Johannes Brahms (1833–1897) Begraebnisgesang Op. 13
„Nun lasst uns den Leib begraben“ [mix ch,wind insts] duration: 10' Text: Michael Weiße
choir: SATBB – 0.2.2.2. – 184.108.40.206. – timp
Now complete with piano-vocal score
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Brahms' Begräbnisgesang op. 13 has long been one of Breitkopf & Härtel's standard works. Yet while musicians were able to acquire the score, orchestral parts and choral score, there was no piano-vocal score up to now. This gap is now being closed. The piano-vocal score will be a valuable asset to all choirs learning and performing the work, not least because the piano reduction is conceived so as to sound compelling on the organ as well. In his preface, Ulrich Mahlert suggests that the work of the then 25-year-old composer is perhaps to be seen in the light of Robert Schumann's death and Clara Schumann's own thoughts of death.
“With implacable, nearly imperturbable earnestness, similar to the inevitability of fate, the simple, uninflected tune strides forward in the style of a funeral march. The instruments accompanying the choir are, in type and number, limited to the essential, their sound a mixture of stridency and solemnity. In the Trio there is no gentle lament, no melting emotion, but the comfort which the certainty of erstwhile deliverance from the suffering of life instills in a man’s heart. The melody has an utterly folkloric quality, each note as if carved in stone.” This is how the musicologist Philipp Spitta, a friend of Brahms’, described the Begräbnisgesang [Burial Song] op. 13 in an essay published in 1892. (Spitta used the term “Trio” to designate the middle section, mm. 49–89, which contains strophes IV–VI.) Spitta’s characterization conveys an idea of the powerful impact this work made after its publication in December 1860.
Brahms was only 25 years old when he wrote the Begräbnisgesang. It was composed in November 1858 in Detmold, where he worked as piano teacher, pianist and conductor for Prince Leopold III of Lippe from the months of October to December in the years 1857 to 1859. The setting is based on the text of a religious hymn by the Protestant theologian Michael Weiße (1488–1534), which was first published in 1531. It can still be found in present-day hymnals, where it is expanded by a closing strophe that we first encounter in a Magdeburg hymnal of the year 1540.
In lofty phrases, Weiße’s text spans an impressive arc from the entombment of the body about to return to ash, to its resurrection on Judgment Day, and from the immortality of the enlightened soul to the memento mori for the survivors. Even though it maintains a strict eight-syllable pattern, the sequence of the accentuation within the verses is often irregular and eludes any given metrical pattern. This structure is partly responsible for the poem’s archaic sound. Brahms was applying himself very intensively to the study of early music at the time he wrote the Begräbnisgesang, and the work clearly shows traces of this. Thus, for example, the imitative style of the setting of Strophe V (“Sein Seel, die lebt ohn alle Klag”) recalls the beginning of the soprano and alto duet (“Den Tod Niemand zwingen kunnt”) in Bach’s cantata Christ lag in Todes Banden BWV 4. But above all, Brahms’ textual declamation has been influenced here by pre-baroque mensural music. In this music, the barlines did not serve so much to apportion out accents as to provide a sense of measure and articulation. At several passages in Brahms’ score there are considerable conflicts between the textual accent and the measure. Brahms attempted to counterbalance the misaccentuation resulting from the metrical structure through the melodic line; however, the disharmony vanishes above all when the measures are understood and performed in a more mensural manner, i.e. with a more neutral weighting, less in the sense of a modern meter with accented degrees. This gives rise to a performance style that is both solemn yet light.
As he did with all of his works, Brahms also subjected this piece to an extremely critical examination and revision before having it published. The orchestration originally called for low strings as well. But in late March 1859, the composer wrote to Joseph Joachim: “I have given my Grabgesang a splendid orchestration! It looks quite different now that I have eliminated the unseemly basses and celli.” Brahms may have felt that the stringed instruments were “unseemly” not only with respect to the rigorously designed soundscape, but perhaps also in a functional context. “The Grabgesang goes very slowly and should be sung at the grave,” wrote Brahms to Clara Schumann on 4 December 1858. Strings would not have been suitable for this type of open-air performance. However, Brahms personally somewhat attenuated this aspect when he wrote to his publisher Jakob Melchior Rieter-Biedermann: “We do not (merely) sing at the grave, nor do we sing about the grave, but at the burial and in memory of the burial.” He thus hints that the work can also be performed in the framework of a funeral service and even in concert. Nevertheless, the latter was considered precarious in Brahms’ day. Brahms’ biographer and friend Max Kalbeck opined: “Such a ‘funeral poem’ is hardly at home in the concert hall, where one does not want to be reminded of death and dying without a particular reason.”
As to the motives behind the composition of the Begräbnisgesang, the musicologist Jürgen Neubauer advanced an interesting theory in 1999. He showed that the sequence of the notes in the first measure of the work contains the letter-notes of Clara Schumann’s name C. SCH. in abbreviated form: c–d–es [e flat]–d–c–h [b]. It is likely that Clara Schumann noticed this. On 20 December 1858 she wrote to Brahms: “I was profoundly moved by the Grabgesang; [...] I have had it with me for several days now. I hope to have it played at my grave some day – I mean, you did think of me in this piece. –” After the tragic death of her husband Robert in July 1856, Clara suffered several bouts of despair and expressed thoughts of death several times. The anagram is perhaps a discreet sign that there is a connection between the Begräbnisgesang and the death of Robert Schumann. Brahms highly revered Schumann and paid him his last respects at his burial. He might thus have conceived the Begräbnisgesang as a “tombeau” to the “memory of the burial” of Robert Schumann and, simultaneously, as a sign of comfort and hope for his grieving friend Clara Schumann.
Berlin, Spring 2010