Recording: Women of the North German Radio Chorus, conducted by Günter Jena; Edith Mathis, Ann Murray, soloists (No. 3)
[DG 449 646-2]
Published 1866.

Many of Brahms’s early choral works stem from his directorship in the 1850s of the women’s choir in Hamburg and the choral society of Detmold.  For the former, he composed the Ave Maria, Op. 12, the four songs with horns and harp, Op. 17, the setting of the 13th Psalm, Op. 27, the twelve short secular choruses of Op. 44, several folksong arrangements, and two of these three curious choruses for four-voice unaccompanied women’s choir.  They were performed by the Hamburg choir in 1859.  The last one, which he composed later, was only performed after Brahms was established in Vienna.  Along with the Ave Maria, these are his only published settings of Latin texts.  At least for the first two choruses, the opus number is very deceptive, as they may have been written as early as 1856.  They were composed as part of an intellectual exchange between Brahms and his friend Joseph Joachim of contrapuntal exercises, specifically the writing of canons.  Canon is a form of direct imitation between voices that is similar to the simpler “round.”  All three choruses are based on canons of some complexity.  These first two choruses sound like the exercises they were, but Brahms was happy to use them to provide something with sacred texts for his beloved women’s choir to sing.  They clearly show his immersion in the choral and contrapuntal writing of the Renaissance, particularly that of Palestrina.  They evoke this style while delving, as Renaissance composers also did from time to time, into dissonant harmonies dictated by the canons.  When Brahms published them with the later and more substantial Regina coeli, he even initially included Latin descriptions of the canonic techniques used in order to further the idea of archaism in the compositions.  In the first, the inscription was “Canone per arsin et thesin, et per motum contrarium.”  This describes a close canon where one voice enters on a strong beat and the other follows on the next weak one, moving in the opposite direction.  The fact that there are two of these canons at the same time makes it even more difficult to hear, since all four voices tend to move at the same time. The second chorus was accurately described as “Canone Resoluzione in 4ta, in 5ta, in 8va,” or a canon at the fourth, fifth, and octave.  Indeed, this piece follows the formula closely, with the three voices continually following at a fourth, fifth, and octave below the top voice.  The minor key contrasts with the F major of the outer choruses.  The final portion, which seems to evoke the further Renaissance practice of block choral singing, seems somewhat “tacked on.”  The final Regina coeli, which may have been composed as late as the early 1860s, sounds much more like a performance piece than do the other two.  It employs two soloists who sing in a very audible canon in contrary motion throughout.  The chorus initially simply employs “Alleluia” interjections outside the canon, but then it has its own very clear section of canon, and finally somewhat joins the main canon in the final “Alleluia.”  A joyous and pleasing piece, the Regina coeli is of the same compositional caliber as the contemporary and masterful Op. 29 motets.  Here, as elsewhere in Brahms’s writing for women’s chorus, particularly at cadences, the second alto parts tend to be very low, outside the range of many altos.  This has something to do with the implications of the canonic writing, but more to do with Brahms’s confessed difficulty conceiving harmonies without the solid foundation provided by the low notes.  Interestingly, each chorus is nearly double the length of the previous one (18, 36, and 76 measures respectively).

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 Latin and English syntax requires slight alterations to the contents of certain lines.  Note the textual differences in the link for Chorus #2.  The Latin texts (included here) are also visible in the translation links.

ONLINE SCORE FROM IMSLP (First Edition from Brahms-Institut Lübeck--Note that the alto clef is used for the alto parts.  The treble clef notes have been written into No. 1.)
ONLINE SCORE FROM IMSLP (From Breitkopf & Härtel Sämtliche Werke)
No. 1: O bone Jesu
No. 2: Adoramus te, Christe
No. 3: Regina coeli

1. O bone Jesu (O gracious Jesus).  Liturgical antiphon.  Moderato espressivo.  Metric double canon in contrary motion.  F MAJOR, Cut time (4/2).

Latin Text:
O bone Jesu, miserere nobis,
quia tu creasti nos,
tu redemisti nos sanguine tuo praetiosissimo.

English Translation

The canon is quite complex.  There are two simultaneous canons.  The second altos follow the first sopranos (outer voices) and the second sopranos follow the first altos (inner voices).  The leading voices begin on strong beats, and the following voices enter one beat later, on weak beats, moving in the opposite directions.
0:00 [m. 1]--“O bone Jesu, miserere nobis.”  The leading voices begin together, the following voices start one note later.  Because the text is sung together, the music sounds like block chords, and the canon is difficult to hear.  It is somewhat more distinguishable when the motion is faster on the second statement of “O bone Jesu.”  The word “miserere” is sung twice, with an intensification on the first statement.  The harmonies and progressions here, dictated by the canons, are unorthodox and modern, but have a somewhat “archaic” effect.  The canon breaks down at the end of the second statement of “miserere” as the voices settle down to a gentle (plagal) cadence on the “dominant” chord (C major) on “nobis.”
0:26 [m. 7]--“quia tu creasti nos, tu redemisti nos.”  The canon begins again with the next phrase, which is isolated and completed.  The following voices can clearly be heard moving in the opposite direction of the leading voices on “creasti nos.”  The next phrase has even more motion, and the canon is even easier to hear.  It breaks right as the following voices approach the end of “redemisti nos,”  The first sopranos and first altos begin the word “sanguine” as the following voices (imperfectly) complete the canon on D minor.
0:45 [m. 12]--“sanguine praetiosissimo.”  The “following” voices, second soprano and second alto, enter together, and the canon is abandoned.  The first alto is the initial voice to move to the second syllable of “sanguine.”  Soon, the middle voices join together in harmony, with the first sopranos following in the opposite direction.  Because the text is not sung together, it sounds canonic, even though it is not, in contrast to the opposite effect at the opening.   The bottom voice, the second alto line, establishes the progression of harmonies (circle of fifths) that lead back to the home key.  It leaps up and down in three sequences.  The music intensifies toward the cadence, expressive of the “precious blood.”  The voices come together for the last notes.
1:13--END OF CHORUS [18 mm.] 

2. Adoramus te, Christe (We adore Thee, Christ).  Liturgical antiphon for Good Friday.  Allegro.  Continuous four-voice canon with coda.  A MINOR, Cut time (4/2).

Latin Text:
Adoramus te, Christe,
et benedicimus tibi;
Quia per sanctam crucem tuam
redemisti mundum,
qui passus es pro nobis
Domine, miserere nobis.

English Translation [the set text only goes through “Lord, have mercy on us.”  The line before that, “qui passus es pro nobis,” (“and have suffered [death] for us”) is not included in the link]

The canon is continuous, moving down the parts.  The second sopranos enter a fourth below the first sopranos, the first altos a fifth below the top voice, and the second altos an octave below.
0:00 [m. 1]--“Adoramus te, Christe.”  The voices enter in succession on a rising scale.  The distance between the two soprano parts is one bar, that between the two middle parts (second soprano and first alto) is two bars, and that between the two alto parts is again one bar.  The two soprano parts sing a descending figure in long notes  on “et” as the alto parts complete the preceding phrase.
0:24 [m. 8]--“et benedicimus tibi.”  The first sopranos are somewhat isolated on the active oscillating figure on “benedicimus.”  The other voices continue to imitate, the two alto parts including the descending long-note figure on “et.”  The word “Christe” from the previous phrase is completed in the second altos.  The music has moved to the related major key of C.
0:33 [m. 11]--“Quia per sanctam crucem tuam.”  The sopranos begin the next line, a long descending phrase in two sequences.  The alto parts are still completing “benedicimus tibi.”
0:42 [m. 15]--“redemisti mundum.”  As the first sopranos begin this active arching phrase, the second sopranos are still completing “crucem tuam” and the altos begin the entire “Qua per sanctam crucem tuam” phrase.  All parts state “redemisti mundum” twice.  The music moves back to a minor key, D minor.
0:51 [m. 18]--“qui passus es pro nobis.”  The canon eventually breaks on this phrase.  It establishes a descending scale pattern.  The second sopranos complete “redemisti mundum,” the second altos are still completing “crucem tuam,” and both alto parts begin “redemisti mundum.”  The first phrase on “qui passus es pro nobis” is imitated by all parts.  The first sopranos state “pro nobis” again five times, the fourth of which is quite extended.  The second sopranos also repeat it five times, the first two continuing to imitate the first sopranos.  The altos eventually complete their imitation of the entire phrase, and each repeats “pro nobis” only twice more, together in harmony.  The first altos take a break as the second altos “catch up.”  Neither alto part imitates the sopranos on the repetitions of “pro nobis.”  At this point, the voices come together on the established descending scale on their repetitions of “pro nobis,” where the canon breaks, and everything comes to a pause on an expectant “dominant” chord.  D minor and G minor have led back to A.
1:25 [m. 27]--“Domine, miserere nobis.”  This passage, as a coda, is set in block chords.  The first “Domine” is on A major.  The second, extended by one chord on the first syllable, moves to G major through the circle of fifths.  The setting of “miserere” places two chords on the first syllable, while “nobis” is in longer notes with a moving resolution in the first alto line.  The whole “miserere nobis” moves back to A major in a very satisfying cadence.
2:09--END OF CHORUS [36 mm.]

3. Regina coeli (Queen of Heaven).  One of the four Marian antiphons.  Allegro.  Canon in contrary motion with soloists and choral interjections.  F MAJOR, 4/4 time.

Latin Text
Regina coeli laetare, alleluia.
Quia quem meruisti portare, alleluia.
Resurrexit sicut dixit, alleluia.
Ora pro nobis Deum, alleluia.

Gaude et laetare, Virgo Maria, alleluia.
Quia surrexit Dominus vero, alleluia.

English Translation

The soloists sing in canon by contrary motion throughout, and their imitation is easy to hear.  The choir sings block interjections on “Alleluia” for the most part, but there is a section in canon (also in contrary motion) for the choir that is likewise easily perceptible aurally.
0:00 [m. 1]--“Regina coeli laetare, alleluia.”  The two soloists begin their sectional canon.  The alto soloist follows the soprano, exactly inverting her line.  Broken chords and exuberant scales are the primary material.  The singers present the text two times, each time stating the word “Regina” twice.  As the soprano soloist begins her two “alleluias,” the choir joins with punctuating chords on that word, which is sung three times.  The choir confirms a full cadence after the alto soloist finishes her two “alleluias.”
0:20 [m. 11]--“Quia quem meruisti portare, alleluia.”  The soloists begin a similar phrase, but with wider leaps to the scales, resulting in larger spacing between them.  The phrase, cutting off the word “quia,” is repeated three more times by them.  The choir enters with three more “alleluia” interjections as the alto soloist finishes her last “meruisti portare.”  The soloists begin their single “alleluia” scales after the choir has begun.  The soprano soloist begins the next section as the choir finishes its cadence, having moved to the closely related dominant key of C major.
0:38 [m. 22]--“Resurrexit sicut dixit, alleluia.”  The soprano soloist begins her phrase as the choir is still finishing the last one.  She begins high, with a downward cascading line and light syncopation at the beginning.  The alto again mirrors her exactly, beginning in her low range.  The text is stated twice by each, and the music is somewhat more subdued.  The soprano soloist begins her “alleluia” right before the choir enters (again with three interjections).  The soloists have two “alleluia” scales apiece.  The music has moved to yet another key, the relative minor (D minor).
0:55 [m. 31]--“Ora pro nobis Deum, alleluia.”  This phrase is similar to the last one, the solo voices beginning high and low, respectively, with light syncopation at the beginning.  They each state the text three times, remaining in an expressive D minor.  The choir entrance is more elaborate this time, with the choral altos entering as the alto soloist is finishing.  At first, the choral sopranos make staggered entries after the altos, but they do come together.  The choral parts also incorporate some scale figures now, even with hints of imitation, as soprano lines follow in the opposite direction as the altos.  There is much voice crossing.  The number of their “alleluias” is expanded to five.  The soloists each have two “alleluias” against the choir, the first ones ending with opposing octave leaps.  The expanded “alleluia” passage makes a large motion back to F major and again becomes exuberant.
1:20 [m. 45]--The soloists have a brief twofold reprise of “Regina coeli” before introducing the “Gaude et laetere” text.  The music is similar to the opening.  The choir enters as the alto soloist imitates this text, beginning its large canonic passage (where the soloists will otherwise be absent) on this brief overlap.
1:26 [m. 49]--“Gaude et laetare, Virgo Maria, quia surrexit Dominus vero.”  The entry of this large choral passage overlaps slightly with the soloists’ only statement of “Gaude et laetare.”  The soloists do not sing the following text.  The choir takes over in an impressive passage of exact canon between the two soprano parts and the two alto parts, the altos mirroring in the opposite direction.  The passage is an extreme feat of compositional virtuosity, with the sustained contrary imitation diminishing and closing itself off before the final “alleluias.”  The choir does not interject the “alleluia” before “quia surrexit Dominus vero.”  “Virgo Maria” is stated three times, and there is much text repetition of small portions of the following phrase.  Each part states “surrexit” twice, “Dominus” four times, and “vero” three times in this free repetition.
2:02 [m. 68]--“Alleluia.”  Brahms summarizes everything in the final “alleluia” passage.  It is extremely joyous.  The soprano soloist gets five “alleluias” while the alto soloist only gets four.  Their continuous mirror imitation finally breaks at the end, the alto’s third “alleluia” being a imitation of the soprano’s third, but sung under her fourth.  Their final “alleluia” is sung together.  The choir is even more elaborately gifted, with each of the four parts singing seven alleluias.  The choral second sopranos and second altos even introduce a new canon (exact, not opposite imitation) a beat after their respective soloists’ first “alleluia.”  More similar descending scales from the sopranos, more choral near-imitation of the soloists, and much voice crossing creates a wonderful web of musical lines before everyone finally comes together on the last “alleluia.”
2:28--END OF CHORUS [76 mm.]