Rinaldo is among the largest of Brahms's works for vocal and orchestral forces. Indeed, only Ein deutsches Requiem surpasses it in length and breadth. Conceived early in the summer of 1863 as an entry in a competition sponsored by the Aachen Liedertafel, the cantata was not completed until June 1868. Although details regarding its genesis are sadly lacking, we can infer from Brahms's correspondence that after a period of intense absorption in the project his interest waned. Moreover, the closing chorus seems to have given him some difficulties; most probably he drafted an earlier version all traces of which have vanished.
For his text Brahms turned to Goethe, whose Rinaldo dates from 1811 and was intended from the start as a dramatic scena for musical setting. Goethe in turn drew upon an episode from Tasso's heroic-allegorical epic of the Crusades, Gerusalemme liberata, in which the knight Rinaldo is spirited away to the enchanted isle of the sorceress Armida. As Tasso recounts this adventure, the knight's comrades set off to retrieve their friends, and, after exorcising Armida's magical spell, they witness the enchantress's vengeful destruction of her luxurious domain. Goethe picks up the narrative thread at this juncture, but in his poem Armida's magic is not quite dispelled; it remains a potent and nagging force in the memory of the hapless Rinaldo, who rejoins his fellow knights only after persistent coaxing. The tale had obvious autobiographical resonance for Brahms, whose painful break with the young Agathe von Siebold in 1859 brought to the surface a conflict between love and duty that persisted throughout the 1860s.
To judge from the reaction of the musical press, the Viennese premiere of Rinaldo on February 28, 1869, with the composer conducting, was a success. Not every listener, however, was enthusiastic. Clara Schumann, for one, doubted whether the new cantata was a worthy successor to the Requiem. Reviewing an 1833 performance, Eduard Hanslick found Brahms's musical portrayal of the title character devoid of passion. Nor has posterity been kind to Rinaldo: it has been shunted to the periphery of the Brahms canon. In part, the work's inability to obtain a stronghold in the repertory can be ascribed to the vagaries of reception history. An informed reaction to the cantata is predicated not only on an understanding of its text, but also on a familiarity with the sixteenth-century epic on which Goethe based his poem; while Brahms may have assumed that at least some among his elitist, bourgeois audience knew the earlier text, such an assumption cannot be made today.
Even more crucial for our understanding of the work is a sense for the context in which it was written. For some writers, Brahms's contacts with Wagner and the members of his circle in the early 1860s constitute a significant aspect of this context. Hanslick was not alone in drawing a connections between Rinaldo's enthrallment to Armida and Tannhäuser's languishing in the arms of Venus. Later commentators have also noted a Wagnerian quality in the declamatory passages of Rinaldo's two arias and in Brahms's placement of the motivic substance in the orchestra during these passages. But Brahms proved to be a highly imperfect Wagnerian. Rinaldo owes just as much to Beethoven's Fidelio and Schubert's incompletely preserved cantata Lazarus as it does to Wagner.
Rinaldo should also be viewed against the background of the aesthetic of opera that Brahms evolved during his frustrating search for a suitable operatic subject, a search extending from the late 1860s through the early 1880s. It is clear from his letters and comments to friends that the Mozartean number opera represented something of an ideal, and that depth of musical content meant more to him than mere theatrical effect. Yet it may come as a surprise that many of the texts Brahms considered for operatic treatment–including Carlo Gozzi's Love for Three Oranges–place supernatural or magical elements in bold relief. These qualities in turn resonate with the textual themes of Rinaldo.
Finally, Brahms's attitude toward the musical realization of epic-dramatic texts was decisively shaped by Schumann. Throughout his career he maintained only the highest regard for his mentor's settings of seven scenes from Goethe's Faust and his melodramatic treatment of Byron's Manfred. In these works Schumann's approach was guided by two chief concerns: fidelity to the original literary source, and the musical reflection of the text's dramaturgy. These factors figure prominently in Brahms's Rinaldo.
As we have observed, Goethe gave a new slant to his poetic source. The struggle between duty to a cause and sensual pleasure in Tasso's poem is enriched, in Goethe's retelling, by a pair of interrelated themes: the notion that memory could be powerful enough to call up a vision of what Baudelaire later called an artificial paradise, and the conviction that the recognition of this vision as a chimera would result in a striking transformation of character. In keeping with his Schumann-inspired aesthetic, Brahms responded sensitively to both themes.
He projects the allurements of Armida's artificial paradise through a variety of textural and tonal means. Rinaldo's hallucinatory vision of the enchantress's realm is associated with orchestral colors dominated by the upper winds and at times supported by pizzicato strings. The otherworldliness of this vision is further underscored by the often tortuous chromaticism of Rinaldo's vocal lines, and by the fluid modulations by thirds that pervade his arias. In contrast, Brahms characterizes the "real" world of the knights through mellow brass sonorities, chorale-like or imitative textures, and a predominantly tonal idiom.
Equally compelling is Brahms's reaction to the intertwined themes of memory and transformation, poetic conceits that find musical complements in the techniques of motivic recall and elaboration. The cantata's principal musical idea, a finely spun-out line presented at the outset, accrues referential meaning only gradually. When heard in conjunction with Rinaldo's opening words ("Ihr ward so schön"), it functions as a sonic metaphor for the image of Armida and her realm preserved in the hero's memory. But when, in the concluding section of his second aria, Rinaldo sees the enchantress as a she-devil and her artificial paradise as a wasteland, his hallucination calls forth a stunning series of transformations in the musical idea: E-flat major is displaced by C minor; instead of pastoral winds we have the storm and stress of angry orchestral outbursts; and wrenching chromaticism imparts a gruesome character to the gentle dips and curves of the original melody. The melodic alterations of the main theme have a counterpart in the harmonic reinterpretations that articulate the moment of dramatic reversal, when Rinaldo views the image of his moral decay as reflected in the diamond shield. The auratic quality of the passage is ensured by distant brass fanfares and a long-held D sharp fanned out over four octaves in the strings. Rinaldo, however, "misreads" the pedal tone as a C sharp, causing the music to shift from the prevailing D flat tonality to a languid F-sharp minor.
This tonal dislocation is am emblem for the pain experienced by the her as he passes from a dream-state to consciousness of the harsh realities of the actual world. Rinaldo's pain persists in varying forms until the end of the work: it can be heard in the plangent strains of his second aria and, soon thereafter, in his minor-mode echoes of the chorus's consoling phrases ("Unglücklicher Reise! Unseliger Wind!"). The wounds acquired through the destruction of an illusion, Brahms seems to say, are never entirely healed.