Analysis of Brahms Vier Ernste Gesänge by Geert Woltjer
This website has been created during a HOVO-course (a course for people older than 50) of Universiteit Maastricht, The Netherlands. This course has been given in February and March 2004. The songs of the cycle are analyzed in order to improve the insight in the reasons why the songs work as they do. The analyses are made by an amateur musician, who likes to understand what he is doing. This web is the result of this analysis. It is not meant to be perfect; it's just the result of the HOVO-course. I hope the analysis may help others to get a more in depth view on the song than while only singing, playing or listening to the music.
The analysis uses capital letters for separate tones, and capital letters for major chords. Minor chords have no capital letters. To the full measures of the songs, we refer with a m. So, m. 2 means: the second full measure of the song.
The cycle of songs
An important question is why the series of songs is seen as a song cycle by Brahms. It is obvious that the texts from the bible have been carefully selected. The content has a more or less logical order. Man is not above the beast and we don't know what happens after life, so enjoy your work (song 1). But if you look around, there are a lot of evil on earth, so it may be better to be dead or not born at all (song 2). Death can be both bitter and a relief, depending on the condition of life (song 3). And the consequence of these thoughts is that it is not of much use to belief, even if this gives you the power to move mountains, if you don't have the main value in life: love/charity (song 4).
The second element of cohesion is the tonal structure. The first song is in d minor, the second song starts with a d, but is in g minor, i.e. a dominant relationship with the first, but ends in G major. The third song is in the minor parallel of G major, i.e. e minor, and ends in E major. The last chord in the right hand piano of the third song is a Gis, that is enharmonically the same as the ground tone of the As chord with which the fourth song starts. But this first chord is the IV of the tonic of the fourth song, Es major, that is harmonically far away from the E major of the third song. But this may symbolize the change towards the totally different world of the fourth song. A comparable transformation is also used for the adagio of the fourth song, that is in B major, again far away from the Es major of the begin and end of the song.