THREE SACRED CHORUSES (GEISTLICHE CHÖRE) FOR
FOUR-VOICE WOMEN’S CHORUS, OP. 37
Recording: Women of the North German Radio Chorus, conducted by
Günter Jena; Edith Mathis, Ann Murray, soloists (No. 3) [DG 449 646-2]
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 http://www.recmusic.org/lieder.
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.
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.)
SCORE FROM IMSLP (From Breitkopf & Härtel Sämtliche
ONLINE SCORES FROM THE CHORAL PUBLIC DOMAIN
LIBRARY (Choral Wiki):
1: O bone Jesu
2: Adoramus te, Christe
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).
O bone Jesu, miserere nobis,
quia tu creasti nos,
tu redemisti nos sanguine tuo praetiosissimo.
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
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.”
“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
2. Adoramus te, Christe
(We adore Thee, Christ).
antiphon for Good Friday. Allegro. Continuous
four-voice canon with coda. A MINOR, Cut time (4/2).
Adoramus te, Christe,
et benedicimus tibi;
Quia per sanctam crucem tuam
qui passus es pro nobis
Domine, miserere nobis.
[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
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.”
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.
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.
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.]
END OF SET
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