Brahms' Triumphlied, Op. 55, is set for eight-part chorus, baritone solo, and full orchestra with an optional organ part. Composed in 1870-71, the work was published in 1872 and first performed on June 5, 1872, in Karlsruhe. The text is drawn from the nineteenth chapter of Revelation, which celebrates the fall of Babylon.
It seems Brahms' initial burst of energy at the beginning of his work on the Triumphlied was a response to the victory of Sedan during the Franco-Prussian war. This explains the composer's choice of text. Brahms' interest in the somewhat superficial composition, however, was short-lived, and he set it aside for nearly two years. By the time he picked it up again he had decided to dedicate the work not to Bismark, as he had originally planned, but to the German Kaiser Wilhelm I. Not accustomed to writing "occasional" works, Brahms found it hard to complete the Triumphlied.
The Triumphlied is in three movements and its persistent and penetrating dotted rhythms evoke a martial atmosphere, fitting the military victory that inspired its composition. The double chorus, probably inspired by Handel's use of the idiom in his large festive works, presents a polyphonic tour de force. Handel's Dettingen Te Deum, itself a work celebrating a military victory and a favorite of Brahms, was probably the model for Brahms' own victory song.
After an orchestral introduction, the D major first movement opens with a bang as the choir enters with "Hallelujah." Throughout the movement Brahms exploits the antiphonal and contrapuntal possibilities offered by the double chorus. Both techniques come together at the center of the movement as the tenors, altos and sopranos of the second choir sing "Heil und Preis sei Gott unserm Herrn" homorhythmically while the basses offer the same text and melody a measure earlier. All the while, the first choir interjects "Hallelujahs" during the second choir's brief rests. A gentle, tranquillo passage begins as the texture thins to paired voices in one of the choirs, signaling the push toward the end of the movement. The text and modified tunes of the opening creep in through a gradual crescendo that culminates in an animato section with a grand close and repeated "Hallelujahs."
A fascinating passage appears just after the introduction to the second movement. Imitative entries become progressively further apart: the first such instance, setting "Lobet," occurs at a one-beat interval, the second at one measure and the third at two measures. A few measures later we hear, in the second chorus, a canon in contrary motion at the ninth between the bass and soprano voices; the same process happens immediately afterward between alto and soprano of the first chorus. Brahms employs similar procedures throughout the G major movement, which moves to D major at the middle for more "Hallelujahs." After the return to G major, the chorus sings in triplets, "Lasst uns freuen und fröhlich sein," while the winds play a brief segment of the Protestant Hymn, "Nun danket alle Gott" (Now Thank We all our God).
The Baritone soloist makes his first appearance in the third movement. In this finale of great contrasts, the chorus is generally more sedate than the orchestra. After a broad span of mostly homorhythmic writing for the chorus, Brahms shifts to F sharp minor and begins a four-voice fugue. Imitative antiphonal passages alternate with moments of continuous polyphony spread throughout all voice parts. The final "Hallelujah," once again, is reminiscent of Handel.