persian poetry. One of his best-known collections, entitled Hafis, published in two volumes (1846 and 1852), is actually a group of very free translations and imitations of songs by the fourteenth century Persian poet Hafiz, whose rhyming couplets, many of which concern love, wine, and nature, are traditionally interpreted allegorically by Sufic Muslims. The Catholic Encyclopedia describes Daumer as “an enemy of Christianity”-- and whatever this may mean, it does seem that Brahms, an agnostic, was drawn to Daumer’s anticlericalism, as well as to the mystical, lyrical, sensual quality of his poetry.
Daumer published another collection, also in two volumes, of translations and imitations of folk poetry, based on Russian, Polish, Hungarian, Turkish, Latvian, and Sicilian sources, in 1855, entitled Polydora: ein weltpoetisches Liederbuch. In this collection, as well, Daumer is so free in his use of the source material, that one is hard-pressed to differentiate between his original work, and authentic folk poetry (if there really is such a thing). Both volumes concern themselves with the many facets of love: longing, reluctance, denial, sadness, obsession, joy, rapture. Brahms chose eighteen of these poems for the earlier Liebeslieder Walzer, Opus 52. These poems, and their settings, strike me as somewhat more positive and genial, even naive, than the fourteen he set in the second set, Opus 65. The latter set, both poetry and music, deals more directly and specifically with the difficulties of amorous human relationships. Striking chromatic harmonies, jarring rhythms, and minor keys underscore the more serious nature of this latter opus. The music seems darker and more passionate-- and it is more difficult to perform. Altogether, Opus 65 creates such tension, and potential problems for itself, that it seems Brahms can’t find anything in Daumer’s collections to tie things up and bring them to a satisfying conclusion-- so he turns, in the final song, Zum Schluß, to a verse by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), perhaps Germany's greatest poet, for a peaceful, soothing end, appealing to the muses, who alone, according to both composer and poet, can calm the stormy seas of the human condition. Interestingly, and brilliantly, Brahms, in abandoning Daumer, also abandons the waltz rhythm, replacing it with a serenade-like passacaglia, set in 9/4. Listener and performer alike, I feel, are relieved to end the dancing and the arguing, and just agree to disagree.
Late in Daumer’s life, Brahms, who had never met the poet, or even corresponded with him, decided to pay him a visit. As he later wrote to his friend, poet Klaus Groth, “in a quiet room I met my poet. Ah, he was a little dried-up old man!...I soon perceived that he knew nothing either of me or of my compositions, or anything at all of music. And when I pointed to his ardent, passionate verses, he gestured, with a tender wave of his hand, to a little old mother almost more withered than himself, saying, ‘Ah, I have only loved the one, my wife!’” I also read that Daumer, who had actually started out as a divinity student, re-embraced Christianity at the end of his life-- something Brahms never formally did.