Brahms’s Ascending Circle: Hölderlin, Schicksalslied, and the Process of Recollection

Nicole Grimes

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The ending to Brahms’s Schicksalslied confounds scholars for two reasons: his setting of Hölderlin’s ostensibly despairing poem ends with an orchestral section that evokes comfort and reconciliation; the postlude transposes the material of the introduction down to C major, ending in a key other than its opening. This represents ‘a rare instance of a composer not merely placing an arbitrary interpretation on words but explicitly contradicting a poet’s statement’. (Petersen, 1983) Daverio (1993) and Reynolds (2012) hold similar views.

These commentators consider ‘Hyperion’s Schicksalslied’ to be a self-contained entity within Hölderlin’s Hyperion. Yet, although the interpolated poem marks the chronological endpoint of the novella, it is intricately bound up with levels of time, and serves a continuous engendering function. The recollection of music in an altered key in Brahms’s postlude is apposite to M. H. Abrams’ notion of ‘the ascending circle, or spiral’. Drawing on musical and hermeneutic analysis of Schicksalslied, on post-Kantian philosophy, on archival evidence from the Brahms Nachlaß, and on literary theory, I argue that Brahms’s ‘eccentric path’ —like Hölderlin’s—leads us away from the original unity of the work in order to restore it, in a heightened manner, through ourselves: the postlude prompts reflection and realization on the part of Brahms’s listener akin to that of Hölderlin’s reader. The greater implication of this is the realization that, using Hölderlin’s poem as a catalyst, Brahms intricately interweaves compositional process with intellectual tradition and philosophical thought to provide a musical manifestation of Bildung in the form of a quintessentially Brahmsian fabric.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-36
Number of pages36
JournalNineteenth-Century Music Review
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 2014


  • Brahms, Hölderlin, Schiller, Aesthetics, Music Analysis

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