Composed for four-voice mixed choir, wind instruments and timpani. The Begräbnisgesang, op. 13, and the contemporaneous Ave Maria Op. 12, are Brahms' first attempts to combine vocal and orchestral forces. Both were composed in the autumn of 1858. The Begräbnisgesang was first performed on December 2, 1859, in Hamburg under Brahms' direction, and published in 1861. In his choice of text, which concerns death and resurrection, Brahms anticipated his later Ein deutsches Requiem, Op. 45.
It seems Brahms was more inspired by Michael Weisse's sixteenth-century poem, Begräbnisgesang, than he was by the Roman Catholic offertory text, Ave Maria. In the former work, the accompanying instruments are employed in a manner more suited to the presence of a choir. For example, there are no strings, leaving most of the melodic domain to the voices. Second, the instruments Brahms chose (oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns, trombones, tuba and timpani) all tend toward the dark side of the timbral spectrum, although at times the ensemble sounds harsh. This provides a background against which the voices can shimmer.
The first three verses of Begräbnisgesang receive a ternary treatment in that the first and third verses are set to the same melody, the second providing contrast with a static, single-note tune. A shift from the tonic C minor to C major and a new melody mark the beginning of the fourth verse (Seine Arbeit, Trübsal und Elend). Here, Brahms directs that only half the choir sing as the accompaniment diminishes to bassoons and a single clarinet. The major mode and transparent texture continue through the next two verses, returning to the tonic and opening melody for the last verse, which closes, unexpectedly, on a C major chord. Brahms' text setting is at its most clear and delicate at what were, most likely, the most important words for him-the beginning of the fifth verse, "Die Seel', die lebt ohn' alle Klag" (The soul lives without complaint).