“Von ewiger Liebe” (Johannes Brahms) – A Guide To Pronunciation and Interpretation

19. April 2021

"Von ewiger Liebe" (Johannes Brahms) - translation, pronunciation guide, interpretation tips


Translation, pronunciation guide and interpretation tips on “Von ewiger Liebe” (Johannes Brahms)


Text and translation

Dunkel, wie dunkel in Wald und in Feld!         Dark, how dark in forest and in field!
Abend schon ist es, nun schweiget die Welt.  Evening it’s already, now the world is silent.
Nirgend noch Licht und nirgend noch Rauch, Nowhere any light, and nowhere any smoke,
Ja, und die Lerche sie schweiget nun auch.   Yes, and the lark is silent, as well.

Kommt aus dem Dorfe der Bursche heraus,   Comes out of the village the boy,
Gibt das Geleit der Geliebten nach Haus,       escorting his beloved home,
Führt sie am Weidengebüsche vorbei,             Leads her past the willow bushes,
Redet so viel und so mancherlei:                   talks so much and of so many things:

„Leidest du Schmach und betrübest du dich,  „Do you suffer disgrace and are you sad,
Leidest du Schmach von andern um mich,     Do you suffer shame by others because of me,
Werde die Liebe getrennt so geschwind,        Our love shall be sundered quickly then,
Schnell wie wir früher vereiniget sind.              As quickly as we were united in the past.

Scheide mit Regen und scheide mit Wind,      Sunder with rain and sunder with wind,
Schnell wie wir früher vereiniget sind.“           As quickly as we were united in the past.”
Spricht das Mägdelein, Mägdelein spricht:     Says the maiden, maiden says:

„Unsere Liebe sie trennet sich nicht!                „Our love does not sunder!
Fest ist der Stahl und das Eisen gar sehr,      Strong are steel and iron very much
Unsere Liebe ist fester noch mehr.                 Our love is even stronger
Eisen und Stahl, man schmiedet sie um,        Iron and steel can be reforged
Unsere Liebe, wer wandelt sie um?                Our love, who could change it?
Eisen und Stahl, sie können zergehn,             Iron and steel can be melted
Unsere Liebe muß ewig bestehn!“                   our love must remain forever!”


Historical background


The poem was not written – as sometimes indicated – by Joseph Wentzig but goes back to a Sorbian folksong which August Heinrich Hoffmann von Fallersleben translated and adapted. It was first published in 1837. Johannes Brahms set it to music in 1864 and later added it to his Op.43 “Vier Gesänge”, a collection of four more or less unrelated songs which, nevertheless, have become some of the most sung songs by Brahms.


Pronunciation and interpretation


We’ll tackle this song line by line and I’ll give you insights regarding pronunciation and interpretation by taking a closer view of the text.


Dunkel, wie dunkel in Wald und in Feld!

The songs starts with the narrator describing a scene outside a village at night.

How beautiful that we have an U here that underlines the darkness described in this phrase!
Nevertheless, make sure it is an open U.
In fact, the only closed vowel in this line is the I in “wie”, all other vowel sounds are open.
Also, bear in mind that the D at the end of “Wald” and “Feld” is pronounced T.

Bind “Wald und in” as well as possible without slurring the words

Strictly speaking, nothing happens in these first lines, the girl just describes the lack of light and sound in “Wald und Feld”: “dunkel”, “schweiget”, nirgend noch Licht/Rauch”.

These are internal thoughts, kind of an inner monologue. When you do this song, imagine what you are seeing, watch these surroundings, then tell your audience.


Abend schon ist es, nun schweiget die Welt.

Contrary to the line before, we have several closed vowels here: the A in “Abend”, the O in “schon” and again the a in “schweiget”. Remember that EI in German is pronounced [aƐ]. (Here you will find a guide on how to sing German diphthongs (like EI) correctly.)

The word sequences “Abend schon” and “und schweiget die” are challenging regarding the legato.
Both first words end with a T-sound (the D in “Abend” is pronounced as T).
To hold the legato, “implode” the T of “Abend” by prolonging the N and then explode the T into the SCH:
“A -ben – tschon”.

It is similar with “und schweiget die”: “un-tschwei-ge-die”.
The only difference lies in the D as first letter of “die” but the process stays the same:  implode the T and head over to exploding the D (“die”).

See the comma after “es”? Make a small caesura there and breathe if you must.


Nirgend noch Licht und nirgend noch Rauch, ja

Again, all vowels, except the diphthong AU are open.

Bind both “nirgend noch” as described above to “nir-gen-tnoch”, making sure that the T-sound is clearly audible. This is a tricky combination and you must take the utmost care that no shadow vowel sneaks in between T and N.

After “Licht” you might breathe if you must but either way make a short break after “Licht”. The same (without breathing!) goes for “Rauch”: make a short break.

“Ja” here is a sound of realization like “aha” or just “ah”. The girl goes from a visual perspective (no light and smoke) to an audible one in the next phrase (no bird sound) and this “ja” is the bridge between both sensory perceptions.


und die Lerche sie schweiget nun auch.

You already know how to combine “und die” and “schweiget nun”.

The I in “sie” and “die” are closed as is the U in “nun” and the A-sounds in the diphthongs EI and AU.

The CH in “Lerche” is pronounced [ç]. To read up on the different CH-sounds in German, head over to this article.

The S in “sie” is voiced.

Although the word ending “-et” of “schweiget” is unstressed, Brahms has set it on a relatively long note. The trick now is, to hold the note on the open E but head over to this phrases emphasis which is “auch”.


Kommt aus dem Dorfe der Bursche heraus

The piano accompaniment changes and builds up more tension and although the next phrase has the same melody (with slight rhythmic changes) as the first one, it must be sung with a very different colour: bolder, stronger, more vivid and excited. It’s partly from the girl’s point of view, partly from an overall view like from a narrator.

Imagine the boy, what does he look like, what does he wear, how does he move? See him before your inner eye and then put all the excitement you have when he appears into the next words.

Except for “der” and AU in “aus” and “heraus” all vowels are open.

Bind “kommt aus” as described above and use the voiced M to your advantage.

“der” can be challenging regarding vowel coloring: either pronounce a one-flap R when you are not quite sure about the vowel (read up more on the different R-sounds in German here) or make the R a vocalic R and pronounce the word [de:ɐ].

All other Rs in this line must be pronounced.


gibt das Geleit der Geliebten nach Haus,

Hold your tension during the next lines. We are zooming in on the scene, first seeing the boy coming out of the village, now we see him joining his loved one and accompanying her home.

Both “Geleit” and “Geliebten” start with a schwa-sound [ə] but do not be tempted to shorten the notes! In fact, you might think of an Ö (only think!) to get the sound right and keep it on this relatively long note but without putting any stress onto it.

Take a look at the combination of “nach Haus”: we have two different H-sounds here, [x] (“nach”) and [h] (“Haus”). Yet, when we combine them here, we must combine the two to [na: xa:ɔs].


Führt sie am Weidengebüsche vorbei,

We are zooming in even further and now we can see the willow shrub the boy and girl pass on their way.

The Ü in „führt“ as well as the I in “sie” are both long and closed, as is the A-sound in “Weiden-“.

If you roll the R in “führt”, it’ll help you get the right vowel sound and lead on to the TS “führt sie”.

Please remember that the S in “sie is voiced; yet in this case it’s quite complicated to form a voiced S after a T. Do not try too hard to make a perfect voiced S but go on to “Weiden-“.

Make sure to speak the Ü in “-gebüsche” short and open by heading on to the SCH-sound, even dwelling there a tiny bit. Also, as before, the “ge-“ is a schwa-sound.


Redet so viel und so mancherlei:

Now we are so close we can hear what they are talking: the boy (for he is doing the conversation now) talks much “viel” and about various topics (“mancherlei”)

The first E in (“redet”) as well as the O in “so” and the I in “viel” are closed, the S in “so” is voiced – and this time you should clearly make them voiced.

“Mancherlei” might be a bit of a challenge at first but when you know that the CH is a [ç] and you might form a vocalic R, i.e. leave it out after a schwa, it’s actually quite easy (with a little bit of practice 😊).


Leidest du Schmach und betrübest du dich,

The boy is speaking now and you must change your singing colour accordingly.
Again, have an image of him in mind.
He’s young, passionate, impetuous, probably agitated because what he is talking about to the girl is not an easy topic:
Will people’s talk influence you to end our love? Are you going to leave me?

“Schmach” is a very strong word, describing shame and (public) humiliation. “Betrübest” as well has two components, sadness and sorrow.

Start the boy’s words with a reasonable loudness, you will have to make a crescendo during the next lines.

The A in “leidest” and “Schmach” are closed, as are the U/Ü in “du” and “betrübest”. Clearly distinguish the CH-sounds in “Schmach” and “dich”.

The succession of “und betrübest” bears the challenge of T-B which must be both audible.


Leidest du Schmach von andern um mich,

The boy repeats the first phrase “Leidest du Schmach” as it seems to be something that has been on his mind for some time, and it seems to be unbearable to him to know that this was the case.

If you can, sing this phrase on one breath.

Bind the words as well as possible but without omitting consonant sounds (like the T in “leidest du”).

Here as well, we have both CH-sounds, the [x] in “Schmach”, however, must be done a bit less than in the line above as here it is succeeded by the F-sound of “von”.


Werde die Liebe getrennt so geschwind,

This line may be interpreted in two ways: 1) he declares that he’d rather separate from the girl than causing her distress. 2) he fears that the girl might separate from him due to people’s talk.

Either way, the agitation increases, it becomes louder (poco più f) and stronger.

Pronounce the first E in “werde” closed [e:], the second one open [ə], which might be a bit tricky to hold on that long note. In fact, we have quite a number of [ə] in this line: “Liebe”, “getrennt” (attention: the second E is [e]!), “geschwind”. Make sure to pronounce them with the right colouring.

The O in “so” is closed and the S is voiced. Here, however, with the preceding T of “getrennt” and the eight notes it’s very hard to voice the S. Thus, don’t put too much focus on it, I don’t think it’s important here. If you can voice it, then go ahead and do so (congrats) but make sure that the legato line is not interrupted.


schnell wie wir früher vereiniget sind.

In this line we have two Rs that I recommend using as vocalic R: “wir” [wi:ə] and “früher”
[frü:ə].

The R in the prefix “ver-“, however, must be made a one-flap R to achieve the right vowel coloring and minimize the glottal onset before “-einiget”.

Like in the line above, we have another case of a voiced S following a T-sound “vereiniget sind”. Here, however, a voiced S is a good deal easier to produce as the “-get” is on a longer note and thus you have time to prepare the voiced S.


Scheide mit Regen und scheide mit Wind

We reach the climax in this and the next line, they’re the loudest part in the whole song (sempre più forte). The boy is calling the elements “Regen” and “Wind”; feel the fierceness of rain slashing into your face and the gusts of wind.

While in the previous lines the boy spoke in a passive voice about separation (“werde die Liebe getrennt” – “love is to be separated”), he now demands an action from the girl: “scheide…” – “separate” (if you feel that way).

Roll the R of “Regen” and voice the W in “Wind” to transport this fierceness to your audience.


schnell wie wir früher vereiniget sind

The pronunciation is described above; I just want you to pay attention with the high note of “ver-“: do not put too much stress on it, the emphasis lies on “-ei-“.


Spricht das Mägdelein, Mägdelein spricht:

The narrator makes a short appearance, announcing that now the girl speaks. The tone has already changed considerably (“dolce”), we have a calmer tempo (“quite slow”) and pianissimo.

Do you see how the first part of the sentence almost mirrors the second part?

“Spricht” (das) – “Mägdelein” — “Mägdelein” – “spricht”.

What a great way to put stress on a statement without becoming loud or using extraordinary words.

Make this statement very neutral. Remember, you are the narrator now.

In “spricht” we have a wonderful example of a consonant cluster: six consonants and only one vowel. Let’s break the vowels down into sounds: the SP at the beginning of “spricht” is pronounced as [ʃp]. Do not linger on the P for to long but head straight over to the R.
The CH is one sound [ç], again leading to the T which you should pronounce audibly but without overdoing it. This is a very quiet passage.

As usual, I recommend practising the word by speaking it very slowly and accurately at first.

The Ä of “Mägdelein” is a closed [Ɛ:].


Unsere Liebe sie trennet sich nicht

Now the girl is speaking and her first sentence makes it all clear: their love is a lasting one.

Sing this in a very simple manner, calm and sweet (dolce), to make a contrast to the boy’s fears and agitation before.

The only closed vowels in this line are the I in “Liebe” and “sie”. All S are voiced (“unsere”, “sie”, “sich”) and the CH are both pronounced [ç).


Fest ist der Stahl und das Eisen gar sehr

The girl becomes more animated (un poco animato) as she takes the firmness of iron and steel as a comparison with their love.

Here, the first three words must be combined as above by prolonging the vowels and using the last letters as beginning of the next word: [fƐ – sti – stde:ə -ʃta:l]

Make the S in “Eisen” voiced.


unsere Liebe ist fester noch mehr

The melody reaches a climax in “Liebe” and becomes sweet again in “fester noch mehr”. The essential here is to NOT become pathetic. Make this very simple, very sweet.

The only closed vowels here are – again – the I in “Liebe” and the E in “mehr”.

I would not make a clear glottal onset between “Liebe” and “ist” but bind them slightly so that the legato line is not interrupted.


Eisen und Stahl, man schmiedet sie um

The girl now corrects herself by saying that iron and steel aren’t that firm, because they can be forged and thus changed in form.

This phrase reflects an inner thought which we can see in the cautious melody. The tempo becomes a bit slower (un poco ritardando), the loudness diminishes to piano and the tune becomes sweet again (dolce). The idea seems to have just arisen in the girl.

Make a small caesura after “Stahl” and bind “sie” and “um” without a glottal onset.

The S in “Eisen” and “sie” are voiced. The main vowels in “Eisen”, “Stahl”, „schmiedet“ and „sie“ are closed, all others are open.


unsere Liebe, wer wandelt sie um?

The girl asks the boy a rhethoric question because for here it is unshakingly true that no one can change their love. You could even imagine a reassuring smile on her face when asking, the way you might look at a child who asks if the sun will rise again tomorrow.

Make a short break after “Liebe”.

The Two W in “wer” and “wandelt” are voiced consonants and help you to keep the legato line.

As in the line above, I recommend binding  “sie” and “um” together.


Eisen und Stahl, sie können zergehn

The girl goes even one step further by telling that iron and steel can even be destroyed (despite the firmness and hardness she took as an example in the first line of her speaking part).

Melody and accompaniment become more animated and from “sie können” onward there is a crescendo until the end of the song.

The Ö in “können” is open. If you are not sure how to pronounce a German Ö correctly, you’ll find an article about it here.

The R of the prefix “zer-“ might either be rolled, flapped or left out and made a vocalic R. I personally would recommend rolling it slightly to underline the animation (and to keep the legato). However, it is completely up to you how you pronounce it here. Try out different versions and look what suits you (and the song!) best.


unsere Liebe unsere Liebe muss ewig, ewig bestehn!

This is the song’s climax which is supported by the long high notes on ”Liebe”, “unsere” and “ewig”.

“Unsere Liebe” is repeated, but Brahms did something very clever here: he put the stress in the first phrase on “Liebe” and in the second one on “unsere” so that it becomes ‘our love, our love’. Purely ingenius!

The same goes for the next line: the first climax is on “Liebe”, the second one on “ewig”.

Make a break (and take a deep breath) before “ewig bestehen”, brazing yourself for singing out the girl’s ultimate truth. (By the way: I heard something very interesting lately about the difference between “infinite” and “eternal”. “Infinite” describes a place within a (limitless) space-time-structure, eternity is beyond a structure and thus without space and time. Be careful, then, when you want to swear “eternal love”, it could really last forever 😉).


Conclusion

This song’s challenge lies in the very different personalities of the three people speaking (narrator, boy and girl).

The narrator is not neutral but describes the setting very intensely and from a very personal point of view.
Yet, he is the quietest part in this piece.

The boy is all agitated and anxious: he knows that people are talking badly about him and is almost crazed with the fear of losing his beloved. He works himself into quite a state.

The girl, on the other hand, is the strong one in this song, unshakable in her love.
Her part shows the greatest emotional variety, going from calm and composed, over reassuring, to the final outburst of declaring everlasting love.


As usual, I add below two versions of this song. The first one is sung by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau:

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Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau

The other is interpreted by Brigitte Fassbänder:

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