Brahms’s “Gesang der Parzen” (Song of the Fates), written in 1882, uses text from Goethe’s Iphigenia auf Tauris. Iphigenia, saved by Artemis from sacrifice at Aulis, as a priestess of Artemis has responsibility for the sacrificial death of foreigners who reach the Crimea.
Goethe’s lines refer to the necessity of mankind fearing the gods, the gods’ capricious indifference in bestowal or withdrawal of blessing, and the memories of the aged exile when the Fates sing “in the caverns of night.” The text brings to mind both The Iliad and Wagner’s The Ring of the Nibelung, which was first performed at Bayreuth in 1876. Brahms knew the music of Wagner, owned several scores, both original and published, of his works, and, tellingly, completed his own first symphony in that same year, 1876.
The power of the words of the Fates is an ancient understanding. It is used to great effect in Jean-Philippe Rameau’s magnificent 1733 opera, Hippolyte et Aricie, based on Racine’s Phèdre, in the compelling Trio des Parques in Hades that concludes the second act. “Tu quittes l’infernal empire pour trouver les enfers chez toi.”