When Brahms received page proofs of Klinger’s Brahms Fantasy he wrote to Klinger in glowing terms:

Perhaps it has not occurred to you to imagine what I must feel when looking at your images. I see the music, together with the nice words — and then your splendid engravings carry me away unawares. Beholding them, it is as if the music resounds farther into the infinite and everything expresses what I wanted to say more clearly than would be possible in music, and yet still in a manner full of mystery and foreboding. Sometimes I am inclined to envy you, that you can have such clarity with your pen; at other times I am glad that I don’t need to do it. But finally I must conclude that all art is the same and speaks the same language.

(Translated in Frisch, German Modernism, 96)

It is not only the enthusiastic reception that is of interest here, but also the way Brahms writes about relations between the arts. As he looks at the engravings, “the music resounds farther into the infinite” (a Romantic trope), everything is expressed “more clearly” and yet still with “mystery and foreboding.” Brahms envies the clarity that is possible in the graphic arts, but also values the indefinite expression of his own art. In the end, at some deep level, “all art is the same and speaks the same language.” Brahms would later express his appreciation in another form. When he published his last set of songs in 1896, the Four Serious Songs op. 121, he dedicated them to none other than Max Klinger.

The Brahms Fantasy

The modern ear and eye may turn away initially from the overwrought Romantic trauma and apparently unrefined symbolism of Brahms’s music and Klinger’s images. There is much to be appreciated here, though, in the individual moments and in how the texts, songs, and images combine to form larger cycles and layers of meaning. This is the art of the song and graphic cycle, a way of bring together a set of fragments to form a larger whole. This larger whole remains paradoxically incomplete according to Romantic theory; its completion is left to the imagination of the viewer, the reader, and the listener.

The Brahms Fantasy has three sections: (1) a set of five songs with full-page images before and after, (2) a collection of images which relate the prometheus story, and (3) a piano-vocal score for Brahms’s Schicksalslied with images interspersed.

Klinger chose five songs for the first part of the book, songs which Brahms had published separately. They move from a disturbing recollection of old love (“Alte Liebe” op. 72 no. 1) to elemental yearning for the beloved (“Sehnsucht” op 49 no. 3), a song of betrayal and bitterness (“Am Sonntag Morgen” op. 49 no. 1), a mystical merger of nature and the slef which leads to the thoughts of death (“Feldeinsamkeit” op. 86 no. 2), and finally an angry rejecfion of all society (“Kein Haus, keine Heimat” op. 94 no. 5). These songs should be heard in relation to each other, in Klinger’s arrangement, as a sequence of thoughts and feelings in words and music. One emotional state flows into another and all are fragments of a wounded subjectivity.

The songs are framed by two full-page images titled Accorde (harmony or accord) and Evocation. In Accorde we see the pianist, Klinger himself, playing studiously in what might be a bourgeois salon, but the salon hovers on stage over a stormy sea. A woman in white sits next to Klinger and stretches her arms to link the piano sounds with the imaginary world that they appear to evoke. This is woman not as muse but as sympathetic interpreter, a guide to the beyond. Down below is a tormented Triton and rapturous nereids (demigod and goddesses of the sea), a harp, and in the distance, the island of the dead (referencing a famous painting by Böcklin). We return to the same scene in Evocation but we gaze now at Klinger from the front. He in turn gazes at the naked nereid whose outstretched arms send music up to the heavens. The bourgeois salon has been transformed. It is no wonder, for the last of the songs, just before this image, had been a bitter rejection of domesticity and society. Here, Klinger’s fantasy seems to say, is something else.

The second and third sections are linked thematically: both deal with the gulf between the human condition and that of the Gods. Hölderlin’s poem, set by Brahms in the Schicksalslied, ends with a  lament on human suffering and it is just such suffering that led Prometheus to steal fire from Zeus and be bound (Frisch, German Modernism, 102). The final image, after the Schicksalslied, is of Der befreite Prometheus (Prometheus Unbound). How might we read Hölderlin’s text and hear Brahms’s choral setting with this final imagine in mind? It seems that not all is lost, but neither is there absolute redemption. This, in any case, is how Klinger interpreted Brahms who had interpreted Hölderlin. This is how we may begin to fantasize on the Brahms Fantasy, a unique convergence of texts, music, and images.

Bibliographic note: readers interested in the notion of artistic “convergence” are encouraged to consult Theodor Adorno’s essay “On Some Relationships between Music and Painting” and Walter Frisch’s book German Modernism: Music and the Arts, pages 89-91 and 100. Full bibliographic information for these and other sources is provided in the references section.