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

Published 1890.

These motets are the last compositions for mixed choir that Brahms wrote.  They are very different from the previous motets, Op. 29 and Op. 74.  Not only are they much shorter, but they also reach to a more distant past for their inspiration.  While the earlier motets had distinctly Bach-like characteristics, the first and third of these pieces, together with the similar Op. 109 “Fest- und Gedenksprüche” (which are often counted as the fourth set of motets) look back to seventeenth-century masters such as Giovanni Gabrieli and Heinrich Schütz.  The double choirs are employed both for antiphonal call-and-response effects as well as for full and massive block harmonies.  No. 2, which has the character of a Bach chorale harmonization in four parts, is distinguished through the use an almost waltz-like 6/4 meter that is wholly Brahmsian in character.  The texts of Nos. 2 and 3 are in fact Lutheran chorale poems, while No. 1 uses a biblical text, framing a passage from Exodus with two fragments of a Psalm verse.  The ending of this piece, which emerges organically out of the central antiphonal section, is choral writing at its most virtuosic.  No. 3 is equally complex, using close exchanges between the two choirs throughout and effectively contrasting the verses through different meters.  The expansion of the penultimate line is also remarkable and rather breathtaking.  In these last sacred pieces, Brahms perfectly fused a profound understanding of the past with his personal romantic style.

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.
  In a departure from the usual practice with biblical texts, the English of the King James Version is not presented here for No. 1, both because of the unusual way Brahms treats the texts and because Ms. Ezust’s translation is a close rendering of the Luther Bible words, which in this case the KJV is not.  Note that the Psalm verse is 69:29 in most English Bibles, but was verse 30 in the Luther Bible used by Brahms.

ONLINE SCORE FROM IMSLP (First Edition from Brahms-Institut Lübeck--Note that soprano, alto, and tenor clefs are used.)
ONLINE SCORE FROM IMSLP (From Breitkopf & Härtel Sämtliche Werke)
No. 1: Ich aber bin elend
No. 2: Ach, arme Welt
No. 3: Wenn wir in höchsten Nöten sein

1. Ich aber bin elend (But I am wretched).  Text from Psalm 69:29 [30] and Exodus 34:6-7.  Andante con moto ed espressivo.  Three-part through-composed form.  E MINOR--G MAJOR, 4/4 time.  Eight voices (two SATB choirs).

German Text:
Ich aber bin elend, und mir ist wehe.
        Psalm 69:29[30]
Herr, Herr, Gott,
barmherzig und gnädig und geduldig
und von großer Gnade und Treue,
der du beweisest Gnade in tausend Glied,
und vergibst Missetat, Übertretung und Sünde,
und vor welchem niemand unschuldig ist.
        II Mose 34:6-7
Herr, Herr Gott, deine Hilfe schütze mich!
        Psalm 69:29[30]

English Translation

First Part--Psalm 69:29[30], E minor
0:00 [m. 1]--In the first part, the two choirs sing as one unit.  In the first presentation of the Psalm verse fragment, the altos of both choirs are absent and the two groups of sopranos sing the same music.  The sopranos begin on an upbeat and are the clearly dominant voice part.  They have a dramatic octave leap on “elend.”  The tenors and basses of both choirs all have independent lines that are full of motion.  Those in Choir 1 have more syncopation.  All parts repeat portions of either “bin elend” or “mir ist wehe.”  The leading sopranos descend and move to A minor (via the Phrygian mode) on a second statement of “wehe.”
0:19 [m. 7]--The fragment is stated again in its entirety.  This time, the tenors drop out for the duration and the basses of the two choirs sing the same musical lines.  The remaining four parts are all independent, both alto parts making their first entry and the soprano parts splitting for the first time.  The sopranos of Choir 2 lead with a highly syncopated motion, overlapping with the men’s completion of the previous statement.  Their entry is followed by the altos of Choir 1, then those of Choir 2, then the massed basses, and finally the sopranos of Choir 1, whose entry is high, prominent, and dramatic.  The counterpoint continues, moving through B minor/major, which then functions as the “dominant” of E minor as the music reaches a pause.  The bass line is revealed to be the same line, transposed, as the soprano line from the first statement.  The sopranos and altos of Choir 2 repeat most of the text.    The Choir 1 altos have two long melismas (many notes on a syllable) on “elend” and “wehe.”
Second Part--Exodus 34:6-7, G major
0:48 [m. 17]--Parts 2 and 3 are in G major, the “relative” key to E minor.  The choirs are now treated as two separate units in an antiphonal (call-and-response) manner.  The strong volume of Part 2 suddenly drops to a hushed, reverential beginning.  Choir 1 intones “Herr, Herr Gott.”  Choir 2 responds and overlaps with more motion in the lower voices.  Choir 1 then overlaps, sotto voce, with the next line of text from Exodus, sung in a chant-like block harmony that is nonetheless quite rich and full.
0:59 [m. 21]--Choir 2 overlaps the ending of the “chant-like” line with another intonation of “Herr, Herr Gott,” which now proves to be a refrain text.  The Choir 1 response with the third Exodus line is slightly stronger than the first one and includes a strong syncopation on “Gnade.”  “Archaic” harmonic motion through the circle of fifths is very strong here.  This passage veers toward the “dominant” key of D major.
1:07 [m. 24]--The overlapping “Herr, Herr Gott” from Choir 2 in D major is now more contrapuntal, with flowing downward motion in tenors and sopranos.  Choir 1 responds with the fourth Exodus line, still in the chant-like harmony and again slightly stronger.  There is motion back through the home key of G major, but the passage ends on B minor.
1:16 [m. 27]--The Choir 2 refrain now begins in B minor, with the sopranos taking the original rising line on “Herr, Herr Gott.”  The lower parts have the flowing downward lines, now with some syncopation, that were heard in the previous passage.  The Choir 1 response, on the fifth Exodus line, is now at full volume, matching the Choir 2 refrains, which have been stronger throughout.  This response is less chant-like, the parts achieving more independence, especially the basses, who have a strong syncopation on “Übertretung.”  The passage moves to E minor, the home key of the first part.
1:24 [m. 30]--The next Choir 2 refrain is suddenly quiet again.  The sopranos have a downward-turning figure and enter after the other three parts.  There is less motion than in the previous refrains.  The final Choir 1 response on the last Exodus line also begins quietly.  It is again chant-like, but it swells dramatically in volume toward “unschuldig,” where the parts again move with some independence.  This response moves to a bright C major, where the second section of the motet and the Exodus text end.
Third Part--Psalm 69:29[30], G major
1:33 [m. 33]--Overlapping the end of Choir 1’s last statement, Choir 2 seems to begin another statement of “Herr, Herr Gott,” but the men enter before the women, and it is very contrapuntal.  Then the voices of Choir 1 begin to enter, altos first (in syncopation), then sopranos and basses together, then tenors.  The soprano entry is high and prominent, moving back to G major.  All eight voices are now present and independent, singing against each other without antiphonal effects.  Choir 2’s intonation merges into the final fragment from Psalm 69.  Choir 1 does not sing the words “Herr, Herr,” and the voices begin with “Gott.”  All voices repeat some fragments of the test (usually “deine Hilfe” or  “schütze mich”) and all sing at full volume.  The Choir 1 sopranos, the Choir 2 basses, and both tenor parts briefly drop out in a staggered manner.  The Choir 1 altos then invert the basic direction of the main contrapuntal line, descending instead of ascending.
1:55 [m. 41]--Anticipated by the Choir 1 tenors, the Choir 1 sopranos make another prominent entry on their highest pitch, beginning another statement of the last Psalm verse fragment.  Choir 2, with much text repetition, is still finishing the previous statement.  The Choir 2 basses have entered with the Choir 1 sopranos.  All Choir 2 voices except the basses then briefly rest.  The remainder of Choir 2 takes up the statement, omitting the word “Gott.”  The music briefly moves to E minor, the key of Part 1.  The Choir 2 sopranos roughly imitate the Choir 1 sopranos on “deine Hilfe.”  The Choir 1 sopranos and both bass parts drop out at nearly the same time as the volume rapidly decreases.
2:14 [m. 47]--The Choir 1 sopranos and the Choir 2 basses enter together.  The rest of Choir 2 tapers off and again briefly drops out.  There is a final motion from E minor to G major.  The Choir 1 sopranos prominently sing the inverted (descending) version of the main contrapuntal line.  All voices sing “deine Hilfe schütze mich” without the word “Gott,” again with various fragments of text repetition.  The top three voices of Choir 2 make an entry on “schütze,” omitting “deine Hilfe.”  At this point, there is a fast and dramatic crescendo, and all eight voices, after different approaches, arrive together on the sonorous final G-major chord.
2:41--END OF MOTET [52 mm.]

2. Ach, arme Welt (Ah, poor world).  Anonymous text.  Con moto.  Strophic form, varied in the third verse.  F MINOR, 6/4 time.  Four voices.

German Text:
Ach, arme Welt, du trügest mich
Ja, das bekenn ich eigentlich,
Und kann dich doch nicht meiden.

Du falsche Welt, du bist nicht wahr,
Dein Schein vergeht, das weiss ich zwar,
Met Weh und großem Leiden.

Dein Ehr, dein Gut, du armer Welt,
Im Tod, in rechten Nöten fehlt,
Dein Schatz ist eitel falsches Geld,
Dess hilf mir, Herr, zum Frieden.

English Translation

0:00 [m. 1]--Stanza 1, lines 1-2.  The voices begin with an upbeat and launch directly into the swinging 6/4 meter.  The accented chord on the word “Welt” adds harmonic ambiguity right at the outset, since it is outside the key of F minor and suggests a motion to E-flat.  The upward melodic motion, emphasizing the whole step on “Welt,” is similar to the Lutheran chorale melody “Es ist genug,” which Brahms would have known.  The remainder of the first line and the second line reach a half-cadence after a melodic descent.
0:18 [m. 5]--Stanza 1, line 3.  The expressive melody is harmonized in the related major key of A-flat.  The line is repeated with the same melody, but new harmonies shift it back to F minor.  The tenors and basses anticipate the repetition and add an internal repetition of “und kann dich doch.”  The word “meiden” is stretched out in the soprano and alto parts with a “hemiola” (implied 3/2 bar clashing with the 6/4 swing).  This extends the repetition to make a three-bar phrase.  All of the previous phrases were a straight two bars.
0:36 [m. 1]--Stanza 2, lines 1-2.  It is a direct musical repetition of the first stanza.  The text allows the accented chromatic chord to still fall on the word “Welt.”
0:52 [m. 5]--Stanza 2, line 3.  As at 0:18.  In the repetition after the A-flat major statement, because of the declamation, the tenors and basses sing the entire line, then repeat “und großem Leiden.”  The sopranos and altos stretch out the word “Leiden,” which rhymes with the previous “meiden.”
1:11 [m. 10]--Stanza 3, lines 1-2.  The addition of an extra line requires a varied strophe here.  After the chromatic chord, now on the word “Gut,” and without special accentuation, the melody continues to shoot upward, emphasizing the word “arme” (“poor”).  The harmony is very fluid and colorful.  The second line is essentially an expansion of the music used for the second half of the first line (after “Welt”) in the previous two stanzas. (“du trügest mich” and “du bist nicht wahr”).
1:26 [m. 14] --Stanza 3, line 3.  Now that the “extra” line has been accommodated, this line can return to the music of the first two stanzas.  It is musically the same as that used for the second lines of the previous two verses, descending and reaching a half-cadence.  The altos enter a beat early on a syncopation.
1:34 [m. 16]--Stanza 3, line 4.  As at 0:18 and 0:52 [m. 5].  The declamation is similar to that in stanza 1.  In the repetition, the tenors and basses add an internal reiteration of “dess hilf mir, Herr” after their anticipation.  The sopranos and altos stretch out the word “Frieden,” which is a near rhyme to the last words of the other two stanzas.  The entire motet has been sung at a strong volume, and this line is now more quiet and introspective.  At the final cadence after the “hemiola,” Brahms directs that the singers should slow and quiet down even more, reflecting the idea of “peace.”  This is further emphasized by the characteristic alteration of the final chord to F major using the “picardy third” in the tenors.
2:00--END OF MOTET [20 mm.]

3. Wenn wir in höchsten Nöten sein (When we are in deepest need).  Text by Paul Eber.  Andante.  Double strophic form (ABAB’).  C MINOR, 4/4 and 3/4 time.  Eight voices (two SATB choirs).

German Text:
Wenn wir in höchsten Nöten sein
Und wissen nicht, wo aus und ein
Und finden weder Hilf noch Rat,
Ob wir gleich sorgen früh und spät,

So ist das unser Trost allein,
Daß wir zusammen ingemein
Dich rufen an, o treuer Gott,
Um Rettung aus der Angst und Not.

Sieh nicht an unser Sünden groß,
Sprich uns derselb’n aus Gnaden los;
Steh uns in unserm Elend bei,
Mach uns von aller Trübsal frei;

Auf daß von Herzen können wir
Nachmals mit Freuden danken dir,
Gehorsam sein nach deinem Wort,
Dich allzeit preisen hier und dort.

English Translation (German text includes three stanzas not set by Brahms)

0:00 [m. 1]--Stanza 1 (A).  For the first two lines, the soprano and alto parts of Choir 2 do not participate.  Choir 1 sings the arching first line in full harmony, beginning with an upbeat.  Over the last two beats, the tenor and bass parts of Choir 2 enter with an imitation, the basses singing a more chromatic line than did those of Choir 1.  The Choir 1 tenors continue with the Choir 2 men, creating a three-part texture. 
0:11 [m. 4]--As the male statement of the first line is concluding, the parts of Choir 1 enter with short, quiet fragments of the second line, resting after “nicht” and “aus.”  The sopranos begin, overlapping with the concluding first line.  Then the altos and tenors (the latter part picking up directly from their previous participation in the first line) come in together, and finally the basses follow.  Then the tenors and basses of Choir 2 join with their own entries.  The tenors of Choir 1 end up repeating the line in its entirety, the Choir 1 sopranos only “und wissen nicht,” and the Choir 1 altos (joining with the tenors) and basses only “wo aus und ein.”  The Choir 2 basses do not sing “und ein,” as they begin the next phrase before having the chance.
0:20 [m. 7] --As the lower three parts of Choir 1 complete their final “wo aus und ein,” Choir 2 (whose women enter for the first time), presents line 3 to the arching melody used for line 1.  The inner harmonies are more active than they were in line 1, and the end of the melody is altered to move toward G minor.  In a reversal, the men of Choir 1 now have the imitation.  Both male parts of Choir 2 (instead of just the tenors) continue with the Choir 1 men, so the texture is four male voices in the imitation instead of three.
0:28 [m. 10]--It emerges that the Choir 1 women will not participate in the third and fourth lines.  The quiet fragmented figures of line 2 are also used for line 4, with rests in the middle of the word “sorgen” and after “früh.”  The Choir 2 sopranos begin the statements, overlapping with the conclusion of line 3.  The tenors and basses follow together immediately after completing line 3.  Then the altos enter with “früh und spat.”  Finally the tenors and basses of Choir 1 have entries of the short fragments.  Choir 2 repeats the line in its entirety as all six participating parts abandon the short fragments, coming together on flowing lines and reaching a C-minor cadence.  The Choir 2 tenors and basses trail behind after an additional repetition of “sorgen.”  The word “spät” is given without the umlaut, and pronounced “shpaht” rather than “shpayt.”
0:42 [m. 14]--Stanza 2 (B).  The stanza is in 3/4 time and in F minor.  It begins with an upbeat, with all eight voices singing together.  Choir 1 has faster notes at first, with the sopranos leaping downward an octave.  They then sing slower notes in the next bar as Choir 2 takes up the faster notes, with its sopranos also making the octave leap.  With the two choirs now at the same point in the text, all eight voices sing together in block harmonies on the second line, and all have independent parts, creating a very rich texture.
0:51 [m. 18]--Choir 1 is now isolated, singing the first words of the third line (“dich rufen an”) in rising harmonies that briefly move to F major.  They then dovetail with a statement of the same words from Choir 2, which moves back to minor and falls back downward.  Suddenly, Choir 1 enters again, and all eight voices sing the words “o treuer Gott” in joyous block harmonies moving briefly to C major.
1:03 [m. 24]--The last line begins in a similar manner to the first, but with a longer upbeat from Choir 1 and a later entry for Choir 2.  The fast and slow notes alternate between choirs, as before, but since there is no more text in the stanza, all of Choir 1 except the sopranos repeats the entire line.  Choir 2 and the Choir 1 sopranos repeat “der Angst und Not,” but the Choir 2 sopranos and altos cut off their first statement before the repetition and only sing “und Not” once.  The rich counterpoint leads to a half-cadence on an expectant C-major chord, where there is a dramatic pause.
1:18 [m. 31]--Stanza 3 (A).  The 4/4 meter returns.  The first line is presented as in stanza 1, with the men of Choir 2 imitating the arching presentation from Choir 1.  The only variation is that the Choir 1 tenors, who sing with the Choir 2 men on the imitation, have a two-note slur on “unser” rather than repeating “an.”  The whole is also sung at a quieter level than the line in stanza 1.
1:27 [m. 34]--The second line is presented in the short fragments as heard at 0:11 [m. 4].  The part distribution is the same, with pauses before “aus” and in the middle of “Gnaden.”  The Choir 2 basses omit “derselb’n” instead the last two syllables, since that would involve abbreviating a word.
1:36 [m. 37]--Line 3 is presented as in stanza 1 at 0:20 [m. 7], with the Choir 1 men imitating the Choir 2 presentation.  As with line 1, it is quieter than it was in stanza 1.
1:45 [m. 40]--Line 4 is presented in the short fragments as at 0:28 [m. 10] in stanza 1.  The rests are in the middle of the words “aller” and “Trübsal.”  Other than the Choir 2 altos, whose initial abbreviated text is “mach uns frei” instead of the last three syllables (again out of grammatical consideration), the distribution of text in all six participating parts is the same.  They again come together on flowing lines.  The Choir 2 men trail after repeating “aller.”  The voices reach the same C-minor cadence and pause.
1:59 [m. 44]--Stanza 4 (B’).  The meter again shifts to 3/4 and the basic key to F minor.  The first two lines are given as in stanza 2 at 0:42 [m. 14], with Choir 1 and then Choir 2 singing faster notes against slower notes from the other group, then coming together in block harmonies for the second line.
2:08 [m. 48]--The isolation of Choir 1 proceeds as at 0:51 [m. 18], but there is a vital difference.  While the sopranos sing the rising line on “gehorsam sein,” the other three voices do not join them in block harmonies, but instead sing the entire line in faster chant-like notes.  They end on the same harmony as before on “Wort,” but the faster notes completely change the character.  The sopranos of Choir 2 sing their descending response on the second part of the line, “nach deinem Wort,” with the lower parts of that choir also singing the faster chant-like notes.  The sopranos add a new “sighing” closing gesture.  In part because the entire line has already been sung, the joyous C-major harmonies are omitted, and instead Choir 1 repeats the descending Choir 2 line (with some differences in the distribution of notes in the lower parts).
2:20 [m. 54]--It is now clear that Brahms wants to extend and emphasize this penultimate line dealing with obedience to the word.  The chant-like presentation, having already been given three times, will be heard six more times, each time against a longer statement of half the line from one voice.  The first four of these are in strict alternation between choirs.  First, Choir 2 takes over from the previous statement, now giving the first arching half-line to its tenors.  The sopranos (of either choir) sing the “chant” for the first time.  The harmonies are slightly altered at the very end in preparation for the second statement, which moves to the home key of C minor and is given by Choir 1, the sopranos taking the second half-line.  The third statement is again from Choir 2, and again with the tenors on the first half-line, but it is a half-step higher, suggesting G minor/major.  Finally, the fourth statement is taken by Choir 1, now with the basses on the second half-line, its sopranos taking the chant for the first time, but with the same harmonies as in the second statement.
2:35 [m. 62]--The last two statements of the “chant” include both choirs.  In both statements, Choir 2 has the “chant,” but in the first, the Choir 1 basses join the faster notes.  The Choir 2 sopranos take the second (not the first) half-line, but now the upper voices of Choir 1 imitate it, sopranos, then tenors, then altos (only the tenors strictly).  This overlaps the last statement of the “chant,” in which only the lower three parts of Choir 2 are singing the faster notes, with all of Choir 1 bringing their counterpoint together and converging on “nach deinem Wort” in C minor/major with some text repetition (on “deinem”).  The Choir 2 sopranos rejoin the lower voices, ending “Wort” before Choir 1 converges.
2:44 [m. 67]--In slight overlap, the last line is finally given to the same music heard at 1:03 [m. 24], but with the choirs reversed, Choir 2 now leading Choir 1.  In the last three bars, the bass parts are reversed so that they are singing their original lines.  Choir 2 (except its sopranos) repeats the whole line, while Choir 1 repeats only “hier und dort,” its men reiterating “hier.”  The C-major close to the line and motet (and set!) on “dort” is rather abrupt and inconclusive, and sounds more like a hanging “dominant” chord in F minor.
3:08--END OF MOTET [73 mm.]