The first two lines of the first stanza place us at the scene of the poem: a forest at night (or perhaps a garden in a house), in the moonlight. We hear the voice singing a quiet melody with an also quiet accompaniment, everything seems peaceful. In the following two verses, we hear a new tune; the description of the stage continues, a nightingale sings, and then, we come to a phrase in first person: "Wandl' ich traurig von Busch zu Busch" (I sadly walk through the woods); we can hear how the melody emphasizes the keyword "traurig" (sad). The piano accompaniment remains similar to the previous verses, giving unity to the whole stanza.
In the second stanza, the piano sounds more restless; the poet hears the cooing of a pair of pigeons and we hear how bitterly that sound disturbs him; furthermore, the second verse is interrupted by an interlude that reinforces that feeling. Then, we hear the second sentence of that verse, "aber ich wende mich" (but I turn away); he overreacts and turns around and goes away from there. He endures acute pain when he realizes his loneliness which shows in the arc drawn by the voice, with the peak at "wende".
The next verse, the third, is not the last of the stanza but it might seem because of the way the music ends; thus, the fourth, the very last verse, remains isolated like the lonely tear it portrays. The voice again draws an arc on this tear and it's just like seeing it grow and flow. How many things in that stanza! But let me draw your attention to one more detail: don't you get the feeling that this last musical phrase, when the tear flows, doesn't end as you would expect? Don't you expect it to was to continue?
In the first and second verses of the last stanza, the melody turns back to what we heard in the first, although the piano moves faster. The third verse mentions again the lonely tear and also recovers the melody of the second stanza. But now, we really feel that the phrase ends, because the last verse takes it to where our intuition (or our habit) expects. Just in case we're not enough aware of the overwhelming loneliness of the poet, Brahms adds to the last verse the repetition of the word "heißer" (burning). And the piano slows to die out in the calm that follows the tears.
I wonder if I succeeded in explaining the song; if I totally failed, I apologize but still, listen to Die Mainacht! In this occasion, I wasn't sure about which performance of that gem I should share with you so, I listened to some on Spotify (can you imagine my terrible sacrifice?). I realized that there are many recordings of this song but most of them are over forty years ago old and only a few of them by active singers; I was also surprised that most of the old recordings were sung by men and most of the new by women. Any idea why was that? Well, the point is that, in hard competition with the version of Fritz Wunderlich and the one of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau with Wolfgang Sawallisch, and after hearing many times the three of them, the version chosen is the one of Hermann Prey and Gunther Weißerborn, a recording from 1963.
Just one more thing before ending this post: a while ago we listened to the Lied that Franz Schubert wrote with the same poem, Die Mainacht D194 (performed by Matthias Goerne and Alexander Schmalcz). I think that it would be interesting to listen to both songs, by Brahms and by Schubert, because the feelings they convey are very different; for me Schubert's song is more melancholic than sad, rather a theoretical reflection, while Brahms's song carries poignant sadness.
And now, finally, here Die Mainacht. I hope you like it!
Wann der silberne Mond durch die Gesträuche blinkt,
Und sein schlummerndes Licht über den Rasen streut,
Und die Nachtigall flötet,
Wandl' ich traurig von Busch zu Busch.
Überhüllet von Laub girret ein Taubenpaar
Sein Entzücken mir vor; aber ich wende mich,
Suche dunklere Schatten,
Und die einsame Thräne rinnt.
Wann, o lächelndes Bild, welches wie Morgenrot
Durch die Seele mir strahlt, find' ich auf Erden dich?
Und die einsame Thräne
Bebt mir heißer die Wang' herab!
When the silvery moon beams through the shrubs
And over the lawn scatters its slumbering light,
And the nightingale sings,
I walk sadly through the woods.
Shrouded by foliage, a pair of doves
Coo their delight to me;
But I turn away seeking darker shadows,
And a lonely tear flows.
When, o smiling image that like dawn
Shines through my soul, shall I find you on earth?
And the lonely tear flows trembling,
Burning, down my cheek.
(translation © Leonard J. Lehrman)