Recording: North German Radio Chorus, conducted by Günter Jena [DG 449 646-2]

Published 1889

Brahms’s last set of secular songs for a cappella mixed chorus bears all the marks of the late style.  The previous set, Op. 93a, displayed some of these aspects, but the songs of Op. 104 (the stern canon of Op. 93a, No. 6 notwithstanding) are more austere, more concise, and certainly more “autumnal” in character.  Indeed, the title of the last song, “Im Herbst,” (“In Autumn”) is an apt metaphor for the entire set.  Except for the fourth song, the folk idiom is abandoned here, and even that text, which deals with lost youth, has an aura of resignation and regret that fits well with the subjects of the other songs.  Rückert and Groth were certainly poets who were known for their more severe styles.  Musically, the set is characterized by antiphonal writing, where groups of voices (usually women and men) are set in opposition to each other.  The six-voice texture of the first three songs helps to facilitate this sort of writing, most notably in the first Rückert song, which is entirely built upon this antiphonal concept. While the second Rückert setting (No. 2) is brighter than the first, its rather archaic call-and-response conceit is just as austere.  No. 3 brings the antiphonal exchanges even closer together, balancing them with a highly contrasting, much warmer middle section.   No. 4 uses an overlapping call-and-response technique to great effect.  It is in five, rather than six voices.  The major-key contrasting verses exude a resigned sadness.  The last song, “Im Herbst,” is often cited as Brahms’s greatest secular part song.  Using only the traditional four voices, he constructed a piece of both deep melancholy and bright hope, using colorful harmonies that are perfectly placed and never overused.  The motion to major in the third stanza is a cappella choral writing at its absolute finest.  This masterpiece stands at the end of Brahms’s great contribution to secular choral song.

Note: Links to English translations of the texts are from Emily Ezust's site at  For the most part, the translations are line-by-line, except where the difference between German and English syntax requires slight alterations to the contents of certain lines.  The German texts (included here) are also visible in the translation links.

ONLINE SCORE FROM IMSLP (First Edition from Brahms-Institut Lübeck)
No. 1: Nachtwache I
No. 2: Nachtwache II
No. 3: Letztes Glück
No. 4: Verlorene Jugend
No. 5: Im Herbst

1. Nachtwache I (Night Vigil I).  Text by Friedrich Rückert.  Langsam (Slowly).  Two-part modified strophic form.  B MINOR, 4/4 time.  Six voices (SAATBB)
(Note: Op. 113, No. 10 is a canon that also uses this text.)

German Text:
Leise Töne der Brust,
geweckt vom Odem der Liebe,
Hauchet zitternd hinaus,
ob sich euch öffnet ein Ohr,
Öffn' ein liebendes Herz,
und wenn sich keines euch öffnet,
Trag' ein Nachtwind euch
seufzend in meines zurück!

English Translation

0:00 [m. 1]--Strophe 1.  Brahms treats the female and male voices as opposing groups in this song.  The women open with the first line.  The sopranos very quietly sing the narrow melody, which circles around the keynote.  The two alto parts provide solid harmonic and rhythmic support.  As the women sing “Brust,” the men enter in an imitation.  The tenors sing the melody exactly a step higher.  The two bass parts have the same rhythm and contour as the altos, but do not imitate them precisely as the tenors do the sopranos.
0:11 [m. 3]--The same pattern is followed for the second line.  The women enter before the men finish with their statement of the first line.  This melody is more wide and arching, and particularly the supporting alto parts are moving, with rising three-note arpeggios on the second syllable of “geweckt.”  Again, the men make a dovetailing entry, the tenors singing the arching melody a step higher than the sopranos.  The supporting bass parts have less motion than did the altos, with only two notes on “geweckt.”
0:22 [m. 5]--Halfway through the fifth bar, the dovetailing breaks.  The voices are still antiphonal, but there is a different arrangement within each group.  For the third line, the second altos tentatively lead the upper two voices, who together imitate the low altos at different harmonies.  The men enter as the upper voices are finishing the line, this time with all three voices singing a step higher than the women, the second basses leading.  There is a third statement of the line, from the women again, entering as the two upper male parts finish.  The top two parts are now a step lower than their first statement (a third lower than the men), and the sopranos now lead.  The line of the second altos is actually a half-step higher than their previous line, creating a close, dissonant harmony.  While still hesitant, this third statement builds slightly in volume.
0:35 [m. 8]--The men now lead for the fourth line, taking over from the women’s second statement of the third.  They strongly resolve the harmonic tension of the preceding passage.  Tenors are again in the leading role.  In the pattern established by the song, the women make an overlapping entry, this time a full fourth lower in the sopranos.  The two alto parts have a near inversion of the two bass lines just finished and they sing together with the sopranos, hinting at, but never fulfilling a key change to F-sharp minor.
0:45 [m. 11]--Strophe 2.  Line 5 is sung to the same melody as the opening, but now the supporting parts anticipate and sing in front of the main top melody line.  This time, the men sing the line before the women, who still overlap.  The bass parts descend under the tenors, and the alto parts ascend under sopranos.
0:55 [m. 13]--The sixth line is very similar to the second, but with the voice groups reversed, the sopranos imitating the men a step higher.  Now the supporting bass and alto parts are also similar to their counterparts in the first strophe.  The major difference is at the end, where the men join with the women on “euch öffnet” in harmony, fully breaking the chain of overlapping entries that has been going since 0:22 [m. 5].
1:07 [m. 16]--The setting of the seventh line uses the same basic halting, tentative material as the third, but attaches the first word of the last line (“seufzend” ) to it, pushing back the overlapping entries to that word.  All voices sing in detached, hesitant harmony on the seventh line in the surprising, suddenly bright major mode.  Then the overlapping begins with explicit word painting on “seufzend” (“sighing”).  The top four parts begin, and the basses follow.  The tenors hold over as the women end the word, joining the basses in closing it two beats later.  There is another overlapping statement of the word, this time with the tenors firmly part of the lower group instead of bridging the women and the basses.  It moves back to minor.
1:20 [m. 19]--The groups are briefly re-organized for the completion of the last line.  This time, the two altos and the tenors lead the sopranos and the two basses.  The tenors and first altos hold longer notes to complete the phrase with the imitating group, leaving only the second altos to end earlier.  The move to F-sharp suggested at the similar point in the first strophe is now fulfilled, wavering between minor and major.
1:29 [m. 21]--Back in B, the last two lines are repeated.  This time, the seventh line, still in the brighter major mode, is sung in the predominant overlap, with the women leading the men.  The statement of the men, at a higher pitch level, helps avoid the previous motion to F-sharp.  The following sighs on “seufzend” are similar to their previous settings, but this time the sopranos and first altos are the trailing voices instead of the basses, and the second altos are the “bridging” voice instead of the tenors.
1:43 [m. 25]--The completion of the last line (“in meines zurück”) is now elaborated for the closing.  There is no overlap with the preceding “seufzend,” but the men now lead the women in very close imitation.  The sopranos imitate the tenors exactly, but the supporting bass and alto parts are more free.  All voices repeat the words a second time, swelling rapidly to the song’s climax.  The basses greatly lengthen their notes on the second statement to come together with the women.  The tenors alone state them a third time as the soprano imitation breaks.  All voices then come together on “zurück,” rapidly diminishing again.
1:58 [m. 28]--Two more statements of “zurück” from all voices complete the cadence and move, at the last minute, to a warm major chord, becoming even more quiet.  On the first statement, the outer two voices are static and the other four have more motion, the two altos and the first basses trailing.  On the second statement, the men slightly trail the women on the last major chords.
2:14--END OF SONG [29 mm.]

2. Nachtwache II (Night Vigil II).  Text by Friedrich Rückert.  Feierlich bewegt (With solemn motion).  Two-part through-composed form.  E-FLAT MAJOR, 3/2 time.  Six voices (SAATBB)

German Text:
Ruh'n sie? rufet das Horn
des Wächters drüben aus Westen,
Und aus Osten das Horn
rufet entgegen: Sie ruh'n!

Hörst du, zagendes Herz,
die flüsternden Stimmen der Engel?
Lösche die Lampe getrost,
hülle in Frieden dich ein.

English Translation

0:00 [m. 1]--Verse 1.  The sopranos call out with a falling gesture on the initial question “Ruh’n sie?”  The two alto parts and the tenors overlap with the question in harmony.  There is a brief pause. The opening call is then taken by the first basses, and the harmonized response is now from all of the other five voices.
0:11 [m. 3]--The top four voices complete the first two lines in active harmony.  The two bass parts twice pass the “Ruh’n sie?” call between themselves (the second basses an octave lower than the firsts) under this.
0:16 [m. 5]--The last two lines of the verse are sung with overlapping entries.  The second basses are initially absent.  The women begin, and the top two male parts respond.  As the voices arrive at “Sie ruh’n,” the low basses enter between the women and the tenors, the first basses briefly dropping out and postponing their entry until after the tenors, creating a wonderful overlapping series of statements on these confirming words.  All voices except the first basses sing all the words twice.  The second altos add a trailing third statement, and the male parts all repeat “ruh’n.”  At the end, there is a rapid diminishing in all parts.
0:36 [m. 10]--Verse 2.  Hushed, the voices enter in quick succession with the first two lines in the order soprano, tenor, second bass, second alto, first bass, first alto.  After all voices have entered, there is a harmonic shift toward the “subdominant,” A-flat.  They come together on “Stimmen der Engel.”  The first altos and first basses, the last to enter, omit “zagendes Herz.”  The tenors, singing longer notes, omit “zagendes.”
0:47 [m. 13]--For the third line, there is another sudden harmonic shift to C-flat major, a striking sound.  There are several repeated chords.  The three women’s parts begin, followed by the tenors, then the first basses.  The two alto parts, having finished their first statement of the line, begin again together.  The first altos repeat “lösche” and omit “getrost.”  Finally, the second basses come in, along with a second statement from the tenors.  The sopranos, having paused, make a second statement, and as they enter, the key shifts suddenly back home to E-flat.  This rich counterpoint gradually swells and marks the climax of the song.
0:56 [m. 16]--The altos begin the last line as the sopranos and tenors are completing their second statements of the third.  The second altos begin first.  Both parts have flowing lines beginning with a descent.  Then the outer voices, sopranos and second basses, come in on a downbeat.  The second basses establish a solid bass line, and the sopranos, after a long note, follow the flowing alto lines.  The tenors, and finally the first basses make their entrances on a rising figure (a sixth) first heard from the second basses.  The counterpoint continues, with repetitions of “hülle” and “in Frieden,” the latter heard three times each from the women’s parts and the second basses.  The first basses omit “hülle” entirely.  All parts come together on “dich ein” for an exceptionally warm and emphatic final cadence.
1:28--END OF SONG [21 mm.]

3. Letztes Glück (Last Happiness).  Text by Max Kalbeck.  Ziemlich langsam (Rather slowly).  Ternary form.  F MINOR, 2/4 time.  Six voices (SAATBB)

German Text:
Leblos gleitet Blatt um Blatt
Still und traurig von den Bäumen;
Seines Hoffens nimmer satt,
Lebt das Herz in Frühlingsträumen.

Noch verweilt ein Sonnenblick
Bei den späten Hagerosen,
Wie bei einem letzten Glück,
Einem süßen, hoffnungslosen.

English Translation

0:00 [m. 1]--Stanza 1, lines 1-2 (A).  The first line is set to repeated chords with very little motion.  The men follow the women at the distance of only one beat.  The terse groups of two create a sense of restrained urgency.  The men sing a faster dotted (long-short) rhythm on “Blatt um Blatt” to catch up with the women.
0:10 [m. 5]--The next line establishes three levels of counterpoint.  First, the tenors and first basses echo their previous dotted rhythm on “still und traurig.”  Before they finish, the women come in together with a smooth, slightly dissonant rising line in the sopranos.  One beat later, both bass parts echo the dotted rhythm.  The tenors follow, and the first basses drop out.  All voices except first basses arrive together on “von den Bäumen.”  The word is extended on the “dominant” chord.  All drop out except the first altos, who lead directly into the next passage.  The first basses do not sing “von den Bäumen” here.
0:25 [m. 10]--Repetition of line 1, with the men and women reversed and the music accordingly shifted in register.  The women now follow the men.  The only real alteration is at the end of the women’s line, where their dotted rhythm on “blatt um blatt” reaches higher and displays more urgency in the sopranos
0:34 [m. 14]--Repetition of line 2, beginning with another reversal of men and women on the same music.  For the women, the second bass line is moved all the way up to the soprano part, and the parts of the tenors and first basses moved to the altos, thus inverting the parts.  On “von den Bäumen,” the parts come together again, with the sopranos now dropping out.  The tenors retain the original soprano melody, the first altos sing the previous tenor line, and the second altos and second basses go back to their original lines.  The first basses join the seconds, and the “bridging” original first alto part is omitted.  The voices thus stop on the “dominant” chord for an incomplete close.
0:48 [m. 19]--Stanza 1, lines 3-4 (B).  All voices come together for the third line.  It is sung warmly in the relative major key of A-flat.  The same two-note groups are present, with descents in the sopranos, then a narrow half-step rise on “nimmer.”  Second altos and first basses have a lilting line in gentle syncopation. 
0:58 [m. 23]--The fourth line continues with all voices together in a descending line.  The word “Herz” is held across the bar line.  The second altos and first basses continue to diverge, slowing down and cutting off “Frühlings-” from the last word.  “Träumen” is stretched out, with flowing lines passed between the parts and syncopation across the bar line in the women’s parts.  The tenors and first basses finish early and quietly begin the line again as the others finish.  The second altos and second basses join them after “Herz.”  “Frühlingsträumen” pivots the key back home to F.
1:18 [m. 31]--Stanza 2, lines 1-2 (B continued).  The setting of the first line is very similar to the third line of stanza 1.  It is in the other closely related major key based on the home note (F major).  The lilting syncopation is now on top of the texture in the sopranos.  The second altos and tenors, who have completed the previous line as this one began, enter immediately thereafter in syncopation on “noch.”
1:27 [m. 35]--The second line is similar to the last line of stanza 1.  It is thinner, though, with first altos and second basses dropping out.  It is also shorter, as the second basses, along with the tenors, begin the repetition before the last word is finished (the tenors omit the last word from the first statement).  The first basses simply hold out the last two syllables on long notes.  The sopranos and second altos drop out after finishing the line the first time.  The overlapping repetition quiets down and moves back to the minor key.
1:42 [m. 41]--Stanza 2, lines 3-4 (A’).  The first line is set to the same music as the opening.  The women begin as the men are finishing the previous repetition.  The men then enter immediately, following at the same distance as they did at the beginning.  At the end of the line, the men replace their dotted rhythm with a syncopation on “letzten.”  Brahms indicates that this should be much quieter than the opening.
1:51 [m. 45]--The first basses lead into the last line, which is almost entirely new, but somewhat related to the B section.  It is a very expressive, flowing setting with light counterpoint and syncopation.  All voices repeat the first two syllables of “hoffnungslosen” except the first basses, whose lead-in on “einem süßen” is repeated instead.  They briefly drop out, re-joining as all the other voices sing the last word in its entirety together.  The sopranos rise in another syncopation, delaying their motion to the last two syllables, with a “hopeless” descending drop against the last chord.
2:19--END OF SONG [52 mm.]

4. Verlorene Jugend (Lost Youth).  Text by Josef Wenzig, after a Slovak folk poem.  Lebhaft, doch nicht zu schnell (Lively, but not too fast)--Ein wenig gehalten (Slightly restrained).  Alternating strophic (ABA’B) form.  D MINOR/MAJOR, 3/4 time.  Five voices (SATBB)

German Text:
Brausten alle Berge,
Sauste rings der Wald,
Meine jungen Tage,
Wo sind sie so bald?

Jugend, teure Jugend,
Flohest mir dahin;
O du holde Jugend,
Achtlos war mein Sinn!

Ich verlor dich leider,
Wie wenn einen Stein
Jemand von sich schleudert
In die Flut hinein.

Wendet sich der Stein auch
Um in tiefer Flut,
Weiss ich, dass die Jugend
Doch kein Gleiches tut.

English Translation

0:00 [m. 1]--Stanza 1 (A).  In a severe minor key, the altos lead a call and response on a leaping melody that is buoyant, yet unsettling.  The other voices respond to the altos at the distance of a bar.  The sopranos imitate them exactly on the same pitches.  The lower three (male) parts harmonize with the sopranos. 
0:08 [m. 5]--At this point, the lower (male) parts break with the sopranos and continue with their text slightly behind the altos.  Because they sing slower notes, the sopranos “catch up” to them by the fourth line.  The third line rises in pitch and intensity, and the last line introduces syncopation.  This last line is repeated in all parts at a lower level reaching a cadence.  The altos further repeat “so bald” on the keynote to participate in the cadence.  The male parts are slightly offset rhythmically from the sopranos.
0:21 [m. 12]--Stanza 2 (B).  The tempo is marked as a bit slower, and the key changes to the major mode.  The five voices sing in block harmonies, the two bass parts combining before the high point.  A prominent dotted rhythm marks the buildup to the high point at the third line.  For two bars, it is on the third beat, then it moves to the second beat in the last bar before the top.  In the bar (m. 15) of the climax, the dotted rhythm moves to the first beat.  It is then abandoned.  The music diminishes after the top is reached.
0:33 [m. 17]--The last line further diminishes and descends, making a sudden dark turn toward E minor.  The male parts are slightly offset from the sopranos and altos on “achtlos.”  The line is repeated to the same basic music, but it makes a very beautiful turn back to D major for a wistful rising cadence.
0:47 [m. 23]--Stanza 3 (A’).  The material is essentially the same as stanza 1, but the leading voice is now the first basses instead of the altos.  The sopranos are still the imitating voice.  The low second basses remain the same.  The tenors and altos redistribute the previous tenor and first bass parts.
0:54 [m. 27]--The third and fourth lines continue the same patterns, but there are some slight alterations to the material.  The second basses change their accentuation and declamation slightly from stanza 1.  The tenors and altos make some deviations in their transfers of the previous tenor and first bass parts.  The cadence at the end is the same as in stanza 1.
1:08 [m. 34]--Stanza 4 (B).  Lines 1-3, as at 0:21 [m. 12], stanza 2, with matching declamation.
1:19 [m. 39]--Line 4 and its repetition, as at 0:33 [m. 17], stanza 2.  Male parts are offset on “doch kein.”
1:38--END OF SONG [44 mm.]

5. Im Herbst (In Autumn).  Text by Klaus Groth.  Andante.  Varied strophic form.  C MINOR/MAJOR, 6/4 time.  Four voices (SATB)

German Text:
Ernst ist der Herbst.
Und wenn die Blätter fallen,
sinkt auch das Herz
zu trübem Weh herab.
Still ist die Flur,
und nach dem Süden wallen
die Sänger, stumm,
wie nach dem Grab.

Bleich ist der Tag,
und blasse Nebel schleiern
die Sonne wie die Herzen, ein.
Früh kommt die Nacht:
denn alle Kräfte feiern,
und tief verschlossen ruht das Sein.

Sanft wird der Mensch.
Er sieht die Sonne sinken,
er ahnt des Lebens
wie des Jahres Schluß.
Feucht wird das Aug',
doch in der Träne Blinken,
entströmt des Herzens
seligster Erguß.

English Translation

0:00 [m. 1]--Stanza 1, lines 1-4.  The slow 6/4 bars create an almost dreamlike flow.  The voices sing the “autumnal” minor-key harmonies.  Chromatic dissonant notes are isolated and strategically placed, as are accents and syncopations.  The middle voices (altos and tenors) are more active than the outer parts.  At the third line, the middle parts begin slightly earlier than the outer parts.  All voices except the basses repeat the third line.  The basses instead begin the fourth line earlier and stretch it out.  The repetition is the high point, and all parts descend and diminish from there.  There is a strong half-close.
0:39 [m. 10]--Stanza 1, lines 5-8.  The fifth line begins like the first, but the sixth diverges from the second, adding a halting rising scale to the soprano part and similar anticipatory activity (also rising) to the bass line.  The seventh line is again the high point, but Brahms indicates a softer level.  Set in contrary motion between women and men, the notes are longer than in lines 3 and 4.  The last line is repeated quietly and starkly in all parts for a full and rather bleak close, the basses splitting on the last two notes.  The cadence is to an open fifth rather than a full chord, creating a “hollow,” desolate, and somewhat archaic effect.
1:18 [m. 1]--Stanza 2, lines 1-3.  Brahms rather deftly adapts three lines of the shorter stanza to four of the longer one using the same music.  He does this by repeating “die Sonne” where the last words of the third line (“das Herz”) were set in stanza 1.  The upper parts repeat the last part of the third line, which is a deviation from stanza 1, where the last words were not the ones repeated.  The basses still stretch these words out rather than repeating anything.
1:56 [m. 10]--Stanza 2, lines 4-6.  The music is the same as at 0:39.  The adaptation is not as complicated here, since the number of syllables in the sixth line is the same as in the last two of stanza 1.  The repetition at the end cuts off the first chord, however, as the last syllable of “verschlossen” cannot be repeated, so the actual repetition, “ruht das Sein,” loses a syllable.  This abridgement makes the ending even more stark.
2:37 [m. 20]--Stanza 3, lines 1-4.  Brahms indicates a change to the major key here, but it does not happen right away.  The first chord is still in minor, but the emergence of major on the second chord (“wird”) and especially on “Mensch” is like a sudden daybreak.  Still, the first two lines are very similar to the other stanzas.  The third and fourth lines are also similar, but the harmonies are more chromatic.  Only “er ahnt” is repeated.  At “des Lebens,” the high point, there is a significant alteration.  The previously active middle parts hold their notes while the sopranos and basses sing a stark unison descent.  They hold “Jahres,” allowing the middle voices to catch up.  Then comes the familiar strong half-close.
3:16 [m. 30]--Stanza 3, lines 5-6.  The second half of the stanza diverges significantly.  The fifth line is similar to stanza 1 at 0:39 [m. 10], but it begins in F major, the first significant key change in the song.  The sixth line presses forward over a large crescendo, further moving the key up the circle of fifths to B-flat.  Then the line is repeated, striving further upward in both pitch and key.  Another level of modulation, to E-flat, creates a huge surge of intensity as all parts soar to their highest notes thus far.
3:40 [m. 36]--Stanza 3, lines 7-8.  The seventh line descends, but the climax is prolonged.  The motion back to C major, using the relative relation of E-flat to C minor, is very artful and satisfying.  The lower parts repeat “entströmt” as the sopranos soar even higher in an extension of “Herzens.”  The voices come together in contrary motion (the men moving upward, the women descending precipitously) at the end of the last line, which delays resolution by a detour and pause on the chord of A minor (relative to C major).
3:57 [m. 40]--The last line (“seligster Erguß”) is repeated, as at the end of the other stanzas.  After the preceding climax, the repetition restores the quiet, solemn character.  Despite the poignant chromatic notes borrowed from the minor, the resolution to the major key, the fuller harmony, and moving inner parts make this repetition warm and consoling where the corresponding endings to the other stanzas were stark and bleak.  The basses split on the last two notes, as they had done before.  The sopranos avoid a descent to the keynote, lending an “open” character to the final cadence.  The word “Erguß” dies away.
4:19--END OF SONG [42 mm.]