Brahms: Sapphische Ode

by Kristoffer Brinch Kjeldby | October 22nd, 2009

I recently wrote a classic analysis of the song Sapphische Ode. The poem Sapphische Ode, written by German poet and composer Hans Schmidt (1854-1923) in 1881, was sent by the author to Johannes Brahms, a friend of Hans Schmidt. Brahms, then in his fifties, shortly thereafter composed a lied based upon the poem. The lied was published in December 1884 by Stefan N. Simrock in Berlin and was the fourth song in the collection Fünf Lieder für eine tiefe Singstimme und Klavier, op. 94.  

The poem

The poem is written in ‘Sapphic stanza’ (an antique stanza named after Sappho of Lesbos) and is subtitled In Antiker Form. Being arcaic in form only, the poem describes how the narrator picked roses a night, overwhelmed by the sweet fragrance and moistened by dew:

Rosen brach ich nachts mir am dunklen Hage;
Süßer hauchten Duft sie als je am Tage;
Doch verstreuten reich die bewegten Äste
Tau, der mich näßte.

The poem’s second stanza parallels the nocturnal experience with the sweet kisses plucked from the lips of a beloved and comparing the dew to falling tears.

Auch der Küsse Duft mich wie nie berückte,
Die ich nachts vom Strauch deiner Lippen pflückte:
Doch auch dir, bewegt im Gemüt gleich jenen,
Tauten die Tränen.

The poem is rhymed in a simple AABB pattern and there are many parallels in the lyric composition of the two stanzas, especially in the third and fourth verse as indicated with different colors above.

The music

The lied, composed in a strophic form, contains two musical nearly identical strophes. Each strophe, in accordance with the stanza of the poem, contains three verses of 11 syllables, followed by a short verse of 5 syllables, a structure that is closely reflected in the phrases of the song.

Sappho of Eressos 

Brahms lied spans 30 measures and is written in D-major with modulations to d-minor. The overall time signature is 4/4 (with signature changes to 3/2), and the tempo is indicated as Ziemlich langsam (rather slow), with a vocal ambitus from a to d′. The formal layout, and the distribution of the 4 phrases/verses, can be illustrated as follows:


The lied begins with a single measure piano introduction: Syncopated D-major chords above a right hand melody in whole notes placed on first and third beat. The vocal melody starts out mostly in on-beat quarter notes, hence strengthen the syncopated character of the accompaniment. The first verse phrase (measure 2-4) moves within the notes of the D-major chord, starting from f#′, moving down through d′ down to a.[1] The phrase consists of two irregular parts, as the first three tones are is repeated in measure 3-4. The accompaniment as well as the vocal melody is set in a rather low range, avoiding voice crossing between the voice and the upper part piano. The phrase concludes in measure 4 with a simple cadenza to D-major.

The second verse phrase (measure 5-7)  preserve much of the melodic and rhythmic contour of the first verse phrase – but moves stepwise, not through, broken chords. This results in a phrase that spans a slightly narrower ambitus (a-g′). The right hand chords of the accompaniment, still in syncopated quarter notes, now venture into the range of the melody, playing along with the voice an eighth note behind from the actual vocal melody.

The harmonies (set above a sustained D pedal point) moves downwards from the subdominant G-major, and reaches a repeated chromatic turn from C#-major to D-major, where C# serves as a tritone substitution for the dominant, while highlighting the expressive halftone step from c#′ to d′. The second line reaches its conclusion with a cadenza from the subdominant G-major through a dominant seven chord to D-major in measure 7.
The piano plays along with the vocal melody (red). The g# is swapped between the piano left and right hand, allowing Brahms to continue the stepwise left hand motion (green). The phrase is set above a d pedal point (blue).

Figure 1: Measure 5-7. The piano plays along with the vocal melody (red). The g# is swapped between the piano left and right hand, allowing Brahms to continue the stepwise left hand motion (green). The phrase is set above a d pedal point (blue).

After the second line concludes on f# in measure 7, the accompaniment moves up an octave while fading to pianissimo preparing for the third phrase. This third verse phrase starts from d′ (the vocals highest note) in measure 8, drastically expanding the vocal ambitus upwards, and intensifying the expressive character of the melody.

The third verse phrase closely matches the second phrase, transposed up a fifth, and starting on the third beat instead the first. This rhythmical displacement is “corrected” due to the change to meter in measure 9. But most important, the key changes via a D-dominant and a g-minor subdominant to d-minor in bar 9. This shift in tonal center is a followed by a expressive repeated movement from the secondary dominant E-major to d-minor, highlighting the chromatic movement from g#′ to a′ in the melody (parallel to measure 6). The phrase concludes with a modulation back to D-major, preparing for the short fourth verse phrase. The fourth phrase consists of a downward stepwise and embellished movement from f#′ to d′, and end with a cadenza to D-major in measure 13.

The first stanza is followed by a short piano interlude (measure 13-16). The interlude is composed of three parts: The first two bars consist of a repeated chordal pattern returning to the broken chords of the first verse phrase, first over a D-major dominant, then over a G-major:
The first part of the piano interlude consists of two overlapping chordal pattern.

Figure 2: The first part of the piano interlude consists of two overlapping chordal pattern.

The last part of the interlude steps back down first through a E-major secondary dominant and the through a A-major dominant, preparing for the second stanza entry in measure 17.

The poem’s second stanza is musically identical to the first one – with a few exceptions: In the second part of second phrase, Brahms chooses to move the melody as well as the accompaniment up a bit (measure 21-22). The second part of the third phrase is on the other hand moved down a bit (measure 24-25), slightly changing the expressive balance between the two phrases.


Brahms employs a number of techniques to emphasize the nocturnal character of the poem: The syncopated left hand chords used throughout the piece adds a certain rhythmic ambiguity, combined with phrases of the accompaniment that often contrasts the phrases of the melody.

The combined rhythmic and phrasing ambiguity, coupled with the pedal points used in measure 4-9 and 21-24, gives the accompaniment a subtle character: chords gently moving above a unmovable soft ground.

This uncertainty is mirrored by the interplay between melody and piano, where the piano right hand, while mimicking the song, never actually ‘catching up’ with the song.

The accompaniment is rather uniform in character, keeping the same rhythmic figure throughout the piece. The third verse is the expressive highpoint of the both stanzas. This is achieved via a diminuendo to pianissimo, a change to staccato, a modulation to minor, and most importantly a sudden upwards expansion of the vocal range.

Except for the first verse phrase, the phrases a composed from embellished stepwise and mostly falling lines, a feature that also makes up a significant part of the accompaniment. The exceptions ( the first verse phrase and the piano interlude) uses simple arpeggios. This gives the song a rather simple melodic profile.


2 Responses to “Brahms: Sapphische Ode”

  1. lært en masse

  2. Lennart says:


    Du skriver: “I recently wrote a classic analysis …”. Finns det någon referens till den fulla analysen?

    Vänlig hälsning

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