“Die Mainacht,” a poem by Ludwig Heinrich Christoph Hölty (1748-1776) was set to music by Johannes Brahms (1833-1897). Brahm’s song tears at the heart through a rising melody which, with or without understanding of the lyrics, gives the listener the sense of a restlessness which grows into sorrow and tears. The climactic experience winds down naturally to the energy level of the opening and ends in a calming, cathartic tonic, like the calm after a burst of tears. Brahms’s music brings Holty’s poem to life, using harmonic color to bring tension to certain words and phrases. The poem is about a man who, when wandering between bushes at night, is reminded of his loneliness when a pair of joyful doves coo their delight, and so he turns away, preferring to cry in the shadows.
To depict the restlessness of the character, Brahms uses the piano introduction to establish a sense of restlessness and lack of direction. The repeated 3-eighth note motif creates an ongoing wandering feeling. The first tonic chord is used at the end of the piano introductions (m.1-2), just before the singer comes in. True cadences do not take place until the end of entire stanzas. This helps the music stay true to the poetry. He does this not only by avoiding an early cadence, but this creates a challenge for the performers, as they must maintain a sense of continuity and direction toward the end of the phrase/stanza. Another difficulty this creates is the likelihood the stanzas will feel entirely separate from one another because of their strict phrase relationships. Brahms uses the piano interludes to maintain movement and sense of continuity between the phrases, returning to the motive used at both the beginning and end, but varying the chords to create the emotional sense he wants to connect the stanzas with. Although Brahms creates a lot of this continuity in his writing, it is up to the pianist, after the singer completes each stanza, to treat the wandering motific interludes with a feeling of continuity.
Brahms uses harmonic mixture throughout the piece, firstly to prepare us for the key change in m. 15. Measure 9 introduces D natural, which not only creates an iv chord to color “nightingale,” but creates a sense of rising, as c# feels like the leading tone to d natural. Also of note, the e natural, the peak in the contour of this line is placed on the word “flotet,” or sings, which the singer could emphasize with a change in color, toward something brighter and more bird-like (perhaps with a vibrato emphasis). These mixture measures create a particular dreamlike sense, where, after the rising sense during talk of nightingale, the contour of “wandl’ich traurig von Busch zu Busch” or, “I wander sadly from bush to bush” rises to the word “traurig” (sadly) and falls in stepwise motion toward the end of the cadence. The performer should emphasize this D natural and the word “trauring” with a color change, and special attention to the dynamic changes Brahms included in the piano staff. Both times “einsame trane” (lonely tear) appears in the vocal line, the approach to the word “tear” is upward and stepwise, with the word “Trane” growing with a crescendo as the piano part grows, as a tear would well up in the eye as emotions intensify, and then falling in thirds, symbolizing the falling of the tear. The harmony through these measures, 29-31, is also a plagal cadence, outlining the words “lonely tear falls.” The plagal cadence, which is often associated with hymns because of being known as the “Amen Cadence” is cathartic hear, as crying is cathartic, and leads into the following piano interlude, which both returns to the original motif from the intro, and leaves us suspended with fermatas as we prepare for the next stanza.
The word “Traubenpaar,” or pair of doves, in m. 17 is outlined by a descending fifth, then sixth, then seventh into the word “their,” and finally, an octave during the word “delight” which very dramatically emphasizes the new change in mood which was introduced a few measures earlier when the Major Key was introduced. This major key helps to color the first half of this stanza with a more uplifting feeling when a pair of doves coo their delight at the character; but this does not last long because the lonely wanderer feels mocked by the joyful birds. Therefore, the music begins to return to minor just as the character “turns away” in measure 22, which Brahms colors with the a# and further intensifies with ascending triplets in the bass clef. Here, the vocalists would have to make sure to connect between the syllables of wen-de mich, which will emphasize this dissonance and bring more attention to both the change of mood in the text and music.
Also of note: the most active piano parts appear to take place during the words “but I turn away seeking darker shadows, and a lonely tear flows,” and “And the lonely tear trembles, burning, down my cheek,” both of the parts of the song which mention and describe actual tears. This suggests that, as the pianist is growing more active and involved, the vocalist should follow suit, as it is their job to portray the words, and must still be heard above the piano. These phrases should definitely be separated from the rest of the piece in some change, whether dynamically, or in use of color/intensity. The descending vocal line at the end of these phrases should be noted when considering dynamics (i.e, one should probably decrescendo, as the score suggests.) Also in the piano part here, repeated descending fifths take place during the growing concluding phrase in measure 44, and a V7/IV (just before measure 45) moves to iv, during the description of the tear. There is no Authentic Cadence until the very end, which is preceded by a few nocturnal eighth note measures, musically bringing us back to the mood that the piano established at the beginning of the piece, creating a sense in the listener of the piece continuing forever.
Flat Six seems to be an important interval as it is the relationship between the two keys involved in the piece, which is emphasized often during the minor parts of the piece whenever there is a d natural. Perhaps the major section of the piece could be considered a large-scale tonicization of the flat six chord. This is reflected on during the last measure of the piece, where the final eighth note in the piano’s wandering motive is a d natural. The pianist could linger a smidge on this D natural to bring out the tritone and reminded us of the brief, but joyful section with the pair of birds, before concluding.