Among the Twelve Songs and Romances, Op. 44, are compositions Brahms wrote for his Women's Chorus in Hamburg, which he founded in 1859. Composed and revised between 1859 and 1866, the Songs of Op. 44 were published in 1866. For four-voice female chorus, they represent only a few of the numerous a cappella works Brahms produced throughout his career.
The twelve songs of Op. 44 are drawn from a variety of sources, including two traditional texts and four (Nos. 7-10) from Paul von Heyse's (1830-1914) Jungbrunnen (Fountain of Youth). Each song includes an ad libitum piano part that is really written as an accompaniment and is not simply a reduction of the choral parts meant for rehearsal assistance.
To composers of Robert Schumann's generation, a cappella writing was something new and modern, growing in popularity at a time when Germany was in the midst of its Handel craze. For Brahms, such composition was a nod to the choral traditions of the Renaissance and early Baroque. Thus, Brahms's a cappella works are permeated with strict counterpoint. The Twelve Songs and Romances, Op. 44, however, are an exception, for they betray the composer's familiarity with folk song. Thus, most of the settings are strophic--we hear the same music for each verse.
Folk song characteristics are especially apparent in several of the songs such as "Minnelied," setting a text by J. H. Voss, with its dance-like 3/8 meter and very repetitive melody. Brahms's setting of "Der Bräutigam" (The Bridegroom), by Joseph von Eichendorff (1788-1857), opens with an arpeggiated chord evocative of a hunting horn and closes each verse with a repetition of the final line. "Barcarole," adapted from a traditional Italian folk song, features solo-tutti contrast in the manner of a call-and-response song, while the simple, melancholy tune of Wilhelm Müller's "Die Braut" (The Bride) is firmly imbedded in the folk song style.
Decidedly non-folkish is No. 10, von Heyse's "Und gehst du über den Kirchhof" (If You Walk through the Churchyard), in which Brahms alternates between E minor and E major, closing the song in the latter key. Furthermore, the two key areas feature different melodic material.
Although the writing is generally homorhythmic, moments featuring independent voices do appear, such as the canonic passage between the second sopranos and first altos in the last few measures of "Fragen" (Questions). Another such passage occurs throughout nearly the entire second half of von Heyse's "Die Berge sind spitz" (The Mountains are Peaked), though much of the "canon" proceeds only in terms of rhythm. Brahms opens No. 12, Ludwig Uhland's "Märznacht" (March Night), with canons at two levels. First, we hear a canon at the fifth between the first soprano and first alto that becomes homorhythmic after three measures. At this point, the same canonic passage begins between the second soprano and second alto, creating another canon (this one much longer) between the pairs of voices.