On March 26, 1896, Brahms' lifelong friend and champion, Clara Schumann, suffered a stroke. Brahms, who considered Clara to be the "greatest wealth" in his life, was deeply shocked and forced to confront the fact that she might soon die. To cope, he immersed himself in work, completing the Vier ernste Gesänge (Four Serious Songs), Op. 121, by his birthday, May 7, 1896.
Brahms compiled the texts for the Vier ernste Gesänge from Martin Luther's translation of the Bible -- mostly passages from the apocryphon, Ecclesiastes. The four songs represent a progression of thought about, and reaction to, death, and by virtue of their subject hardly require the adjective, "serious." Appearing after a decade in which the composer wrote no original songs, these four songs are truly unique in Brahms' output: they show no trace of folksong influence, they are not in strophic form, and they occasionally adopt a harsh, dramatic quality that is quite beyond his other songs. Brahms refused to have them performed, suggesting that they were of great personal importance to him.
"Denn es gehet dem Menschen" (It is for a person [as it is for an animal]), from Ecclesiastes 3:19-22, focuses on the transience of life. The text notes that people, just like animals, must die. In D minor, Brahms' setting conveys this transience through changes in tempo, meter and texture. The song proceeds with a turning melody, never leaving D minor; a quiet shift to a 3/4 meter and Allegro tempo bring with it denser and more complex harmonies, climaxing with the appearance of a new texture and the question, "Who knows if the soul of a person rises upward?". "Ich wandte mich und sahe an alle" (I turned and looked upon everyone), sets Ecclesiastes 4:1-3. The opening notes, over a stumbling accompaniment, anticipate the beginning of the next song. This is the most recitative-like of the four songs.
The text for "O Tod, o Tod, wie bitter bist du" comes from Ecclesiastes 41:1-2; Brahms alters the opening text, "O Tod, wie bitter bist du" (O death, how bitter you are) to "O Tod, wie wohl tust du dem Dürftigen" (O death, how good you are to the poor) when it returns for the second time. A musical metamorphosis accompanies this textual one, reflecting a shift in attitude from the bleak to the reassuring. Death, although final, alleviates suffering. The fourth and final song, "Wenn ich mit Menschen- und mit Engelzungen redete" (If I speak with the tongues of humans of angels), is drawn from 1 Corinthians 13; it is both a paean to, and a eulogy for, love.