Four Serious Songs

From Wind Repertory Project
Johannes Brahms

Johannes Brahms (arr. Robert Langslet)

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This work is also known by its title in German, Vier ernste Gesänge.

General Info

Year: 1897 / 2017
Duration: c. 16:00
Difficulty: IV (see Ratings for explanation)
Original Medium: Voice and Piano
Publisher: Manuscript
Cost: Score and Parts - Unknown


1. Denn es gehet (One thing befalleth) Ecclesiastes III – 4:13
2. Ich wandte (So I return'd) Ecclesiastes IV – 3:22
3. O Tod, wie bitter (O death, how bitter) Ecclesiasticus, XLI – 2:58
4. Wenn ich mit Menschen und mit Engelszungen redete (Thou I speak with the tongues of men and of angels) 1st Corinthians XIII – 4:11


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None discovered thus far.

Program Notes

The Four Serious Songs represent the only composition published in the last year of Brahms’ life, and were in fact presented to the publisher on his last birthday. They stand completely apart from his other songs, and are virtual motets in the clothing of art song. They are compact, refined, uncompromising masterpieces. The biblical texts are chosen from the pessimistic early chapters of Ecclesiastes and also from the apocryphal book of Ecclesiasticus (or Jesus Sirach). The major-key hymn to love (or “charity”) from Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians is not as “serious,” but it represents the culmination of a progression across the cycle from bitterness to edification, from pessimistic realism to humanistic transcendence. Nonetheless, as in the Requiem, Brahms wanted no misunderstanding, so they are explicitly “serious,” not “sacred.”

The songs were composed during Clara Schumann’s final illness. The knowledge of Clara’s coming death, coupled with a recent and depressing series of deaths among those close to him (some quite young), all contributed to the mood that brought these songs forth.

The prose texts from the Luther Bible do not admit strophic forms, but Brahms is careful to construct all four with clear elements of symmetry and balance. The progression from despair to love across the set is reflected in the fact that each song becomes more “major” than the one before it. No. 1 is completely minor. Nos. 2 and 3 have major-key endings, but that of No. 3 is proportionally larger. Nos. 2 and 3 display some thematic connections in their chains of descending thirds. No. 3 has a benedictory character from which No. 4 must work hard to escape. The songs are meant for bass, made explicit by Brahms through his use of the bass clef (which he almost never employed in the vocal staves of song manuscripts).

- Program Note by Kelly Dean Hansen for The Hartt Omni-Ensemble concert program, 9 December 2017


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State Ratings

None discovered thus far.


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  • The Hartt Omni-Ensemble (West Hartford, Conn.) (Michael Carney, conductor; James E. Jackson III, euphonium) – 9 December 2017

Works for Winds by This Composer

Adaptable Music

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None discovered thus far.