Brahms, Johannes – Triumphlied (Hymn of Triumph) Op. 55 (Vocal score with English & German libretto)
(b. Hamburg, 7 May 1833; d. Vienna, 3 April 1897)
Preface of the full score (German version not available):
Triumphlied (“Hymn of Triumph”) for double chorus, baritone and orchestra with organ ad lib, op. 55 (1870-71)
on a text from Revelations 19: 1-2, 5-7, 11 and 15-16
Although Brahms spent the greater part of his career in Vienna and never seriously considered returning to his native Germany, he remained at heart a German patriot and avidly followed developments on the home front. Bismarck was his political hero (Brahms even became honorary president of an association to have Bismarck publicly honored after his fall from grace in 1890), and he shared the dream of a German Empire constituted under Prussian leadership. The outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War found him therefore directly affected and apprehensive, especially after Germany’s initial setbacks in 1870. With visions of his beloved Clara Schumann languishing on a French-occupied Rhine, he seriously entertained plans of enlisting for war duty. But as the German forces quickly turned their initial setbacks into a general rout, Brahms thought better of these plans and found a contribution more suitable to his genius: the composition of a “Hymn of Triumph” to celebrate the German victory.
The text was quickly forthcoming. Once again, as in the earlier German Requiem and later in the Four Serious Songs, Brahms drew on his deep knowledge of the Bible and found in Chapter 19 of the Book of Revelations a biblical parallel to the Franco-Prussian War: the fall of Babylon in the Apocalypse. He omitted the more blatantly exultant passages (Paris was not to be equated with the “fornications” of the Whore of Babylon) and concentrated instead on the paeans of victory and deliverance in which this chapter abounds. In other words, just as the German Requiem was meant to serve as a semi-secular equivalent to the Latin Mass for the Dead, the Triumphlied was to be a semi-secular version of the Te Deum.
A musical model also presented itself early on: Handel’s Dettingen Te Deum, likewise a celebration of a victory over the French, and likewise a modern-language version of a venerable Latin text. Handel’s work was deeply admired by Brahms, whose personal copy of the score is covered with annotations betokening a close study of its compositional fabric. (The first work that Brahms performed as newly appointed conductor of Vienna’s Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in 1872 was the Dettingen Te Deum.) The fanfare motifs, the dotted rhythms, the contrapuntal textures, the extended sequences, even the brilliant key of D major: all found their way from Handel’s masterpiece of 1743 into the new score, which came to represent what one critic has called “an end point of Brahms’s archaizing tendencies.” Stitched unobtrusively into the texture of the opening movement is the well-known God Save the King/Our Country, ‘Tis of Thee, here doubtless in its traditional Prussian variant Heil Dir mit Siegeskranz (“Hail to Thee with Victor’s Laurels”). The second section ends amidst dense counterpoint in a thrillingly hushed prayer of thanksgiving on the hymn Nun danket alle Gott (“Now Thank We All Our God”). Altogether, the Triumphlied is a tour de force of contrapuntal workmanship every bit as impressive in its way as the roughly contemporary Variations on a Theme by Haydn (1873).
The Triumphlied falls into three sections roughly following a fast-slow-fast design. If the first two sections are dominated by cries of Allelujah and general jubilation and thanksgiving, the third takes on a more personal character with the first-person vision of the apostle, a passage suitably assigned to the solo baritone. Brahms himself conducted the first performance of Part I in Bremen Cathedral on 7 April 1871, at a time when hostilities had ceased but the Treaty of Frankfurt had yet to be signed. The entire work received its première in Karlsruhe on 5 June 1872, conducted by Hermann Levi and with the great Julius Stockhausen taking the baritone part. It was published in score, parts, and vocal score by Simrock of Berlin that same year and shortly thereafter in a piano-duet arrangement prepared by the composer himself. In the immediate post-war years the Triumphlied was frequently performed at large gatherings as an expression of national unity and euphoria; and Brahms’s own opinion of the work can be gauged from the fact that he chose to conduct it in 1895 to inaugurate the newly built Zurich Tonhalle, where his portrait was hung portentously alongside those of Beethoven and Mozart. But the four decades of peace that followed upon the Franco-Prussian War provided ever fewer opportunities for its performance, and the work gradually remained confined to festivals and grand occasions. With the defeat of Germany in World War I the mood of the piece became decidedly unsavory to a chastened population, and since the even greater defeat in World War II performances of the Triumphlied have become extremely rare, making the work undeservedly, if perhaps understandably, the least-known of Brahms’s major scores.
Bradford Robinson, 2005
Performance material: Sikorski, Hamburg