Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, baritone; Daniel Barenboim, piano [DG 449 633-2]
Published 1886.

The late songs are great songs, and of the seven groups from the later 1880s, Op. 96 is arguably the greatest (perhaps rivaled by Op. 105).  The outer two reflect the serious, ambitious tone of resignation and regret that also characterizes Op. 94, and they are among the most well-regarded of Brahms’s entire art song output.  The second is a magically exquisite love song, and the third is a fleeting Schumann-like utterance whose piano part could function as a standalone scherzo or etude.  All except No. 2 are to texts by Henrich Heine, the great romantic poet whose most well-known setting is probably Robert Schumann’s cycle Dichterliebe (Op. 48).  Brahms apparently planned a full set of Heine songs, but repressed one manuscript after negative criticism from Elisabet von Herzogenberg (whose opinions of his songs he valued highly).  He substituted his final setting of the poet he turned to most, Daumer (also the source of the last song from Op. 95).  “Der Tod, das ist die kühle Nacht,” already one of Heine’s most famous poems, is given a concise, but utterly profound treatment that captures the images of death, night, and the nightingale’s love song in vivid musical colors.  The rich chromatic harmonies in an extremely slow 6/8 tempo are like Wagner in miniature.  “Wir wandelten,” the Daumer love song, is given sophistication by the imitative canon in the piano part, along with the bell-like upper notes.  The simple scene of lovers walking together is imbued with loftiness, such that Daumer does not suffer at all in Heine’s company.  This is especially true when it is juxtaposed with the interlude-like brevity of “Es schauen die Blumen,” whose piano cross-rhythms give the minute-long song a tense unrest throughout.  The 6/8 meter of “Der Tod, das ist die kühle Nacht” returns to close the set with “Meerfahrt,” a grim, lugubrious barcarolle so distinctive and amazing in effect that it is unlike any other Brahms song.  The long piano introduction, with its disturbing foghorn blasts, sets the stage for a bitterly unfulfilled journey.  The transitory glimpse of the island of spirits is marked by an intrusion of lilting waltz rhythms upon the barcarolle, and the dissonant climax, with an unexpected high vocal note, is breathtaking.  The return of the foghorn blasts against the word “trostlos” (“comfortless”) gives the piece one last pang of agony before the unfortunate gondola disappears on the horizon.

Note: Links to English translations of the texts are from Emily Ezust’s site at  For the most part, the translations are line-by-line, except where the difference between German and English syntax requires slight alterations to the contents of certain lines.  The German texts (included here) are also visible in the translation links.

ONLINE SCORE FROM IMSLP (First Edition from Brahms-Institut Lübeck--original key edition and lower key edition [A-flat major, B-flat major, G minor/major, F minor])

ONLINE SCORE FROM IMSLP (From Breitkopf & Härtel Sämtliche Werke--original keys)
ONLINE SCORE FROM IMSLP (Edition Peters, edited by Max Friedländer):
No. 1: Der Tod, das ist die kühle Nacht (in original key, C major)
No. 1: Der Tod, das ist die kühle Nacht (in middle key, B-flat major)
No. 1: Der Tod, das ist die kühle Nacht (in low key, A-flat major)
No. 2: Wir wandelten (in original key, D-flat major)
No. 2: Wir wandelten (in middle key, B-flat major)
No. 2: Wir wandelten (in low key, A-flat major)
No. 3: Es schauen die Blumen (in original key, B minor/major)
No. 3: Es schauen die Blumen (in low key, G minor/major)
No. 4: Meerfahrt (in original key, A minor)
No. 4: Meerfahrt (in middle key, F minor)
No. 4: Meerfahrt (in low key, E minor)

1. Der Tod, das ist die kühle Nacht (Death Is the Cool Night).  Text by Heinrich Heine.  Sehr langsam (Very slowly).  Two-part through-composed form.  C MAJOR, 6/8 time (Middle key B-flat major, low key A-flat major).


German Text:
Der Tod, das ist die kühle Nacht,
Das Leben ist der schwüle Tag.
Es dunkelt schon, mich schläfert,
Der Tag hat mich müd gemacht.

Über mein Bett erhebt sich ein Baum,
Drin singt die junge Nachtigall;
Sie singt von lauter Liebe -
Ich hör es sogar im Traum.

English Translation

0:00 [m. 1]--Stanza 1, lines 1-2.  The piano sets up the halting short-long rhythm in right hand chords.  The voice mysteriously enters with the left hand.  It rises in the opposite rhythm of the right-hand chords.  Already on “ist,” the harmony moves to an evocative “diminished seventh.”  The left hand simply plays long bass notes, leaping down measure by measure.  Before the second line, on “Nacht,” the pure major harmony is restored.  The piano changes under the second line, moving to harmonized undulation in both hands.  The vocal line gently rises, then descends quietly but emphatically to a full cadence on “Tag.”
0:33 [m. 7]--Stanza 1, lines 3-4.  At the cadence, the short-long chords have resumed.  They now rise in chromatic harmonies, the top notes moving by half-step.  When the voice enters, the words “Es dunkelt schon” are hesitantly uttered in isolation, matching the top piano pitches.  After a brief pause, “mich schläfert” follows in the same hesitant manner.  Line 4 is marked with a sudden but subdued accent on a high note as the harmony moves to the “dominant” minor key (G minor).  After the interjection of “Der Tag” on the long high notes, the piano again moves to undulation, and the voice presents the remainder of the line, moving to a strong arrival on G.  The arrival quickly switches to major with the long-short chords.
1:14 [m. 14]--Stanza 2, lines 1-2.  The piano sets up a new accompaniment pattern with dream-like arpeggios in the left hand and bell-like short-long nightingale calls with rolled chords in the right.  The piano bass remains firmly anchored on G.  The vocal line is generally set higher than in Stanza 1.  In the first line, it rises and remains in major, despite chromatic harmonies in the piano.  The second line begins with the highest vocal note yet, and descends while first turning to minor and then moving back toward C.  The volume and excitement levels slowly but steadily increase against poignant, dissonant harmonies. 
1:32 [m. 18]--Stanza 2, line 3.  The piano bass moves to the home keynote of C.  The arpeggios and nightingale calls continue, still using chromatic harmonies.  The vocal line reaches even higher, soaring to a climactic note on “Liebe,” and then the singer drops out as the piano takes over the melody.  The voice then repeats the words “von lauter Liebe” before again breaking off and allowing the piano to continue the melodic line.  At that point, the piano bass moves back to the “dominant” note G.
1:51 [m. 23]--Stanza 2, line 4.  The intensity begins to settle down.  The voice enters with a minor-key inflection on the first words, “Ich hör es.”  The piano now doubles and harmonizes the melody, and the arpeggios cease.  Those words are immediately repeated, and the line is completed with another arrival on G.  The volume has diminished, and the piano right hand moves down to the middle register for a brief continuation, the bass moving back to C.  The final words “sogar im Traum” are repeated to end the vocal presentation, the descent inflected toward minor and even the “Phrygian” mode, but the arrival is in major.
2:16 [m. 27]--Piano postlude.  The “pedal” bass on C re-establishes the short-long pulse of the opening chords.  In the middle register, the right hand plays two downward-turning figures, still using poignant chromatic harmonies.  Finally, like low tolling bells, a slow two-chord descent is given twice before the last rolled chord, which is indicated to be held as it fades.
2:55--END OF SONG [31 mm.]

2. Wir wandelten (We Wandered).  Text by Georg Friedrich Daumer from a Hungarian source.  Andante espressivo.  Three-part through-composed form.  D-FLAT MAJOR, 4/4 time with one measure of 3/2 (Middle key B-flat major, low key A-flat major).

German Text:
Wir wandelten, wir zwei zusammen,
Ich war so still und du so stille,
Ich gäbe viel, um zu erfahren,
was du gedacht in jenem Fall.

Was ich gedacht, unausgesprochen
Verbleibe das! Nur Eines sag’ ich:
So schön war alles, was ich dachte,
So himmlisch heiter war es all’.

In meinem Haupte die Gedanken,
Sie läuteten wie gold’ne Glöckchen:
So wundersüß, so wunderlieblich
Ist in der Welt kein and’rer Hall.

English Translation
Part 1 (Stanza 1 and Stanza 2, lines 1-2)
0:00 [m. 1]--Introduction.  Beginning on an upbeat, both hands alternate a dolce melody with “pedal” notes on A-flat, above in the right and below in the left.  The melody itself, which the singer will take over, is presented by the inner voices, with the left hand imitating the right two beats behind.  It consists of upward leaps followed by descents.  The left hand “pedal” notes briefly move to E-flat.  In the last two measures, the imitation breaks as both hands play descending figures, the right hand decorated by rolled chords.
0:19 [m. 7]--Stanza 1.  The singer enters on an upbeat and sings the first line to the melody just heard in the piano introduction’s imitation.  Under it, the piano right hand begins an undulating pattern of thirds in alternation with lower A-flats, continuing the “pedal” effect.  The left hand begins to imitate the voice, but then settles on a low open fifth.  The voice pauses, and as the piano connects the two lines, it begins its pattern of inner-voice imitations between high and low “pedal” notes, as in the introduction.  The imitation continues with the right hand doubling the voice, which continues the original melody on the second line.
0:36 [m. 13]--As the voice completes the second line, the piano plays its descending figures from the end of the introduction, repeating the second one.  Above it, the singer presents the third line in halting figures with repeated short notes beginning off the beat.  The line is completed with the voice doubling the piano’s “repeated” descent.  The fourth line follows immediately, descending to an arrival on the “dominant” key (A-flat major) over mildly chromatic piano harmonies and a syncopated left-hand pulse.  The brief echoing transition returns quickly to the home key with a fleeting hint of the repeated “pedal” notes in the left hand.
0:51 [m. 18]--Stanza 2.  The first line and the first half of the second line, ending with the exclamation point after “verbleibe das,” are set to a phrase that conflates the first two lines of Stanza 1.  The first line is set almost exactly as it was before, but at the very end, merging into the second line (which also represents a poetic line enjambment), it continues in a descent resembling the second line of the first stanza (but the piano continuing its line 1 pattern, without the imitation).  This includes the descending piano figure at the arrival point.  The last part of the line (“Nur eines sag’ ich”) echoes that descending piano figure.
1:09 [m. 23]--In a stunning transition to Part 2, the piano’s harmony shifts “outward” by a half-step and leads into the harmonically remote key of E major, a minor third above the home key.  There, the last words, “eines sag’ ich,” are repeated and stretched out in a disruptive 3/2 measure, leading into the second half of Stanza 2 and the middle section of the song.
Part 2 (Stanza 2, lines 3-4 and Stanza 3, lines 1-2)
1:16 [m. 24]--The 3/2 measure and the restatement of the last words make a full arrival on E major.  There, at once back in 4/4, the piano leads into a gentle but straightforward presentation of the stanza’s last two lines.  The vocal line consists of two straight descents with turning embellishments at the end of each.  The piano accompaniment is largely in block chords.  The last line introduces highly chromatic harmony, moving toward A-flat (notated as G-sharp) and seeming to head back home, but the piano’s bridge into Stanza 3, which echoes the turning embellishments, quickly leads back to E major.
1:37 [m. 31]--Stanza 3.  The vocal setting of these two lines is like that of the previous two that ended Stanza 2, but the accompaniment pattern is new and fresh.  Beginning with the upbeat, left-hand harmonies in the middle range are followed by high right-hand octaves after the beat, gently leaping up and down, representing the bells described in the text.  This time, the second line’s harmonic motion follows its implications and leads back to the home key (D-flat major), still using the after-beat figuration in the right hand, which will continue into the last section.
Part 3 (Stanza 3, lines 3-4)
1:55 [m. 37]--These last two lines initially resemble the familiar melody from Part 1, but the right-hand notes, now with added harmonies, continue to enter after the beat, thus musically connecting all of Stanza 3.  The left hand briefly imitates the vocal line, but more subtly than before.  At the last line, the continuation deviates from the familiar melody.  A descent is embellished with sighing two-note figures on each syllable, including note repetition connecting most of these two-note groups.  The after-beat pattern continues in the piano right hand.  At the end of the line, the piano moves to the familiar descending figure from the end of the introduction.  The vocal line ends on a half-close.
2:11 [m. 42]--The last two lines are repeated and varied.  Brahms marks the repetition più dolce. The after-beat pattern briefly breaks, with the left hand playing descending arpeggios under right-hand chords.  The word “wunderlich” has a subtle, poignant dissonance.  At the last statement of the final line, the two-note figures return, as does the after-beat pattern in the piano, but now these two-note figures soar upward, gently arching back down before a longer note leads into a sighing final cadence over a slower piano.
2:29 [m. 46]--The piano postlude, beginning with the vocal cadence, consists of gently soaring and sighing motion in both hands, with hints of imitation between the hands in both directions.  The final melodic descent in the right hand is delayed, giving one last touch of intimacy to this exceptional song.
2:52--END OF SONG [49 mm.]

3. Es schauen die Blumen (All the Flowers Gaze).  Text by Heinrich Heine.  Unruhig bewegt (With restless motion).  Through-composed form.  B MINOR/MAJOR, 3/2 time (Low key G minor/major).

German Text:
Es schauen die Blumen alle
Zur leuchtenden Sonne hinauf;
Es nehmen die Ströme alle
Zum leuchtenden Meere den Lauf.

Es flattern die Lieder alle
Zu meinem leuchtenden Lieb -
Nehmt mit meine Tränen und Seufzer,
Ihr Lieder, wehmütig und trüb!

English Translation

0:00 [m. 1]--Introduction.  The unsettled effect is immediately established by a clash of sixteenth-note triplets in the right hand against leaping straight sixteenth notes in the left.  This two-against-three pattern remains in force for much of the song.  The right-hand triplets arch upward, obscuring within them a melancholy descending melody on accented double-stemmed notes.  This is subtly harmonized by the top voice of the leaping left hand, whose bottom notes mostly remain fixed on a “pedal” B.  After the first two measures, the next two move down more steadily in both hands.  The last two measures settle even lower and introduce pauses in first the left, then the right hand in preparation for the vocal entry.
0:09 [m. 7]--Stanza 1.  The vocal entry on the first line matches the concealed melody of the introduction, as does the piano itself, but this only lasts for the first measure.  The piano is marked sotto voce, continuing the two-against-three conflict.  The second line introduces a distinctive upward-rising figure in the voice, which is immediately echoed in the piano bass bridging to the third line.  This is identical to the first.  The fourth line thwarts the expected repetition by turning quickly to major and reaching higher.  The echo of the upward-rising figure in the piano bass also incorporates the major inflection.
0:22 [m. 15]--Stanza 2.  The music now deviates from the pattern.  The first line uses the distinctive upward-rising figure as a starting point, but then stretches things out by setting the word “alle” on a longer syncopated line, then repeating the word a step higher.  The piano patterns are also different, with the left hand immediately playing low syncopated octaves in the left hand, anticipating this rhythm in the voice a measure earlier.  The right hand continues to play the triplet figuration.  After the repetition of “alle,” the voice continues with the second line, all remaining in major and ending on a half-close.  Both lines become more animated and forceful.  The piano bridge to the last two lines is melodically active in both hands.
0:31 [m. 21]--The last two lines are set to music reminiscent of the first stanza, but with important changes.  The third line of the stanza remains in major.  The fourth moves lower and introduces notes from the minor.  The right-hand triplets continue, but now the left hand plays a thumping low B twelve times, all off the beats, four to a measure.  As the line ends, the low bass B slows to two in the measure.  Another measure, a piano bridge, re-introduces the familiar upward-rising bass figure, remaining surprisingly in major.  The entire setting of these lines slowly and steadily diminishes in volume.
0:40 [m. 26]--The last two lines are repeated and stretched out in slower notes.  Under them the upward-rising bass figure is heard three more times.  After the last two of these, both hands of the piano briefly break.  The final word “trüb” is set to a rising figure, soaring to and holding the upper note for two full measures, and remaining strongly in major.  The word is underpinned by two brief piano gestures (the right hand still in triplets).  The last piano chords, also in major, are a quiet but emphatic punctuation.
0:55--END OF SONG [31 mm.]

4. Meerfahrt (Ride on the Sea).  Text by Heinrich Heine.  Andante sostenuto.  Three-part through-composed form.  A MINOR, 6/8 time (Middle key F minor, low key E minor).

German Text:
Mein Liebchen, wir sassen beisammen,
Traulich im leichten Kahn.
Die Nacht war still, und wir schwammen
Auf weiter Wasserbahn.

Die Geisterinsel, die schöne,
Lag dämm’rig im Mondenglanz;
Dort klangen liebe Töne,
Dort wogte der Nebeltanz.

Dort klang es lieb und lieber,
Und wogt’ es hin und her;
Wir aber schwammen vorüber,
Trostlos auf weitem Meer.

English Translation

Part 1
0:00 [m. 1]--Introduction.  It is unusually long.  The persistent barcarolle rhythm (like the “Venetian Gondola Songs” of Mendelssohn) is established with a stubborn low bass.  Against this rhythm, a melody enters, beginning strikingly with an accented and powerful dissonance (a note from the major key in the context of minor), having the effect of a foghorn.  After this blast, the melody settles into the barcarolle rhythm, with the bass and melody moving toward an initial cadence.  The melody then continues to wind downward, becoming more active and decorative.  The last four measures are a statement and a quieter repetition, with an interrupted cadence, the repetition settling in preparation for the vocal entry.
0:42 [m. 15]--Stanza 1.  The first verse, unlike the other two, matches the first section of the three-part form.  Its presentation is atmospheric and straightforward, continuing the rocking barcarolle character and mostly remaining in the home key.  The second line is stretched out to twice the length of the first, ending with a yearning half-close.  The setting of the next couplet, the third and fourth lines, is similar, with the fourth line twice the length of the third, but here there is a complete motion to the “dominant” minor key (E minor), also ending with a yearning half-close.
1:16 [m. 27]--The fourth line is repeated in a new setting, almost angry in its effect, with an extra repetition of the word “weiter.”  This ends with a full close in E minor, but coinciding with this cadence, the dissonant foghorn blast once again appears in the piano.  As a bridge to the second stanza (and middle section), the first part of the melody from the introduction is heard, but it does not complete its initial cadence.
Part 2 (Stanza 2 and Stanza 3, lines 1-2)
1:36 [m. 34]--Stanza 2.  Beginning with a half-measure upbeat, the first two lines are presented in an awestruck manner as the isle of spirits appears to the couple on the boat.  The harmony is much more active, with the first line moving toward D major and the second toward G.  The barcarolle pattern persists in the piano, but with some waltz flavor.  At this point, Brahms indicates a steady, but powerful buildup in tempo and volume, using both German and Italian directions.  The third and fourth lines veer back to the “dominant” key of E, but now it is major.  The fourth line is set to shorter notes, adding to the gradual animation.  Here, the piano deviates somewhat from its pattern, adding richly colorful chromatic chords.
2:05 [m. 45]--Stanza 3.  There is no real break for the new poetic verse, as the increasingly animated music continues, using these first two lines as a climax.  The harmony makes a radical detour to A-flat major, a half-step above the home key.  The piano adds highly unstable “diminished seventh” chords.  The vocal line marks the climax with a rise to its highest pitch on “hin und her,” finally holding out a note as the piano continues its forcefully dissonant harmonies.  The climax subsides, Brahms indicating a gradual slowing, again in both German and Italian directions.  There is a quick and artful motion back to the home key, accomplished by re-spelling the note A-flat as G-sharp and converting it to a “leading note” in A minor.
Part 3 (Stanza 3, lines 3-4)
2:17 [m. 51]--The character of the first part returns, but there is no literal reprise.  Line 3 of the final stanza is sung to longer descending and despairing notes as the boat passes by the glorious vision.  With the final line, Brahms does explicitly indicate “as at the beginning” (“Wie zu Anfang”) and indeed, the dissonant foghorn blast returns, underpinning the first setting of that final line with the opening music from the introduction.  The use of the dissonance on the word “trostlos” (“comfortless”) emphasizes the bleakness.  The line is concluded, but the piano continues, bridging to its extended repetition.
2:38 [m. 58]--The horn blast is heard again, but this time it is not a dissonant intrusion, rather part of the underlying harmony.  The final line is repeated in its entirety in a varied setting, still underpinned by the introduction music.  Then, settling to a ghostly quietness, the last words “auf weitem Meer” are repeated once more, even adding a fourth statement of “weitem” (mirroring the repetition of the same adjective as “weiter” in the first stanza).  The energy is completely spent after the final vocal cadence, and the piano simply puts the brakes on the boat, bringing the quasi-tragic barcarolle to a close with a low open octave.
3:20--END OF SONG [66 mm.]