Recording: North German Radio Chorus, conducted by Günter Jena; Members of the North German Radio Orchestra [DG 449 646-2]
Published 1861.

An early masterpiece that is both tragic and hopeful, this unusual work was one of the first published pieces for chorus, along with the contemporary Ave Maria, Op. 12. It was written in 1858, two years after the death of Robert Schumann, and it can be reasonably speculated that Schumann’s memory is behind this miniature Requiem.  It can also be seen as a sort of preliminary study both for the slow marches of the German Requiem in one sense and for the one-movement choral/orchestral works such as the Alto Rhapsody and the Schicksalslied in another sense.   The use of a wind band accompaniment is inspired.  It suits perfectly the character of the piece.  There are no flutes or trumpets, Brahms instead opting for the darker tones of oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns, trombones, and tuba.  He also includes timpani, which will play a very large role (and somewhat anticipate their use in the German Requiem).  The omission of strings was meant to allow for open air performances; he originally intended to include low strings.  They are not missed.  Brahms was still treating orchestral writing with caution at this point.  The entire style of the work exudes archaism.  The minor-key melody of the outer sections is Brahms’s own composition, but it is very characteristic of an old Lutheran chorale.  The old, quasi-liturgical text contributes to this character.  The wind scoring suggests Brahms’s familiarity with the Renaissance Venetian composer Giovanni Gabrieli and his compositions for antiphonal brass choirs.  The middle section in major, setting the fourth through sixth stanzas, reflects his study of J. S. Bach cantatas.  The work’s pacing is superb.  Brahms builds inexorably toward the climax at the beginning of the third stanza.  He reserves the sopranos until the phrase immediately preceding the climax, making their entry extremely dramatic. They drop out again for the brief closing return of the opening music.  The short work has a shattering impact, and should be better known.

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

ONLINE SCORE FROM IMSLP (First Edition from Brahms-Institut Lübeck)

ONLINE SCORE FROM IMSLP (From Breitkopf & Härtel Sämtliche Werke)

Begräbnisgesang (Burial Song).  Text by Michael Weiße.  Tempo di Marcia funebre.  Ternary form with abbreviated return (ABA ).  C MINOR, 4/4 time.

German Text:
Nun laßt uns den Leib begraben,
Bei dem wir keinn Zweifel haben,
Er werd am letzten Tag aufstehn,
Und verrücklich herfürgehn.

Erd ist er und von der Erden
Wird auch wieder zu Erd werden,
Und von Erden wieder aufstehn,
Wenn Gottes Posaun wird angehn.

Seine Seel lebt ewig in Gott,
Der sie allhier aus seiner Gnad
Von aller Sünd und Missetat
Durch seinen Bund gefeget hat.

Sein Arbeit, Trübsal, und Elend
Ist kommen zu einm guten End.
Er hat getragen Christi Joch,
Ist gestorben und lebet noch.

Die Seel, die lebt ohn alle Klag,
Der Leib schläft bis am letzten Tag,
An welchem ihn Gott verklären,
Und der Freuden wird gewähren.

Hier ist er in Angst gewesen,
Dort aber wird er genesen,
In ewiger Freude und Wonne
Leuchten wie die schöne Sonne.

Nun lassen wir ihn hier schlafen
Und gehn allsamt unser Straßen,
Schicken uns auch mit allem Fleiß
Denn der Tod kommt uns gleicher Weis.

English Translation

A Section (Stanzas 1-3)
0:00 [m. 1]--Stanza 1.  Half the basses intone the first line to a chorale-like melody with the bassoons.  The words are somewhat “mis-accented” (normally, “uns” would not be placed on a strong beat), creating the illusion that Brahms is using a pre-existing melody.  The altos, tenors, and the other half of the basses repeat the line in harmony, accompanied by a trombone and tuba.  This pattern of statement and response continues for the other three lines, which together form a complete, closed melody.  The statements and responses dovetail into each other on the third and fourth lines.  Each statement and response is two bars, but the last two of each go into a third bar, creating the “dovetailing” effect.
1:07 [m. 17]--On the last note of the final response (where another “dovetail” would have begun), the instruments begin an eight-bar interlude.  The oboe imitates the horn’s rising line, the trombones providing sonorous harmony and the bassoons playing a drum-like rhythm.  At the end, the timpani itself enters, taking over the drum rhythm from the bassoons and adding rolls to each upbeat.
1:40 [m. 25]--Stanza 2.  The lower voices ominously begin with repeated notes.  When there is motion, it is narrow and brief, always by step.  Against this, a descending phrase in dotted (long-short) rhythm is heard from bassoons and trombone, along with the continuous thumping pattern of the timpani.  A steady crescendo begins in the second line and is greatly intensified in the third, with the entry of the clarinets.  The sopranos finally make their first entry on the fourth line in a very dramatic fashion.  This line swells to a huge climax on the last note, with the descending phrase now wailing from the horns, the clarinets and bassoons crying out in repeated chords.
2:19 [m. 35]--Stanza 3.  The full choir now sings a richly harmonized version of the chorale melody from stanza 1.  The four lines run straight together without the responses.  The third and fourth lines are somewhat altered to avoid the “dovetailing” effect.  The stanza maintains the intensity of the preceding climax throughout, with the timpani, horns, bassoons and clarinets punching out a clashing triplet rhythm against the melody, which is doubled by oboes and trombones.
2:51 [m. 43]--On the last note of the preceding stanza, the full band begins another interlude.  It is similar to the previous one at 1:07 [m. 17], but is reduced to six bars and lacks the direct imitation.  It begins at the loud level of the preceding music, but quiets quickly into a transition to the gentler middle section, the timpani devolving into a murmuring continuous triplet pattern.
B Section (Stanzas 4-6)
3:15 [m. 49]--Stanza 4.  A sudden, but refreshing shift to major heralds the arrival of the contrasting section.  For this stanza, Brahms directs that only half the choir should sing (half of each part).  They sing in gentle harmony, moving together under a consoling melody.  The basses only enter on the third line, anticipating it by a couple of beats.  A low clarinet line in triplet rhythm (going against the main rhythm) is the most prominent part of the accompaniment.  The oboe doubles the main melody in the last two lines, with the bassoons doubling the basses.  A brief bridge passage including timpani echoes the last line.
4:01 [m. 62]--Stanza 5.  The other half of the singers joins.  For the first line, the sopranos sing fragments, with the altos imitating them below in a canon (strict, round-like imitation).  The basses are imitated by tenors in a similar manner for the second line.  Clarinets play in thirds with rising arpeggios in the bassoons.  Trombones join for the men’s second line.  For the first time, the music moves away from C, toward F major in the first line and A major in the second.  Each motion has hints of minor keys.
4:31 [m. 70]--For the third and fourth lines, the altos, tenors, and basses enter in succession without the sopranos, now in three-voice imitation.  This is the most highly contrapuntal passage (vocal lines moving independently) in the entire piece.  The third line moves to E-flat, and the fourth back home to C.  Throughout, a clarinet joins the bassoons on the rising arpeggios, with continuing trombone and tuba background.
4:55 [m. 76]--Stanza 6.  The verse begins in overlap with the basses’ completion of the word “gewähren” from the previous imitative passage.  The music is that of stanza 4, which means the basses do not enter until the third line, so the overlap is “safe.”  Differences from stanza 4 include the inclusion of the entire choir, a louder dynamic level, and especially the fuller instrumentation.  The low clarinet triplets are still there, but now the oboe doubles the main melody from the beginning.  On the last two lines, the oboe joins the clarinets on the triplet rhythm, playing a different, harmonizing line.  The same echoing bridge passage follows.  Thereafter, the timpani are left alone to lead into the last stanza.
A' Section (Stanza 7)
5:45 [m. 89]--Stanza 7.  The minor mode returns and the music of the opening stanza is reprised for the last one, including all four statements and responses, as well as the “dovetailing” effect.  Again, the sopranos are absent.  The scoring is different.  Now the altos present the statements, with the tenors and divided basses singing the harmonized responses.  The alto statements are doubled by bassoon and horn, while bassoons alone accompany the responses.  On the last response, tuba and timpani join, and after the voices end, the trombones and clarinets enter for a final major chord (the so-called “picardy third,” a closing major chord in a minor-key piece).
7:08--END OF WORK [106 mm.]