Recording: Women of the North German Radio Chorus, conducted by Günter Jena; Jan Schroeder, Hans-Ulrich Winkler, horns; Julia Raines Hahn, harp [DG 449 646-2]

Published 1862.

These four choral songs have the paradoxical distinction of both beginning the excellent line of secular part songs by Brahms and being completely unique within that output.  Written for three-part women’s chorus throughout (except for a brief four-part a cappella passage in the middle section of No. 4), the choral style does anticipate somewhat that of the later a cappella part songs for mixed chorus (Opp. 42, 62, 93a, and 104).  Op. 17, however, is set apart not only by being accompanied, but by the nature of that accompaniment: the exceedingly romantic combination of two horns and harp.  The latter was an instrument to which Brahms would rarely again turn (only in the German Requiem, Op. 45 and in the Nänie, Op. 82, and in none of the symphonies).  He remarked that he was not particularly fond of the instrument when it had to go and “make an effect.”  In contrast, he always wrote effectively for horns, despite refusing to compose for the new valve instrument.  The highly diverse texts lend themselves well to this combination.  The harp’s characteristic arpeggios are prominent in Nos. 1 and 3.  Both of these songs use the horns sparingly.  No 1 restricts itself to one horn in a very specific role.  Nos. 2 and 4 exploit the characteristic natural horn harmonies, known as “horn fifths,” to great effect.  In these two songs, the harp is mostly restricted to block chords.  The choral writing is relatively simple.  Multi-voice counterpoint is kept at a minimum, the three parts singing mostly in block harmonies.  The one notable passage of counterpoint is at the end of each verse in No. 3.  The songs were among several works for women’s chorus written around this time, including the Ave Maria, Op. 12, the Three Sacred Choruses, Op. 37, the setting of the 13th Psalm, Op. 27, and the somewhat later and less substantial Twelve Songs and Romances, Op. 44.  These works owe their existence to Brahms’s directorship of the Hamburg Women’s Choir.  No. 2 is Brahms’s only setting of Shakespeare (in Schlegel’s translation) other than the unpublished and rather minor “Ophelia” songs.  No. 3 is a particularly elegant use of simple strophic form.  No. 4, of near-epic length and scope, is an extraordinarily powerful ballad, making optimal thematic use of the vocal and instrumental resources.

A word about Ossian, the “author” of No. 4.  Supposedly an English translation of ancient Celtic epic poetry, “Ossian” is a 1762 collection manufactured by the Scottish poet James MacPherson.  MacPherson’s work had much credibility and popularity in German-speaking countries, and even figures such as Goethe and Herder were fooled by it.  Fingal was one of the more popular Ossian “epics.” (See also Op. 42, No. 3.)

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.
  The link to the translation of No. 2 contains a literal English rendering of Schlegel's poetic translation.  A further link to the original Shakespeare text is also included.

ONLINE SCORE FROM IMSLP (First Edition from Brahms-Institut Lübeck--small notes from the horn parts are included in harp part so that it can be doubled as a piano reduction)

ONLINE SCORE FROM IMSLP (From Breitkopf & Härtel Sämtliche Werke--small notes from the horn parts are included in harp part so that it can be doubled as a piano reduction)

1. Es tönt ein voller Harfenklang (The full sound of harps rings out).  Text by Friedrich Ruperti.  Adagio, con molt’ espressione.  Strophic form with coda.  C MAJOR, 4/4 time.

German Text:
Es tönt ein voller Harfenklang
den Lieb’ und Sehnsucht schwellen,
er dringt zum Herzen tief und bang
und läßt das Auge quellen.

O rinnet, Tränen, nur herab,
o schlage Herz, mit Beben!
Es sanken Lieb’ und Glück ins Grab,
verloren ist das Leben!

English Translation

Only one horn is used in this song.
0:00 [m. 1]--Strophe 1.  It begins with an introduction showcasing the two instruments and their characteristics.  The horn plays a rising call, to which the harp responds with an upward arpeggio.  The horn call then begins to move back and forth, with the harp responding.  Both instruments gradually move faster.  After the horn’s second, faster oscillation, it moves downward by steps on weak beats, with notes held over bar lines.  The harp plays sweeping arpeggios, moving through colorful harmonies.  The instruments come to an anticipatory point on the expectant “dominant” note and chord of G.
0:40 [m. 11]--Stanza 1.  Lines 1-2.  The three-voice choir enters in harmony, moving together in a slow tempo with some dotted (long-short) rhythms.  The horn drops out under the voices.  The harp moves to purely upward arpeggios, still moving through colorful harmonies along with the voices.  The end of the second line echoes the harmonies and sounds of the introduction.  As the line finishes, the horn enters with its opening call and the harp returns to sweeping, arching lines.  The voices pause before the third line.
0:58 [m. 16]--Lines 3-4.  The top sopranos become more active than the lower two voices.  The harmonies and vocal lines become very chromatic (using notes outside the key).  The horn again drops out, and the harp moves to upward arpeggios.  The voices come back together on the last line.  The top sopranos descend on a narrowly moving chromatic line.  The harp harmonies become more and more chromatic until the final cadence, where the top sopranos are again delayed on the last syllable of “Auge.”  The ending is only a half-close.  The horn enters again with its opening call, which merges into the second strophe.
1:25 [m. 3]--Strophe 2.  The horn and harp begin to reprise the introduction under the completion of the vocal stanza (measures 22-23 correspond to measures 1-2).  Then, marked with a repeat sign, the entire remainder of the introduction is completed.
1:54 [m. 11]--Stanza 2.  Lines 1-2.  No changes in declamation from stanza 1 at 0:40.
2:11 [m. 16]--Lines 3-4.  No changes in declamation from stanza 1 at 0:58.  Delayed top soprano entry on “das” in the last line.  The horn begins as if it were going to reprise the introduction again in mm. 22-23.
2:39 [m. 24]--Coda.  It is very similar to the introduction, but after the horn’s second (faster) oscillation, its downward descent, still with notes held over bar lines, becomes narrower, moving in half-steps instead of whole-steps within the scale.  The harp harmonies are changed accordingly.  The ending, with minor-key tinges, moves seamlessly to the same dominant harmony as at the end of the introduction.  The song in fact ends on this harmony, creating a half-close and a sense of longing and incompletion corresponding to the anxious and sad nature of the second stanza text.
3:23--END OF SONG [31 mm.]

2. Lied von Shakespeare (Song from Shakespeare).  Text by August Wilhelm Schlegel, after William Shakespeare from Twelfth Night, Act II, Scene 4.  Andante.  Strophic form, with embedded binary form within strophes.  E-FLAT MAJOR, 2/4 time.

German Text:
Komm herbei, komm herbei, Tod,
Und versenk’ in Cypressen den Leib;
Lass mich frei, lass mich frei, Not,
Mich erschlägt ein holdseliges Weib.
Mit Rosmarin mein Leichenhemd,
O bestellt es!
Ob Lieb’ ans Herz mir tötlich kommt,
Treu’ hält es.

Keine Blum, keine Blum süß,
Sei gestreut auf den schwärzlichen Sarg;
Keine Seel’, keine Seel’ grüß
mein Gebein, wo die Erd’ es verbarg.
Um Ach und Weh zu wenden ab’,
bergt alleine
mich, wo kein Treuer wall’ ans Grab
und weine.

English Translation of Schlegel's Poetic Rendering
Original Shakespeare Text

0:00 [m. 1]--First stanza.  Lines 1-4 (Part 1).  The music has an archaic flavor.  The two horns begin with characteristic harmonies (so-called “horn fifths”) on an upbeat.  They continue as the voices enter in harmony on line 1.  This musical line is the most important in the song.  In the second line, the harp, with fuller chords, takes over from the horns in accompanying the voices.  The characteristic dotted (long-short) rhythm is prominent in both lines.  The pattern is repeated for lines 3-4, but the harmony is changed as line 4 moves higher and changes keys, going to G major.  This is the high point of the strophe.
0:35 [m. 15]--Lines 5-6 (Part 2).  The horns lead in on an octave G in dotted rhythm.  They alternate with the harp on the same octave in the same rhythm.  The voices enter under the first harp statement, singing line 5 on a somewhat smoother line in G major.  The horns hold their last note as the harp plays the rhythm.  The alternation happens twice (four total statements of the dotted-rhythm octaves).  On line 6, the music moves abruptly back to E-flat as the voices sing the opening musical line in abbreviated form.  The horns play in harmony after the last harp octaves, and the harp follows them, everyone coming together. 
0:49 [m. 21]--Lines 7-8 (Part 2 continued).  Similar to lines 5-6, they begin in G major, but the horn lead-in is conflated, with the voices entering under them instead of the harp.  The pattern is thus reversed from line 5, and there are a total of only three statements of the dotted-rhythm octaves instead of four.  Line 8 is like line 6, but the horns continue in harmony after their own octaves instead of following the harp, and the dotted rhythm is removed because there is one syllable less.  A quiet variation of the line follows with the main melody moving down to the altos and the harp playing in a lower register for its final chords.
1:08 [m. 1 (28)]--Second stanza.  Lines 1-4 as in the first stanza, with no changes in declamation.
1:43 [m. 15]--Lines 5-6 as in the first stanza, with dotted rhythm on line 6.
1:57 [m. 21]--Lines 7-8.  As in the first stanza, line 8 has one less syllable than line 6, so the omission of the dotted rhythm is carried from that stanza, as is the quiet variation to close the stanza and the song.
2:22--END OF SONG [28 mm.]

3. Der Gärtner (The Gardner).  Text by Josef Karl Benedikt von Eichendorff.  Allegretto.  Strophic form with coda.  E-FLAT MAJOR, 6/8 time.

German Text:
Wohin ich geh’ und schaue,
In Feld und Wald und Tal,
Vom Berg hinab in die Aue;
Viel schöne, hohe Fraue,
Grüß ich dich tausendmal.

In meinem Garten find’ ich
Viel’ Blumen schön und fein,
Viel’ Kränze wohl draus wind’ ich
Und tausend Gedanken bind’ ich
Und Grüße mit darein.

Ihr darf ich keinen reichen,
Sie ist zu hoch und schön,
Die müssen alle verbleichen,
Die Liebe nur ohnegleichen
Bleibt ewig im Herzen stehn.

Ich schein’ wohl froher Dinge
Und schaffe auf und ab,
Und, ob das Herz zerspringe,
Ich grabe fort und singe,
Und grab mir bald mein Grab.

English Translation

0:00 [m. 1]--Strophe (stanza) 1, lines 1-2.  The harp begins with a two-bar introduction establishing its steadily flowing, arching arpeggios that will continue through line 4.  The voices enter with a narrow, chromatic, harmonized line that is three bars long, the horns adding harmonized two-note interjections to the second and third bars.  Line 2 is an exact musical repetition of line 1, but with one less syllable.
0:14 [m. 9]--Lines 3-4.  These two lines provide contrast, line 3 moving briefly away from the key and line 4 bringing the voices back with distinctive, sighing two-chord groups.  The last of these groups lengthens the first chord and the arching harp line under both chords.  There is a slight buildup of volume and tension in line 4.  The horns are absent from line 3, but play with the two-chord groups in line 4.
0:24 [m. 16]--Line 5.  The line is sung three times.  The first time is a culmination of the buildup from line 4, the top sopranos reaching a high note on a climax.  The harp groups now move only upward instead of arching.  The horns enter at the climax.  The second statement eases tension, the voices moving downward on a slightly chromatic line.  The harp arpeggios also come steadily down, changing their direction to a downward motion as the line is completed.  The horns play under this second statement.  The third statement extends the line by placing several notes on various syllables in different voice parts.  The tempo slows, the harp drops out, and the voices sing in counterpoint over the horns until the harp re-enters with rising lines.  It does this as the top sopranos reach their highest note and the tempo speeds up again.
0:42 [m. 25]--As the voices reach their emphatic cadence on the last statement of line 5, the harp plays the introduction heard at the beginning.  It is extended after this to six bars, with the horns playing three harmonized two-note groups (the first two identical) over new arpeggios.  A more extended harp arpeggio under the third of these (which is lengthened) leads into the next strophe.
0:50 [m. 3 (30)]--Strophe (stanza) 2, lines 1-2, beginning with the vocal entry after the extended bridge from strophe 1.  Continuation as in strophe 1.
1:00 [m. 9]--Lines 3-4, as in strophe 1, but with changes in declamation and rhythm to accommodate one less syllable in line 3 and one more syllable in line 4.
1:10 [m. 16]--Line 5.  Three statements, as in strophe 1.
1:28 [m. 25]--Expanded introduction/bridge passage, as at 0:42.
1:36 [m. 3 (30)]--Strophe (stanza) 3, lines 1-2, beginning with vocal entry after the bridge, as in strophe 2.
1:45 [m. 9]--Lines 3-4.  Declamation of line 3 is as in strophe 1, that of line 4 is as in strophe 2, since both lines have the greater number of syllables.
1:56 [m. 16]--Line 5.  Three statements, as in previous strophes, but all must be slightly altered in declamation since there is an extra syllable.
2:14 [m. 25]--Expanded introduction/bridge passage, as at 0:42 and 1:28.
2:23 [m. 3 (30)]--Strophe (stanza) 4, lines 1-2, as in strophes 2 and 3.
2:32 [m. 9]--Lines 3-4.  Declamation of line 3 is as in strophe 2, that of line 4 as in strophe 1.  Both lines have the smaller number of syllables.  The declamation of the combined lines is thus different in every strophe.
2:43 [m. 16]--Line 5.  Three statements, as in strophes 1 and 2, without an extra syllable.
3:02 [m. 25]--Coda.  It begins with the first four bars of the expanded bridge passage from previous strophes.
3:08 [m. 29]--Here, the coda breaks from the bridge passage.  The lengthened third two-note harmonized horn group and harp arpeggio are replaced by two more identical short groups at a lower level.  The horns then play a very low octave E-flat, the top horn moving down to D after a full bar, creating a lengthened group.  This is followed by a final, long-held, low horn octave on E-flat.  Under both of these final horn figures, the harp plays more of its short, arching arpeggios until the final, very quiet chord.
3:26--END OF SONG [35 mm.]
NOTE: The complete edition edited by Eusebius Mandyczewski labels the 4th ending after strophe 4, where the coda breaks away from the bridge, as beginning with measure 31.  This should properly be measure 29, as it replaces, not follows, the last two bars of the bridge in the first three endings, which are labeled as mm. 29-30.  The correct number of the final measure is thus 35, not 37, as indicated in the Mandyczewski score.

4. Gesang aus Fingal (Song from “Fingal”).  Anonymous translation of an English text by Ossian (James MacPherson).  Andante.  Ternary form with abbreviated return (ABA').  C MINOR, 2/4 time.

German Text:
Wein’ an den Felsen, der brausenden Winde
weine, o Mädchen von Inistore!
Beug’ über die Wogen dein schönes Haupt,
lieblicher du als der Geist der Berge,
wenn er um Mittag in einem Sonnenstrahl
über das Schweigen von Morven fährt.

Er ist gefallen, dein Jüngling liegt darnieder,
bleich sank er unter Cuthullins Schwert.
Nimmer wird Mut deinen Liebling mehr reizen,
das Blut von Königen zu vergießen.

Trenar, der liebliche Trenar starb
O Mädchen von Inistore!
Seine grauen Hunde heulen daheim,
sie sehn seinen Geist vorüberziehn.
Sein Bogen hängt ungespannt in der Halle,
nichts regt sich auf der Haide der Rehe.

Original English Ossian/MacPherson Text
NOTE: The anonymous German translation set by Brahms does not appear on this page, but a link to the text does.  The German translation is surprisingly accurate.  There are two major differences: (1) the German text renders the last line of stanza 2 as “to shed the blood of kings” instead of “to match the blood of kings” and (2) The last line of stanza 3 is rendered in the German text as “no sound is on the heath of his hinds (stags)” instead of “no sound is in the hall of his hinds.”

A Section (Stanzas 1-2)
0:00 [m. 1]--Introduction from the horns, playing in their typical “horn fifth” harmony.  They anticipate the main vocal phrase of the A section.  It is a solemn, archaic, quiet, dirge-like melody with an incessant, steady long-short-short rhythm (interrupted at the end of each line by two beats of “straight“ rhythm).  At the end, as a lead-in to the vocal entry, the horns begin to play the repeated, march-like octaves they will adopt under the voices.
0:21 [m. 9]--Stanza 1, lines 1-2.  The voices enter, singing these two lines to the music of the horn introduction, in fuller harmony.  The horns play march-like octaves under the voices.  They steadily remain on “C” under the first line, but move to other notes during the second.
0:40 [m. 17]--Stanza 1, lines 3-4.  These lines are set to a contrasting phrase with colorful, non-conventional harmonic progressions that emphasize the “archaic” nature of the setting.  The horns drop out and the harp makes its first entry, playing chords on each beat.  There is one interjection of horn octaves between the two lines.  The steady long-short-short rhythm is maintained with “straight” interruptions at the end of each line.
0:59 [m. 25]--Stanza 1, lines 5-6.  The main melody returns, but it is moved down an octave and below the top of the vocal texture.  The melody is in the lower sopranos for line 5, and in the altos for line 6.  The harmonies around and above the melody are very close.  The horns and harp now all play with the main rhythm in harmonies, with the top horn and the top harp voice doubling the melody in line 5. The top horn continues to double the melody in line 6, but the harp plays more isolated chords emphasizing the cadence.
1:18 [m. 33]--Stanza 2, lines 1-2.  The dirge has thus far been very quiet, but with these lines, there is a sudden outburst, marked forte.  The material is the contrasting phrase from stanza 1, lines 3-4 (from 0:40).  The “straight” rhythm at the end of line 1 cuts the notes in half to accommodate extra syllables, and the upbeat at the beginning is removed.  At the end of the line 2, the single-syllable “Schwert” is set to the same two notes as the two-syllable “Berge” was before.  The harp is now very active, with leaping octaves and chords played on every half-beat.  The horns double two of the voices in line 1, but drop out in line 2.
1:36 [m. 41]--Stanza 2, lines 3-4.  A return to the main melody in its original voicing and harmonization, but at a much louder volume.  The harp begins a very rich triplet rhythm in upward-moving groups of chords and octaves.  The horns blast out octaves and harmonies in rhythm with the voices.
1:54 [m. 49]--Instrumental interlude with hints of the major key.  The harp continues its triplet rhythm.  It and the horns blast out two bars very loudly, and then there is a very quiet response with horn octaves.  This pattern is repeated with the melody of the two loud bars a step lower.  The quiet response leads solidly back to the minor key.
2:13 [m. 57]--In a coda-like phrase, the voices again sing the first two lines of stanza 1 to a new, smoother melody that adds more shorter notes shared by single syllables.  The mid-voice sopranos only join on the second line.  The harp doubles the top sopranos and altos in “straight” rhythm in the left hand, playing against repeated off-beat octaves that are still in the triplet rhythm in the right, thus creating a two-against-three rhythm between the hands of the harp.  The horns play three long-held low octave C’s.  The vocal phrase itself is extended at the cadence, pronouncing an extra final syllable on “Inistore,” and the harp continues after that, gradually becoming less active.  This cadence and harp extension move surprisingly and firmly to the major key.  The resulting twelve-bar phase provides some relief from the previously incessant eight-bar phrases.  Two isolated octave C’s from the harp end the A section.
B Section (Stanza 3)--A-flat Major
2:44 [m. 69]--Stanza 3, lines 1-2.  The octave harp C’s at the end of A bridge to the new key of A-flat major.  The altos are split, creating a four-part vocal texture for the only time in Op. 17.  The reason for this is that this phrase on these two lines is sung a cappella.  The melody and harmonies are smoother than in the A section except for a dissonant outburst on the repeated word “starb” (“died”), that is accented and syncopated across the bar line.  The second line settles to a gentle half-close after a ten-bar phrase.
3:02 [m. 79]--Stanza 3, lines 3-4.  The voices sing in unison for the first time on a narrow, winding, ominous line depicting the howling dogs and the passing ghost.  The horns join them in unison.  The voices harmonize at the end of both lines in two dissonant, minor-key outbursts, the horns moving to an octave.  The second of these is higher and leads seamlessly back to the major-key harmony.
3:19 [m. 87]--Lines 1 and 2 are reprised to the same a cappella music as at 2:44 [m. 69], but the initial syllable of “Trenar” is stretched out, beginning at the end of the previous bar.  The horns also now emphasize the dissonant and accented repetition of “starb,” briefly breaking the a cappella sound.
3:40 [m. 97]--Reprise of lines 3 and 4, but now the voices sing in harmony.  The altos are no longer split, and the four-part harmony is abandoned.  The music is similar to the ominous line at 3:02 [m. 79], but the harmonization of the voices lends it a different character.  The horns, now in octaves, play the original winding line.  The key, however, is not A-flat minor, but C minor, preparing for the return of that key in the final section.
3:56 [m. 105]--Lines 1 and 2 are again reprised with the first syllable of the name “Trenar” stretched out in the same way.  The harmonies of the extension are different, however, as they are approaching from a different key.  The music of the reprise is essentially the same, returning to A-flat, where it was heard both previous times.  It is not sung a cappella, however.  The four-voice vocal texture is reduced to three voices, and the harp plays rising triplets against it.  The top horn plays during the first line.  The horns, along with a full harp chord, emphasize the dissonant repetition of “starb,” but the horns drop out during line 2 and the left hand of the harp plays punctuating octaves, leaving the triplets to the right hand.
4:17 [m. 115]--Stanza 3, lines 5-6.  These lines are finally heard on an extremely quiet, repeated unison note (A-flat in line 5 and G in line 6).  The harp plays isolated harmonies under this, suggesting the main rhythm of the A section.  Line 5 remains in A-flat, but in the minor version of that key.  Line 6 moves strongly toward the home key of C minor.  The word “nichts” (“nothing”) is sung in isolation before beginning line 6.  The horns join at the end of line 6 with an interjection.  The harp, assisted by two more horn interjections, leads back to the A material in a six-bar instrumental extension.
A' Section (Stanza 1, lines 1-2)
4:51 [m. 131]--The harp cadence leads to a reprise of the main melody, sung by the altos alone in a low octave.  The top horn harmonizes a third above the altos, while the bottom horn plays repeated low C’s below them.  In the second line, the upper harmony of the top horn is less regular and the bottom horn moves to different notes.  The harp is absent until the cadence, where it leads into the next phrase with rapid descending arpeggios in a fast triplet rhythm.  The horns move to octave C’s, anticipating the next phrase.
5:09 [m. 139]--The voices now all sing the main melody in the original harmony and voicing.  Under this, the horns play their original octave line from 0:21 [m. 9], while the harp plays very rapid descending triplet arpeggios in the right hand against an oscillating line in “straight” (but fast) rhythm in the left hand.
5:27 [m. 147]--Reprise of the instrumental interlude from 1:54 [m. 49].  The material is similar, but it is no longer “instrumental.”  The horns play the exact same figures as they did in the interlude.  The harp line is very similar, but the triplets are now twice as fast and descending, continuing the pattern from the phrase that was just completed.  Most importantly, the voices literally “cry” out the word “Wein’!” (which is an imperative--“Cry!”) four times, loudly and with a dissonant “diminished” harmony at the beginning of each loud two-bar outburst, and quietly on a consonant major chord at the beginning of each quiet response.
5:46 [m. 155]--Reprise of the coda-like phrase from 2:13 [m. 57].  Brahms marks it Poco più lento (A little more slowly).  The vocal harmony and lines are exactly as they were at the end of the first A section.  The horns again play three low octave C’s.  The harp, however, continues its quick descending triplets in both hands.  At the cadence, which is again in major, the horns join the harp in the extension, which is very similar to the one that ended the first A section, but does not slow down or thin to octave C’s.  Instead, the ending is a somewhat consoling C-major chord.  Brahms indicates a full bar of rests at the end to preserve the twelve-bar phrase structure.
6:28--END OF SONG [166 mm.]