On Brahms’s Schicksalslied (Song of Destiny)

Text in translation:

You wander above in the light
on tender soil, blessed spirits!
Shimmering divine breezes
touch you lightly,
like the fingers of one who plays
on her hallowed strings.

Free of destiny, like a sleeping babe,
the immortals breathe;
chastely guarded
in modest bud,
their spirit
blooms eternally,
and their blissful eyes
gaze in calm,
eternal clarity.

But to us is given
no spot on which to rest.
Suffering humanity
fades and falls
blindly from one
hour to the next,
like water tossed
from crag to crag,
for long years down into the unknown.

Friedrich Hölderlin’s 1799 poem, “Hyperion’s Song of Destiny,” was memorably set for chorus and orchestra by Johannes Brahms between 1868 and 1871.  Regarding his treatment of the text, the composer wrote in a letter that “I do say something the poet does not say,” for he did not end his piece with the gloomy, hopeless last stanza, but instead brought back the consoling strains of the opening. Specifically for that last section, he instructed that the flute should play “with great passion,” and the violins “must sound beautiful.” Thus the poem, and humanity along with it, returns to the deathless, peaceful state of the divine.