Johannes Brahms
Nänie and Gesang der Parzen

Born: 7 May 1833, in Hamburg
Died: 3 April 1897, in Vienna

{Biography} {Nänie} {Gesang der Parzen} {Works}


Brahms’s family was perhaps not the most usual one.  His mother Johanna was 44 when he was born; his father Johann was 27.  And yes, they named him Johannes.  His musician father played flute, horn, violin, and double bass in dance halls, taverns, a military band, and eventually the Hamburg Philharmonic (Brahms was responsible for his father’s position in that ensemble).  Despite the family’s lack of money and their frequent moves, Brahms had a good general education and studied music (piano, horn, cello) from an early age, soon receiving free lessons in piano and music theory from a local composer.  As a young man he earned money as a piano teacher, a performer, and music arranger—though contrary to received wisdom, he did not play in seaside taverns as a boy. 

Brahms’s real professional life began in 1853.  In that year he toured northern Germany as accompanist to Hungarian violinist Ede Reményi and met the famous violinist Joseph Joachim (ultimately the dedicatee of Brahms’s Violin Concerto), Liszt, and Berlioz.  He also met Clara and Robert Schumann, who played hugely important roles in his life.  Writing in the important journal Neue Zeitschrift für Musik in 1853, Robert Schumann hailed the twenty-year-old Brahms as the successor to Beethoven (a premise so daunting that it took Brahms until 1876, when he was 43, to complete his first symphony).  The article praising the younger musician helped launch his career. 

The following year Schumann suffered a nervous breakdown, attempted suicide, and was confined to a sanatorium where he remained until his death in 1856.  Brahms then moved to Düsseldorf, where the Schumanns lived, to help Clara in the chaos that followed Robert’s breakdown.  And he rapidly fell in love with Clara.

Fourteen years older than Brahms, Clara Schumann was the original superwoman.  An internationally renowned pianist, one of the first to perform from memory, she was also a composer.  Want to hear something gorgeous?  Listen to her song Liebst du um Schönheit, yes, the same text Mahler set later.  Wife and helpmeet to Robert, she bore eight (!) children (one died as an infant), supporting them as well as her grandchildren after Robert’s death through a resumption of her concert career.  Today a concert pianist “only” has to be a virtuoso; in Clara’s day, the soloist also had to rent the hall, arrange for publicity, have the programs printed, and so on.  So she was a little busy.  She regularly performed Brahms’s music in her concerts, again furthering the recognition of his work.  Brahms eventually got over his romantic feelings for Clara and managed to fall in love with various other women, including one of Clara’s daughters (the Alto Rhapsody was his wedding gift to her).  Still, Brahms and Clara remained extremely close for the rest of their lives.  He sought and valued her opinion of his compositions, dedicated works to her, and depicted her in music (e.g. the Adagio of the first piano concerto).  Brahms’s last vocal composition, the Vier ernste Gesänge Op. 121 (Four Serious Songs, to biblical texts) was written on the approach of Clara’s death (she passed away in May 1896). 

In the fall of 1857 Brahms took on a three-month position at the court of Detmold where he played and taught piano and directed the (amateur) choral society; he returned to that position in fall 1858 and 1859.  In Hamburg in 1859 he founded an amateur women’s chorus, which he directed for three years.  Another choral gig turned up in Vienna in 1863–1864, when he was director of the Vienna Singakademie.  Concerts for the last included music by Bach and Renaissance composers alongside works of his own and other nineteenth-century composers.  His final conducting position was with Vienna’s famed Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde, where he was responsible for both orchestra and chorus from 1872 to 1875.  Again he explored a wide and unusual repertoire, going as far back as the work of Heinrich Isaac (d. 1517).  Not everyone shared his musical tastes; the choir at first did not like the pieces Brahms foisted on them. 

Brahms had first visited Vienna in 1862, where, partly owing to introductions by Clara Schumann, he rapidly became part of the musical elite in that intensely musical city.  He eventually settled there permanently, but often spent summers composing in bucolic surroundings (e.g. in the Black Forest near Clara Schumann).  For financial purposes, he also undertook various lengthy concert tours, both as a soloist (playing a very wide repertoire, including works by Baroque composers such as Couperin, Rameau, and Scarlatti) and as an accompanist to Joachim and the baritone Julius Stockhausen.  With the latter he played an important role in complete performances of song cycles by Schubert, Schumann, and Beethoven; previous musicians had performed selections only. 

Eventually Brahms achieved financial stability and was able to concentrate on composing and his other musical interests.  He was involved in editions of Couperin, W.F. Bach, C.P.E. Bach, and Chopin; edited all nine Schubert symphonies; prepared the Mozart Requiem (anonymously) for the Mozart collected works edition; and assisted Clara Schumann in the lengthy task of editing her husband’s music.  He arranged much music for two pianos or piano four hands; before the advent of recording (and back when the well-to-do might have two pianos in their homes), this was a major way of disseminating music. 

He was also an assiduous music collector of folk music, Renaissance and Baroque music, and musical autographs.  He owned the original manuscripts of Haydn’s Op. 20 quartets, Mozart’s Symphony No. 40, Schumann’s fourth symphony, works by Schubert, Berlioz, and Chopin, excepts from both Tristan and Rheingold, and a good number of Beethoven sketches.  After his death in 1897, most of this went to the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde.


In Schumann’s famous Neue Zeitschrift für Musik article, he called on Brahms to “direct his magic wand where the massed forces of chorus and orchestra may lend him their power.”  Brahms answered this call most famously in his German Requiem, but also wrote a series of other important works using women’s, men’s, or mixed chorus.  Nänie is one of his last creations in this realm. 

The painter Anselm Feuerbach, a friend of Brahms’s, died in January 1880.  Brahms had liked his classically-influenced paintings very much and began working on Nänie, his Op. 82, the following summer; he completed it in the summer of 1881, and dedicated the work to Feuerbach’s stepmother, who had provided both emotional and financial support to the painter. 

Brahms chose as his text a poem by Friedrich von Schiller (1759–1805), whose writings were set by many composers (e.g. Beethoven in the Ninth Symphony).  The title comes from the Latin nenia, funeral dirge, and captures the inevitability of death, yet noting at the end that not everyone receives the tribute of a lamentation.  In keeping with the Latin title, the poem is filled with classical references:

measure 26/rehearsal B

Auch das Schöne muß sterben! Das Menschen und Götter bezwinget,
Even the beautiful must die! That which overcomes men and gods

measure 42

Nicht die eherne Brust rührt es dem stygischen Zeus.
Does not move the brass breast of the Stygian Zeus.
[Zeus was the head God; the River Styx marked the entry to the Underworld; thus, the Stygian Zeus is Hades, God of the Underworld]

measure 47/rehearsal C + 1

Einmal nur erweichte die Liebe den Schattenbeherrscher,
Only once did love soften the Lord of the Shadows [Hades],
[When Orpheus descended to rescue Euridice]

measure 59

Und an der Schwelle noch, streng, rief er zurück sein Geschenk.
And yet at the threshold he sternly called back his gift.
[When Orpheus turned to look at Euridice, disobeying Hades]

measure 65/rehearsal D + 1

Nicht stillt Aphrodite dem schönen Knaben die Wunde,
Aphrodite [goddess of love] could not staunch the wounds of the beautiful boy [Adonis]

measure 71

Die in den zierlichen Leib grausam der Eber geritzt.
That the boar cruelly cut on the delicate body.

measure 74/rehearsal E

Nicht errettet den göttlichen Held die unsterbliche Mutter,
The immortal mother [the sea nymph Thetis] cannot save the godlike hero [Achilles]

measure 78

Wenn er, am skäischen Tor fallend, sein Schicksal erfüllt.
When, falling at the Scaean gate [before Troy], he fulfilled his destiny,

measure 85

Aber sie steigt aus dem Meer mit allen Töchtern des Nereus,
But she rises from the sea with all the daughters of Nereus [Sea God; Old Man of the Sea]

measure 90

Und die Klage hebt an um den verherrlichten Sohn.
And lifts up the lament for her glorious son.

measure 97/rehearsal F & measure 119/rehearsal G

Siehe, da weinen die Götter, es weinen die Göttinnen alle,
Look! The gods cry; the goddesses all cry

measure 107 & measure 124

Daß das Schöne vergeht, daß das Vollkommene stirbt.
That the beautiful passes away, that the perfect dies.

measure 149/rehearsal H & measure 163/rehearsal I + 1

Auch ein Klaglied zu sein im Mund der Geliebten ist herrlich,
Even to be a lament in the mouth of the beloved is splendid,

measure 158

Denn das Gemeine geht klanglos zum Orkus hinab.
For the common one goes down to Orcus unsung.
[Orcus: the Roman god of the Underworld, and also the Underworld itself]

Translation by Honey Meconi

Brahms set the work for SATB chorus and an orchestra consisting of two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, two horns, three trombones, timpani, harp, and strings (with instructions to double the harp part if possible).  As is typical for Brahms, this is not a large orchestra, and he eliminates the usual trumpets.  The first run-through of the work, in fact, was by the orchestra at Meiningen with a mere 49 players. 

Brahms’s relatively restrained use of the orchestra was one of the many ways in which he was branded as a conservative in the nineteenth century, along with his preference for the traditional genres of symphony and chamber music and such old-fashioned formal devices as the repeat of the exposition in the opening movements of his first three symphonies.  In these respects he stood in contrast to what was called the “New German School” exemplified in the music of Liszt, Wagner, and Berlioz (note how two of these composers are not German) with their attention to the symphonic poem and the music drama.  In greatly simplified terms, they wrote “program music,” music telling a story; Brahms wrote “abstract music,” music that was purely about music. 

Brahms briefly engaged in the polemics surrounding these debates, writing a manifesto against the “music of the future” propounded by Liszt et al., but soon left it to others (e.g. the famous critic Eduard Hanslick) to fight those battles.  And Brahms met Wagner and considered himself a supporter; he attended the Munich premieres of both Das Rheingold and Die Walküre and helped with other Wagner performances.  For his part, Wagner was critical of Brahms’s work but apparently enjoyed the composer’s performance of his Handel Variations for piano (as well he might! a terrific piece with a superb final fugue).  One interesting Wagner connection: the very striking cadence from m. 141 to 142—where the text, highlighted by our lack of accompaniment, tells us that perfection dies—is the same harmonic motion found in one of the most moving moments of Die Walküre: the instant at which Wotan kisses away Brünnhilde’s immortality.  Coincidence?  I think not. 

Brahms is, in fact, very much a nineteenth-century composer, as Nänie clearly shows.  The thick textures, the chromatic harmony that makes some passages challenging to sing (e.g. mm. 101–103, as the gods and goddesses weep), and especially the constantly shifting rhythms all mark him as a composer of his time, not an anachronism from the eighteenth century. 

Overall the work has a tripartite structure, with the opening and closing in D major and a lilting 6/4 meter while the interior section is in 4/4 and F# major, a typical nineteenth-century third relation (pity the poor accompanist, dealing with six sharps—until we move to C# major, because seven sharps are so much easier than six).  This middle part begins at m. 85, where Brahms indulges in obvious text painting: Thetis rises from the sea as all voices sing a rising melodic line in octaves.  Brahms is sensitive throughout to the text; note the switch to a sweet F major (m. 65) when we sing of Aphrodite, goddess of love; the hush at m. 97 as the basses (and orchestra) drop out briefly and we call attention to the weeping of the immortals; the move to f# minor (m. 75) when we refer to the death of Achilles.  

Also typically Brahmsian is the varied repetition throughout.  Our imitative opening material doesn’t just recur at the end when we return to 6/4 and D major; notice the connection with the music of Letter C (and thus also I); see  how phrase after phrase closes with (largely) homorhythmic descending hemiolas (m. 45, m. 63, m. 73, m. 82, and then again in the closing section).  Nor does Brahms restrict himself to a single iteration of the text.  As we come to the end of Schiller’s poem, Brahms highlights what is most important to him.  The weeping of the gods and goddesses on the death of the perfect (Siehe! etc.) is set twice, first at m. 97 (F) with fluctuating harmonies and again at m. 116 (G), now in a clear F# major (until things get fuzzy starting in m. 130), bringing back the music of m. 85. 

But the most important text repetition comes at the end.  Schiller’s poem closes with the reference to the unsung passage of most of us, with the final word being “hinab,” down.  Brahms, though, returns to the previous line, “to be a lament in the mouth of the beloved is splendid.”  By doing this he ends his lament for his friend with the acknowledgment that Feuerbach was not “common,” but rather worthy of being heralded on his passing.  Our final word, swelling and dying away in unified rhythm over the arpeggiated orchestra, is “herrlich,”: splendid, glorious.  And that is what this piece is. 

Gesang der Parzen

Brahms’s last major choral work (and his last choral/orchestral composition) was his Gesang der Parzen, Op. 89, written in the summer of 1882.  The text is taken from Goethe’s play Iphigenie auf Tauris, which Brahms had seen.  The play treats the Greek myth of Iphigenia, daugher of the same messed-up family that brought you Agamemnon, Clytemnestra, and (essentially) the Trojan War.  In a (longish) nutshell, the beautiful Helen, wife of Spartan king Menelaus, was spirited off to Troy by Trojan prince Paris.  Agamemnon, the brother of Menelaus, was commander in chief of the Greek forces that gathered in Aulis before taking off to seek revenge on Paris.  Strong winds made it impossible for the Greeks to embark on their voyage to Troy; a soothsayer revealed that only with the sacrifice of a maiden (Agamemnon’s daughter Iphigenia) would the winds become favorable. 

In the version of the story told by Euripides (there are various conflicting accounts of most of these myths), Iphigenia was thought to have been sacrified but was secretly spirited away to Tauris, where she served as a priestess at the temple of the goddess Artemis.  Meanwhile, the Trojan War lasted ten years and was eventually won by the Greeks.  Agamemnon returned home with the spoils of war, including the Trojan princess Cassandra, his reward.  He was promptly murdered by his wife Clytemnestra in revenge for the death of Iphigenia.  Then, in revenge for Agamemnon’s death, Clytemnestra was killed by her son Orestes.  For absolution, Orestes needed to bring the sacred image of Artemis from Tauris to Athens.  In Tauris, though, they regularly sacrified any Greeks who ventured there, putting Iphigenia in the charming position of having to choose between betraying those in Tauris who had saved her, or sending her brother to his death.  This is the background for the “Song of the Fates,” a gloomy text that reiterates the helplessness of humans in the face of destiny and the coldness of the gods. 

Brahms reinforces this sombre mood through numerous choices.  The six-voice chorus is divided so that the emphasis is on the lower voices (SAATBB, a favorite divisi for the composer).  The orchestra, slightly bigger than that of Nänie, drops the harp and adds piccolo, contrabassoon, four trumpets, and tuba.  In contrast to Nänie, there is little contrapuntal writing for the voices but rather much homorhythmic writing and contrast between higher and lower voices. 

The piece begins and ends in the minor mode (d minor, to be specific) but visits various keys in between. Marked key changes take us to c# minor (m. 84, “from the abysses of the deep steams the breath of the suffocating Titans”) and D major (m. 116, with a shift to 3/4 as well, “the rulers turn their blessing eye”) but Brahms also cadences elsewhere (e.g. C major, f minor, A major) and sprinkles chromaticisim throughout.  As with the earlier Nänie, he uses the striking harmonic shift from the key moment in Die Walküre to bring us to the return of the opening material (m. 100).

Brahms pulls together the piece in various ways.  The opening of the work follows a relentless quarter/eighth/eighth rhythmic pattern, brought back with the opening music in m. 104, and used for the concluding motive, “thus sang the fates,” from m. 162 forward.  The music of mm. 40–50 or so reappears, in varied form, from the pick-up to m. 72 forward (both texts refer to the golden tables of the gods).  Another varied repetition occurs when the material of mm. 60–68 (“and wait in vain”) inspires that of 90–100 (“like sacrifical odors, a light cloud.”)  Meanwhile, Brahms’s masterful use of rhythmic shifts generates continued interest throughout.  See, for example, the brilliant treatment of rhythm in mm. 12 and 13—silence on the strong beats, and eighth-note pickups to the chords of the weak beats—a pattern then shifted in mm. 15–17. 

In response to the Fourth Symphony, one of Brahms’s critics wrote “once again, Brahms has set his beard to music.”  Unquestionably Brahms is a serious composer, and Gesang der Parzen is one of his most serious works.  It’s our task as singers to transmit those depths to our listeners, and to ponder them ourselves.

Works (selected)

Brahms is another one of those composers for whom the expression “it’s all good” works fairly well, so this (incomplete) list of works is still rather lengthy.  He is, after all, one of the “Three Bs” of classical music: Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms.  At the same time, his music is for many is acquired taste.  When I was an undergraduate, for instance, I loved the second piano concerto but didn’t care for the first (this just shows what an idiot I was—both pieces are fantastic).  So if you are testing these out and don’t like something, just move on to another piece.  You might want to try the late piano works, Op. 116, 117, 118, 119—each a collection of relatively short “character” pieces: capriccio, intermezzo, ballade, romance, rhapsody.  A few years ago one of our students played Op. 118 #2, an intermezzo in A Major, at our commencement ceremony, and it captured perfectly the bittersweet emotion of graduation, ending one chapter of one’s life and starting another.  Or what about the passionate scherzo of the second piano concerto?  Or that killer fugue that ends the Handel variations?  Or the...well, you get the point.  Hours and hours and hours of incredible music, all a gift to us.


  • Serenade No. 1 in D, Op. 11
  • Serenade No. 2 in A, Op. 16
  • Piano Concerto No. 1 in dm, Op. 15
  • Piano Concerto No. 2 in Bb, Op. 83
  • Variations on a Theme by Haydn, Op. 56a (Brahms’s two-piano version is Op. 56b)
  • Symphony No. 1 in cm, Op. 68
  • Symphony No. 2 in D, Op. 73
  • Symphony No. 3 in F, Op. 90
  • Symphony No. 4 in em, Op. 98
  • Violin Concerto in D, Op. 77
  • Academic Festival Overture, Op. 80
  • Tragic Overture, Op. 81
  • Double Concerto in am, Op. 102, for Violin and Cello
  • Three Hungarian Dances (No. 1, 3, 10), arranged by Brahms from original version (piano, 4 hands)


  • Piano Trio #1 in B, Op. 8
  • Piano Trio #2 in C, Op. 87
  • Piano Trio #3 in cm, Op. 101
  • String Sextet #1 in Bb, Op. 18
  • String Sextet #2 in G, Op. 36
  • Piano Quartet #1 in gm, Op. 25
  • Piano Quartet #2 in A, Op. 26
  • Piano Quartet #3 in cm, Op. 60
  • Piano Quintet in fm, Op. 34
  • Cello Sonata #1 in cm, Op. 38
  • Cello Sonata #2 in F, Op. 99
  • Horn Trio in Eb, Op. 40
  • String Quartet #1 in cm, Op. 51 #1
  • String Quartet #2 in am, Op. 51 #2
  • String Quartet #3 in Bb, Op. 67
  • Violin Sonata #1 in G, Op. 78
  • Violin Sonata #2 in A, Op. 100
  • Violin Sonata #3 in dm, Op. 108
  • String Quintet #1 in F, Op. 88
  • String Quintet #2 in G, Op. 111
  • Clarinet Trio in am, Op. 114
  • Clarinet Quintet in bm, Op. 115
  • Clarinet Sonata in fm, Op. 120 #1
  • Clarinet Sonata in Eb, Op. 120 #2


Solo Piano

  • Piano Sonata #1 in C, Op. 1
  • Piano Sonata #2 in f#m, Op. 2
  • Piano Sonata #3 in fm, Op. 5
  • Variations on a Theme by Schumann, Op. 9
  • 4 Ballades, Op. 10
  • Variations on an Original Theme, Op. 21 #1
  • Variations on a Hungarian Song, Op. 21 #2
  • Handel Variations, Op. 24
  • Paganini Variations, Op. 35
  • 16 Waltzes, Op. 39  (originally for piano four hands; #15 in Ab best known)
  • Op. 76 (four Capriccios and four Intermezzi)
  • Rhapsody in bm, Op. 79 #1
  • Rhapsody in gm, Op. 79 #2
  • Op. 116 (three Capriccios and four Intermezzi)
  • Op. 117 (three Intermezzi)
  • Op. 118 (four Intermezzi, one Ballade, one Romance)
  • Op. 119 (three Intermezzi, one Rhapsody)
  • 10 Hungarian Dances (arrangement of first ten from original for piano four hands)

Piano Four Hands

  • 21 Hungarian Dances, of which the best-known are No. 5 in f#m, No. 6 in Db, No. 19 in bm, and No. 21 in em.  Brahms arranged the first ten for solo piano and Nos. 1, 3, and 10 for orchestra.  Other musicians later transcribed everything for orchestra, Joachim did violin/piano arrangements, and so on.  Very popular pieces!


  • 11 Chorale Preludes, Op. 122 posth. (his last works)
  • also 3 preludes and fugues + one fugue without opus numbers

Vocal Quartets (normally SATB with piano; often done by choirs as well)

  • Op. 31, three quartets
  • Op. 52, Liebeslieder Waltzes (18 pieces; piano four hand accompaniment)
  • Op. 64, three quartets
  • Op. 65, Neue Liebeslieder Waltzes (15 pieces; piano four hand accompaniment)
  • Op. 92, four quartets
  • Op. 103 Zigeunerlieder (11 pieces)
  • Op. 112, 6 quartets

Songs—almost 200 of these; some notable ones include the following:

  • An die Nachtigall  Op. 46 #4
  • Auf dem Kirchhofe  Op. 105 #4
  • Botschaft  Op. 47 #1
  • Dämm’rung senkte sich von oben, Op. 59 #1
  • Erinnerung  Op. 63 #2
  • Feldeinsamkeit Op. 86 #2
  • Geistliches Wiegenlied  Op. 91 #2
  • Gestillte Sehnsucht  Op. 91 #1
  • Immer leiser wird mein Schlummer  Op. 105 #2
  • Die Liebende schreibt, Op. 47 #5
  • Liebestreu, Op. 3 #1
  • Mainacht  Op. 43 #2
  • Sapphische Ode  Op. 94 #4
  • Sonntag  Op. 47 #3
  • Ständchen  Op. 106 #1
  • Der Tod das ist die kühle Nacht, Op. 96 #1
  • Vergebliches Ständchen  Op. 84 #4
  • Verrat  Op. 105 #5
  • Von ewiger Liebe  Op. 43 #1
  • Wiegenlied  Op. 49 #4
  • Op. 33, Magelone Lieder
  • Op. 69, nine songs
  • Op. 70, four songs
  • Op. 71, five songs
  • Op. 72, five songs
  • Op. 121, Vier ernste Gesänge



  • Marienlieder (7), Op. 22, for 4v; all but #3 also arranged for women’s voices
  • 2 Motets, Op. 29, for 5v
  • Drei geistliche chöre, Op. 37, for women’s voices
  • Fünf Lieder, op. 41, for men’s voices (Nos. 1 & 2 also arranged for women’s voices)
  • Drei Gesänge, op. 42, for 6v  (No. 2 also arranged for women’s voices) 
  • Zwölf Lieder und Romanzen, op. 44, for women’s voices with optional piano
    Nos. 5 & 6 also arranged for mixed chorus
  • Two Motets, Op. 74, for 4-6v
  • Fest- und Gedenksprüche (3), op. 109, for 8v
  • Three Motets, Op. 110, for 4-8v


  • Ave Maria, Op. 12, for women’s voices & orchestra or organ
  • Begräbnisgesang, Op. 13, for 5v, winds & timpani
  • Vier Gesänge, Op. 17, for women’s voices, harp & horns
  • Geistliches Lied, Op. 30, for 4v & organ
  • Ein deutsches Requiem (German Requiem), Op. 45
  • Rinaldo, Op. 50, for men’s voices, tenor, and orchestra 
  • Alto Rhapsodie, Op. 53, for men’s voices, alto, and orchestra
  • Schicksalslied, Op. 54, for 4v and orchestra
  • Triumphlied, Op.  55, for 8v, baritone, and orchestra
  • Nänie, Op. 82, for 4v and orchestra
  • Gesang der Parzen, op. 89, for 6v and orchestra

April 2017