Johannes Brahms

Vier ernste Gesänge (4), for voice & piano (Four Serious Songs), Op. 121

    Description by John Palmer

    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.

    Parts/Movements

    1. Denn es gehet dem Menschen
    2. Ich wandte mich, und sahe an alle
    3. O Tod, o Tod, wie bitter bist du
    4. Wenn ich mit Menschen-und mit Engelszungen redete

    Appears On

    Year Title Label Catalog #
    2016 Harmonia Mundi HMC 902174
    2016 DG Deutsche Grammophon 002894795516
    2014 Praga PRDDSD 350109
    2014 Oehms Classics OC 883
    2014 Signum Classics SIGCD 369
    2014 ArcoDiva UP 0151
    2013 Maguelone MAG 111157
    2013 Centaur Records 3281
    2013 DG Deutsche Grammophon 002894791780
    2013 EMI Classics / Warner Classics 5099990377
    2012 MDG / Zebralution
    2012 Decca
    2012 Decca 4783589
    2012 Regis RRC 4011
    2012 Decca
    2012 Hyperion CDJ 33124
    2011 Analekta AN298746
    2011 Alto ALC 1153
    2011 Membran 232763
    2010 BIS 1824
    2010 EMI Classics / Warner Classics 5099945635229
    2010 Eroica Classical Recordings 3415
    2010 Decca
    2009 CBC Records 2032
    2009 DG Deutsche Grammophon 477 818-3
    2009 CPO 999840
    2009 EMI Classics / Warner Classics 5099926490
    2009 Ondine 738
    2009 Greenmill 9883
    2008 Analekta 22007
    2008 Berlin Classics 94582
    2008 Brilliant Classics 93554
    2008 Decca 4756060
    2008 SOMM 75
    2008 ATMA Classique 2571
    2008 EMI Classics 208285
    2007 Urania URN 22312
    2007 Wigmore Hall Live 15
    2006 Brilliant 92891
    2006 MSR Records 1163
    2006 Ottavo 98402
    2005 Orfeo D'Or 339050
    2005 Preiser Records 93439
    2005 Orfeo 656052
    2005 Preiser Records 93438
    2005 Cascavelle 2011
    2005 EMI Music Distribution 68667
    2005 Urania 926
    2004 EMI Music Distribution 62808
    2004 Guild Historical 2260/61/62
    2004 Analekta 29906
    2004 Urania 259
    2002 EMI Music Distribution 575203
    2001 MDG 6391010
    2001 BIS 1140
    2001 Preiser Records 89528
    2001 DG Deutsche Grammophon 471030
    2000 DG Deutsche Grammophon 463509
    2000 Arabesque 6725
    2000 Opening Day Recordings 9311
    2000 DG Deutsche Grammophon 463500
    2000 CBC Records 2017
    1999 Phonographe 5039/40
    1999 London 433472
    1999 VAI Audio 1168
    1999 Chandos 8786
    1998 DG Deutsche Grammophon 459012
    1998 DG Deutsche Grammophon 459 067-2GCC10
    1998 Preiser Records 93355
    1998 ATMA Classique 22150
    1997 MDG 0765
    1997 BMG 68660
    1997 VAI Audio 1140
    1996 SFGMC 393
    1996 DG Deutsche Grammophon 449 633-2GJB7
    1995 Preiser Records 89210
    1994 EMI Music Distribution 64820
    1994 Orfeo 140201
    1994 Naxos 550400
    1993 Dorian 90132
    1993 Crystal Records Dist. 120
    1992 London 433802
    1992 Decca / London 433477
    1992 Decca
    1992 Sony Music Distribution 48176
    1989 EMI Music Distribution 63198
    1989 Arabesque Z6141
    Preiser Records 89204
    Music & Arts 661
    Phonographe 5039
    Olympia (Classical/Jazz)
    DG Deutsche Grammophon 415189
    Mezhdunarodnaya-Kniga 417081
    Brilliant Classics 93936
    Pro-Arte Records 3433
    Brilliant 92891/4
    BIS 70
    Brilliant Classics 93554/48
    Accord 200462
    Ars Produktion 368305
    Pilz 442093
    Bellaphon Records 69001013
    Forlane FOR16745
    Erasmus 235
    Profil - Edition Günter Hänssler 5013
    Profil - Edition Günter Hänssler 6050
    DG Deutsche Grammophon 02894775270
    Nimbus 5024
    Mark Custom Recording 4887
    DG Deutsche Grammophon 431649
    Erasmus 41
    Victoria 19073