Brahms’ Liebesliederwalzer, published in 1869 and premiered in Vienna the following year with Brahms himself and Clara Schumann at the piano, remains popular today. In fact, it was popular even then, so much so that 5 years later, Brahms published a second set under the title Neue Liebesliederwalzer Op.65.
The composer is known to have been charmed by the dances himself, confessing to his publisher: “It was the first time I smiled at the sight of a printed work – of mine! I will risk being called an ass if our Liebeslieder don’t give pleasure to a few people”.
Intriguingly, not many composers have written pieces for the 4-hand piano and a (optional) vocal quartet, let alone sets of songs. Brahms, on the other, wrote both sets of Liebesliederwalzer, for 2 pianists and a vocal quartet: the Op.52 of 18 songs and the Op.65 Neue Liebesliederwalzer of 15 songs (with the 15th song using text by one of the greatest, Goethe).
The model is Schubert, and Brahms dances have a zeal and geniality in ex[pressing a variety of moods through key, rhythm and dynamic changes. Each song is, as might be expected, in ¾ time.
One thinks of Brahms and his C minor Symphony and the German Requiem and wonder how the same composer can create such small pieces of (delightful and often light-hearted) charm. Perhaps the British critic Ernest Newman puts it well: “had Brahms never been stretched to the tension of such works as the C minor Symphony and the Requiem, he could never have relaxed to the charm of the waltzes”.
Brahms of course wrote a good number of dances: a number of Hungarian dances for the solo piano, as well as the 16 dances in Op.39 also written for the 4-hand piano. Given especially that Brahms’s vocal ensemble works were mostly choral pieces for choir and organ or choir and orchestra, the Liebesliederwalzer is certainly a rather distinctive piece of music.
Another interesting point is that Brahms is one of the few 19th century composers who thought of vocal ensemble composition as a serious genre, to be explored in serious ways, as we find in the SATB quartets in op.64, op.92 and op.112 of his works. This is a beautiful rendition of Sehnsucht (op.112) by the Chamber Choir of Europe and also of Abendlied (op.92).