Nänie – Johannes Brahms 

Näine, op. 82 – Johannes Brahms

This is a fresh look at Brahms’s rich and wonderfully complex setting of Schiller’s Nänie. This analysis will be multi part, and as all good studies of choral music should, we begin with the text. 

The poem by Schiller is a classical elegy. An elegy sets up a conflict between that which is actual and that which is ideal. The conflict between the actual and the ideal is what is mourned. The goal of the poem is to bridge the gap between reality and perfection. To offer a new idea that helps reconcile the gap.

Schiller begins this elegy by making his thesis statement:

Auch das Schöne muß sterben!  
Even the beautiful must die!

The conflict is that beauty and perfection are not immortal even though we may want beauty to last forever.  Death is the reality that is in conflict with beauty.

A classical elegy often references several mythological characters and stories which Schiller’s does.


    Das Menschen und Götter bezwinget,
    That which overcomes men and gods,

      nicht die eherne Brust rührt es des stygischen Zeus.
      Does not touch the iron breast (heart) of the Stygian Zeus.

      Stygian means dark or gloomy and also refers to the river Styx. Stygian Zeus is Hades, the ruler of the underworld. Hades represents the ultimate nature of death that cannot be overcome by men or gods. To demonstrate how immortal gods have no power over death Schiller makes allusions to three mythological stories of how gods wanted to rescue an immortal from death but could not.


      Einmal nur erweichte die Liebe den Schatten beherrscher,
      Only once did love soften the ruler of the shades,

      und an der Schwelle noch, streng, rief er zurück sein Geschenk.
      And still, at the threshold, in his severity, he revoked his gift.

      This couplet refers to the story of Orpheus who was in love with the mortal Eurydice. Eurydice dies from snakebite. When Orpheus discovered this he went to Hades and sang of his love for Eurydice. Hades heart was softened by Orpheus’s love for Eurydice and allowed him to go to the underworld to rescue her. There was a condition. Orpheus was not to look at Eurydice until they reached the upper world. Orpheus, perhaps thinking he had been tricked looked back just at the threshold of the upper world and Hades severely revoked his gift – Eurydice vanished forever.


      Nicht stillt Aphrodite dem schönen Knaben die Wunde,
      Aphrodite cannot heal the beautiful boy’s wounds,

      die in den zierlichen Leib grausam der Eber geritzt.
      Which the boar cruelly tore into his graceful body

      Aphrodite, the goddess of love fell in love with Adonis as a youth. Adonis was known for his incredible beauty. He was also a hunter. He was attacked by a wild boar and Aphrodite could do nothing to save him. This story reinforces Schiller’s thesis that “even the beautiful must die”


        Nicht errettet den göttlichen Held die unsterbliche Mutter,
        The immortal mother cannot save the divine hero,

        wenn er, am skäischen Thor fallend, sein Schicksal erfüllt.
        When falling at the Scaean gate he fulfills his destiny.

        Thetis, the mother of Achilles feared his mortality since he was born to a mortal father. She tried to make him immortal by dipping his body into the River Styx. He could not escape his ‘Achilles heel’ and was killed in front of the (Scaean) gates of Troy.


        Aber sie steigt aus dem Meer mit allen Töchtern des Nereus,
        But she arises from the sea with all the daughters of Nereus,

        und die Klage hebt an um den verherrlichten Sohn.
        An begins her lament for her exalted son,

        Siehe, es weinen die Götter, es weinen die Göttinen alle,
        See, the gods weep, all of the goddesses weep

        daß Schöne vergeht, daß Volkommene stirbt
        because the beautiful perishes, because perfection dies.

        Aber – however, At this point Schiller advances his solution to immortality. Thetis, the mother of Achilles responds to the death of Achilles by offering a lament. Thetis is one of the fifty daughters of Nereus who live in the sea. She rises from the sea with all the daughters of Nereus to offer a song of lament for Achilles, her son.


        Auch ein Klaglied zu sein im Mund der Geliebten, ist herrlich,
        To be even a song of lament on the lips of a loved one is wonderful, 

        denn das Gemeine geht klanglos zum Orkus hinab. 
        For what is commonplace descends toneless to Orkus.

        How can the conflict between immortal beauty and the desire to preserve that beauty be reconciled? A song of lament (Klaglied) on the lips of a loved one provides a measure of immortality. The Greeks believed you have not perished if someone is singing about your deeds.

        Thetis accomplishes immortality for Achilles though her song of lament. She could not keep his body from dying, but he lives on in song. The opening measures of her lament are triumphant as the gods rise up out of the sea to sing this stirring melody Brahms has provided.

        For Brahms this goes beyond the references Schiller has provided in the poem. Certainly the association with the painter Feuerbach is obvious.  The work is dedicated to his mother.  This is a lament to remember him. But its meaning transcends the remembrance of one gifted painter. It extends to the meaning and purpose of all art. The human and the divine can meet through art. The bridge between mortality and immortality is art.

        To bring the point into greater focus Brahms uses the piece to memorialize two of his greatest music hero’s. The opening measures are a quote of Beethoven’s Lebewohl (farewell) sonata op. 81. Brahms quotes Beethoven and Schumann in other portions of the piece. These are ways he is offering a ‘Klaglied’ to immortalize his heroes.

        Look for an analysis of the musical form of Nänie in the next post.

        Jeffrey Faux

        Alles was ihr tut BuxWV 4 – Dietrich Buxtehude



        Alles was ihr tut BuxWV 4 – Dietrich Buxtehude

        View a score here: Full Score

        Listen to a recording here: Recording

        Alles was ihr tut, a concerted sacred work for chorus, soloist and independent instruments, is scored for two violins, two violas, cello and basso continuo.  It falls into the genre of cantata, although it lacks real contrast among the sections, a defining characteristic of the form.  The texts assembled by Buxtehude are strongly unified in theme and affect.  That unity may account for the lack of contrast between the sections.  The piece is an example of Buxtehude’s tendency toward straightforward melodies and accessible formal structures.

        The cantata is divided into five sections based on the source of the texts used.  Alles was ihr tut is an exceptional piece compared to Buxtehude’s overall cantata collection.  This is one of only four cantatas where three different types of genres are employed.  Typically Buxtehude will begin and end a cantata with concerto sections based on scripture and use an aria form in the middle.  The chorale form was rarely used.  In Alles was ihr tut he uses all three forms and sets the chorale text with its tune.

        Buxtehude opens with a sinfonia in the style of a French Overture.  The opening chorus, a setting of Colossians 3:17, is in four parts accompanied by strings.  The violas, cello and bass play colla parte while the violins add two more voices to the homo-rhythmic texture creating a trio style accompaniment.  The text in the first half is a one note per syllable texture.  Buxtehude creates a degree of contrast by setting the last line of text in imitative counterpoint.  The setting of this last line is longer musically than the first two lines combined.  He highlights the word danket (thanks) by setting it melismatically.  In returning to the opening sinfonia he frames the scriptural theme for the piece in a concerto in ternary form.  This section is very typical of Buxtehude’s stand-alone concertos.

        The second section sets three verses of a strophic German poem of unknown authorship.  This aria is set for four voices and is similar in character to the first half of the opening chorus.  The text again is set syllabically.  The most significant difference is that the chorus is accompanied by basso continuo with interpolations between the phrases by the strings.  Each verse is followed by a ritornello that has some imitative counterpoint.  Because of this, the basic structure of each of these aria verses is very similar to the opening chorus that was set one note per syllable followed by a contrapuntal section.

        The poetry of these verses comes from the early roots of the pietistic movement in Lutheran Germany.  The poem is very personal. The first two verses are in the first person.  The text is a commentary on the biblical text from the opening section.  The last two lines of each strophe are a summary of the Colossians text.  Buxtehude highlights this by setting the penultimate line of the aria verses twice.  The text of verse two has a lighter more playful character than the surrounding verses.  A conductor may wish to create some contrast that is otherwise lacking in this section by giving this verse to a soprano soloist.  The basso continuo would be adequate to accompany.  The shift from first person prose in verse two sung by a soloist to verse three, which contains ‘us’ and ‘our’ language sung by the choir would be very effective.

        The next section is a solo for bass in the relative minor.  This is the first move Buxtehude has made away from the key of G.  The accompaniment is a basso continuo.  The text from Psalm 37:4 is another exhortation to follow the leading of God:

        Delight thyself also in the lord;
        and he shall give thee the desires of thy heart.

        The melody offered by the bass is constructed from two simple melodic figures.

        The brief instrumental response in 3/2 is much more chromatically charged than any other portion of the work to this point.  It is a contrast to the simplicity of the previous solo.  The instruments are deployed in a higher register, which is startling after the bass solo accompanied by basso continuo. The interlude follows a descending pattern that leads to a brief descending fifths sequence to G major.  The resulting affect is a reflection of the final line of the psalm text, and he shall give thee the desires of thy heart.  The ‘desires of thy heart’ descending from the Lord is illustrated.

        This section then elides into the next, which begins with a soprano solo.  The text and melody are taken from the German chorale Aus meines Herzens Grunde (From my heart now rises).  The soprano soloist sings the fifth verse of the chorale accompanied by basso continuo.  Each phrase is met with a response from the orchestra.  Following the first verse, the orchestra repeats the ritornello that followed the psalm of the previous section, reminding the listeners of the promise of Psalm 37.  The chorus enters in a cantional setting of verse six of the chorale.  The orchestra responds in the same manner as the verse five soprano solo.  This chorale movement ends with a brief instrumental offering in two parts, the second of which recalls the melodic material of the opening concerto that Buxtehude will now reuse.

        A chorale that includes instrumental interjections between the choral phrases a typical method of setting chorales for Buxtehude.  His use of the soloist, chorus and instrumental ensemble as separate entities shows influence from the polychoral style of Italy and Schütz.

        The cantata ends with a return to the opening Colossians 3:17 text set to the same musical material, although shortened. In both versions of the Colossians verse Buxtehude’s setting is fuller, more contrapuntal and makes more use of the orchestral forces in conjunction with the chorus than the rest of the piece.  In doing so he grants the biblical verse privileged status.  Buxtehude makes clear that this verse is the foundation from which the rest of the work flows.

        This cantata may have been written for the fifth Sunday of Epiphany because the Colossians verse appears in the Lectionary that was used during this time by the Lutheran church.  The chorale texts chosen serve to illustrate and comment on the Colossian 3:17 verse, offering a sermon on that text.  Psalm 37 does not appear in the lectionary used at that time.

        Buxtehude did not assign this work to a particular Sunday leaving the possibility that this early cantata may have been written for a special occasion, There is nothing weighty or serious about this work musically.  The lack of significant contrast or drama would make this an appropriate work for a wedding.  The Colossians and Psalm texts, the poetry, and chorale texts would also be very appropriate to the occasion.  Even the use of the bass and soprano soloists in the second half suggest a wedding.

        While the structure of the cantata may be unusual for Buxtehude, this work could have served as a model for the cantatas of Bach and his contemporaries.

        Jeffrey Faux