Johannes Brahms
(b. Hamburg, 7 May 1833 – d. Vienna, 3 April 1897)

Begräbnisgesang, op. 13 for Choir and Winds


The Begräbnisgesang (literally “Song of Burial”, or perhaps more accurately “Song of Interment”) was composed by Johannes Brahms in the autumn of 1858 while he was conducting choirs in both Detmold and Hamburg. It is a short work of approximately eight minutes in duration and is scored for SATB choir, twelve wind instruments, and tympani.

Composed a full decade before the German Requiem, the Begräbnisgesang represents one of Brahms’ first forays into combining voices and orchestra. Although the work is relatively short, Brahms lavished his customary care in its composition, several times changing the scope and form of the work. Originally containing strings in it orchestration, Brahms finally settled on just winds and percussion since his intention was that it would be performed outside at a graveside interment.

Brahms took as his text a Renaissance hymn (“Zum Begrebnis) written by Michael Weisse that had been reprinted in Das deutsche Kirchenlied, a collection of Old German hymn texts published in 1841 by Philipp Wackernagel. Although the work contains mainly elements of archaic styles of composition, Brahms did not utilize a pre-existing cantus firmus, but used one of his own creation.

Weisse’s hymn text is seven stanzas long and is well unified thematically. The 1st and 7th stanzas concern the actual act of interment; the 2nd and 6th stanzas deal with the progression from physical death to spiritual rebirth; the 3rd and 5th stanzas contrast the living soul with the sleeping body; and the 4th stanza is a summary of the entire hymn.

Brahms pays especially close attention to the Renaissance musico-rhetorical traditions of hypotyposis, or word-painting. For instance, in the second stanza, the words “Wenn Gottes Posaun wird angehn” (“When God’s trumpet [literally ‘trombone’] shall sound”) are accompanied by the winds at fortissimo level. Brahms also uses rhythmic displacement to great effect. In the sixth stanza, the words “Hier ist er in Angst gewesen” (“Here he has been in fear”) are set to a hemiola which causes a disjunct metric pattern that emphasizes the meaning of the word “Angst.”

The Begräbnisgesang displays many characteristics of Brahms’ later music. First of all, there is the influence of early music, especially that of Johann Sebastian Bach. Just prior to his composition of the Begräbnisgesang, Brahms was involved with conducting a performance of Bach’s Cantata No. 4, “Christ lag in Todesbanden” (“Chirst lay in the bonds of death”), and many scholars have remarked on textual and musical similarities between the Brahms and Bach compositions.

Additionally, we can see in the young Brahms his predilection for Beethovian-like rhythmic forcefulness, which often leads to a total metric restructuring of the poetic text. Also, like Beethoven, Brahms’ “religious” music is aesthetic and spiritual in nature, rather than liturgical. Brahms is seeking a universality in spiritual expression which is highly Romantic in its emotional content.

As such, the Begräbnisgesang resembles in its intention funeral works featuring wind instruments that were composed in the 18th and 19th centuries for Masonic services, the most notable example being Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Mauerische Trauermusik, K.V. 477. Ironically, both the Brahms and the Mozart compositions are pitched in the key of C minor, traditionally a key rhetorically associated with mourning and whose three flats are replete with Trinity symbolism in both Masonic and orthodox Christian symbolism.

The first performance of the Begräbnisgesang was on 2 December 1859 in Hamburg. The work first appeared in print in 1860 and was published by the Rieter & Biedermann firm. In the past decade, performances conducted by Bernard Haitink, Helmuth Rilling, and Frieder Bernius have appeared on compact disc.

William Grim, 2005

Performance material: Breitkopf und Härtel, Wiesbaden