Analysis of Brahms Vier Ernste Gesänge by Geert Woltjer
The text, prose, not a poem, is from the bible (Salomo, Cap. 3, Ecclesiastes, III). The basic idea is that man has no reason to feel better than beasts; man will die too, and are made of dust and will go back to dust. You don't know if the sole of man is going to heaven, so it is wiser to have pleasure in your work. Then the question is asked what will happen after him.
The problem of prose instead of poems is that the text has not rhythm of itself. But nevertheless Brahms did look for parallels in the text and used them in his composition. For example, in m. 5 the word "Vieh" is used in the same musical phrase as the word "Vieh" in m. 20.
The song has three main themes. The first is in the andante's in 4/4 measures. The second is moving very fast in a 3/4 measure; it may symbolize the movement of the dust. The diminished chord has a central place in this. The third theme has broad chords, and is build around normal triads. It accompanies the text about the spirit of man that may go to heaven while the spirit of the beast may go downwards. After this the andante comes back, where the central point of the text is presented: you don't know what will happen, so rejoice yourself in your work. Then the second theme is taken up again and goes into the coda. The question is asked who will show him what will happen after him. The coda has a 9/4 measure, where the measures are divided in three slow notes, that are divided into three, while those are divided into three again.
A repeated quarter note is almost always present during the song. This may be the march of death, or just a bourdon. In the andante the A is repeated, in the allegro the D, in the coda both the A and D are present. Such a repeated tone is related to death in a lot of music.
The motive or theme in the first bar (D-E-F-E-D) has an important role in the andante parts of the song. It is sometimes split up, sometimes slower, sometimes extended. But it is basically the same, and sets to a large extent the atmosphere of the song. The first four measures this is the only theme; the voice just joins the movement of the piano. When "stirbt" is introduced, the voice gets its own line, while the death motive rises a little gets small variations by having a Bes on the first beat and later even longer variations. Be aware of the accent that is given on "dies" by using the appoggiatura's Gis and Cis and the high pitch on the second "dies", meaning that man dies in the same manner as the beast. With the second time "so stirbt er auch" the voice goes downwards, while the piano has broad, simple chords. At the end the harmony has changed from d minor in A major. The theme is taken up again, where the measure on "auch" is added as a starting up of the theme. Under "haben alle einerlei odem" the motive becomes a continuous stream, while at the end on "denn es ist alles eitel" again the broad chords are used.
Let us investigate this andante part a little bit more in detail. The first four measures are almost identical, where the main melody line of the first two measures is repeated in the voice, and the piano right hand gets a higher pitch parallel with the left hand and doubling the A's, implying that we have just three parallel lines except for the line with the main melody. When "Vieh" is mentioned, the appoggiatura Bes for the repeated a is introduced. For the voice a second theme is presented that integrates beautifully in the first theme in the piano. The character is completely different. The melody is broken up in small parts, separated by rests. uses a lot of appoggiaturas, and has enormous intervals. The Gis in m. 6 on "dies" relates to the G on "stirbt" in m. 7. While the rest in m. 6 is natural for the text, the rest in m. 7 increases tension and gives an accent on what follows, especially the word "auch" that is also on the first beat. In m. 7 the lowest melody line goes one level above the bass line, while the bass gets a downward movement. In m. 7 the continuous d-minor harmony becomes more complex. IV6 IV7 (I) V I III IV II - I (m. 7-10), where it is closed with IV-II-V, where the last two feel as if A becomes the tonic. Also in the melody of the voice tension is created with large intervals, a relatively high pitch in the top (the F on "dies") and the Cis with a movement to D on "stirbt". See also that between "auch" and "wie" ion m. 8 there is explicitly no break! The piano melody becomes a continuous movement of the eight notes towards the word "stirbt" in the tonic, although with the F in the bass. The bass has a downward line in m. 8, while the repeated A's rise temporary till Bes and back. The last part of the theme is a quiet downward movement, with again rests in between, suggesting to go back to the tonic, but ending on E, the 5 on the A chord (in contrast to m. 26, where the same line goes back to D). Is the ending here in A major something like an acceptance of the fact that man dies like the beast?
As the piano introduced the first theme of the song, it does also for the second theme. In m. 11 the right hand piano suggests to take up the repeated A, and it is to a large extent, but it is at the same time, if you include the continuance with the Cis in m. 12, the start of the voice melody in m. 13. The second motive in the bass and the right hand piano is a variation of the first motive of the song, where the bass and middle voice have a difference of a third and the tonality is major instead of minor. In m. 12 the harmony changes between A and C chords, where the change from Cis in C kan also be explained as the melodic d-minor. The top melody of the piano in m. 12 is more or less a repetition of the of the original theme, but is very pronounced by being the top melody for the first time, and it continuous with have a sixth distance with the parallel melody. The same motive is repeated in the bass during the second half of m. 12, while the right hand continuous in the deepest part with the same line till m. 13, and the top melody in the right hand takes op the repeated A, where the voice can easily join as the start of the main theme here. The voice goes upwards till a Bes, that is the lowered 5 of the e minor chord, and gives a beautiful color that gives a movement towards "Odem" in m. 15, with a full A chord below it. The piano moves in the other direction with a variation of the main motive. The melody line of the voice may symbolize a breath, by starting on an A and ending with it. The piano in m. 15 and 16 is the same as in m. 11 and 12, where the voice just copies the right hand piano melody except for the last note, that is consistent with the first version of the motive in the song. M. 17 is just a variation on m. 16, where the last chords develop the d minor of m. 18 (it seems to be an A chord, solving towards d).
When in m. 18 the text is more or less a variation of the text of the first sentence, the first melody on m. 3 and 4 is repeated. The second half of this first theme till the third beat of m. 23 is only different in the voice. The voice is a continuous line, so it misses the breaks. In m. 24 the Gis is added, while the melody ends on D instead of E in m. 26. The bass line in m. 25-25 is rising towards the A chord (on the place of the E chord in m. 10) in order to find its solution in d instead of A in m. 11.
The allegro shows the vanity by a 3/4 measure where on each beat a repeated quarter note gives tension and each beat is divided in three in the right hand with a melody going up and down, suggesting the movement of the dust later on. Recognize that the first three tones of the right hand movement are the start of the first theme of the andante, but much and much faster! The right hand melody starts every two measures a large seventh higher, where the downward movements is always a broken diminished chord. During the piano intro all the 12 tones of the octave have been used, perhaps symbolizing the all embracing importance of what will be said (and has been said?). All possible diminished chords have been presented when the voice joins in. The voice uses the middle parts of the melody of the right-hand of the piano, only with one third of the speed, where the piano has a dwindling downwards movement that goes up during the break of the voice. The voice repeats the same melody a tone higher. When the dust is mentioned, the melody goes further downwards with a diminished chord as the main harmony, till it ends on a Cis. The voice melody of m. 40-42 is the omkering of the melody before, but it integrates the seventh chord notes, so that after this part the song did have three downward movements including all three diminished chords that include all 12 tones of the octave. The right hand piano then integrates this movement as the first of each three notes in the postlude of this part of the song. The off-beat notes together form again a diminished chord, except for the last tow chords (after the end of the repetition of the song melody) that form three large thirds (Cis-F-A; also something without direction) and just the A chord that brings as back to the d minor, where the whole dust story started. The movement of the dust fades out into nothing.
Then we get in the second part of the allegro on "Wer weiss ob der Geist des Menschen aufwärts fahre". The piano has broad chords, while both the voice and piano rise to a higher pitch. The D-octave of the start of the voice is echoed by the piano chords, that then with the same octave jump echoes the tones of the voice. The voice is just a broken Bes chord, and has a downwards D-octave again on "Menschen". The piano gives chords d, Bes, g and d as accompaniment. From m. 50 till m. 54 the voice just focuses on the A-chord, but ends in a Gis. The piano prepares this Gis chord (as a dominant for Cis in m. 60) by already giving a B7 on the last beat of m. 53, then a fis on the third beat of m. 52 followed by a Cis on the first beat and a Fis (plus a Dis octave moving towards the E of the voice) on the third beat of m. 53, and then a Cis in m. 54, followed by a fis on the last beat (IV of Cis) and the a full Gis chord finally in m. 55.
There is a large contrasts between piano and forte within the melody. At the third repetition of the "aufwärts fahre" the voice goes downwards, while the piano rises further with a forte that ends in a sforzata where the "dust motive" reappears in the interlude. A variation on the second theme in the allegro appears when it is told that the spirit of the beast goes downwards. It is a half tone lower variation of the voice melody in m. 40-42, a variation different form that in m. 42-44. The left hand follows the right hand for the first part of the line and then has a countermovement. Recognize that this line has a little bit a parallel to the first motive of the song! In m. 58-59 this is a chromatic line from Fis to Gis. solving the tension generated by the seventh of the Gis chord a little bit, but not giving the solution towards Cis.
A general break of two beats increases the expectation, where the solution is finally given in m. 60, with a Cis in the voice and Cis chords in the piano. The voice starts the melody of m. 46 a tone higher, following the A major chord. But starting form m. 64 the melody on "unterwärts" is going downwards, in contrast to the melody on "aufwärts" in m. 52! The melody has resemblance with the first motive! While in the first appearance of the theme the harmony changed from A towards Cis, it is going back now, till it becomes a clear A (with an A in the voice, too!) in m. 72. The voice ends on the lowest tone during the whole song at the end of this line, where the piano interlude continues this line in the bass line even further, with a ritenuto till the andante, that starts again in simple d minor.
In the andante the main statement of the song is presented as a repetition of the start of the song developing into a variation on a high pitch and going back till the D where the voice started. M. 76-77 are a condensed variation of m. 3-5, m. 78-79 a variation of m. 13-17, and m. 80-81 as variation of m. 24-26. Recognize the change from D major to d minor in m. 80, symbolizing the difference between "rejoice in his work" and "this is his portion".
Although this andante would have been a nice final statement, Brahms uses an extra line "Denn wer will ihn dahin bringen, dass er sehe was nach ihm geschehen wird?" for his coda. This second allegro starts again with the dust motive in d minor, but it is in much more elaborated form. During the first two waves of dust, an extra wave of dust starts already when the first one is going downwards. Only the last one is more or less the same as in the first allegro; but be aware that in m. 87 an open D7 chord instead of a straight D chord is used. And in m. 88-89 the right hand piano goes much faster and later chromatically downwards in order to end in a tremolo in m. 90, where the harmony seems to be a diminished chord on A, that transforms to G7, g7, A, g to d, where it gradually comes to a rest. The repetition of the quarter tones is very pronounced, first following the chromatic line of the bass, then going on a repeated A in m. 93 and finally, starting with the third part of m. 92 on D. There seem to be chromatic lines, first in the high notes of the left hand piano (C-B-Bes-A-G; m. 90-91), then in the right hand starting in m. 92 and ending in m. 96 (D-Cis-C-B-Bes-A). The melody of the voice in m. 92 has some resemblance with the start of the song, and ends in a type of declamation with repeated A's.
This coda has a 9/4 measure, where the measures are divided in three slow notes, that are divided in three, while those are divided in three again. Is this symbolic? The voice is become more static, first centering around a D, later around A, where it ends. The piano right hand remembers a little bit of the dust motive, while the left hand repeated D in m. 96 follows the rhythm of the starting motive. During the last three measures the piano fades away, but at the end it makes a forte statement, that remembers of the octave jump at the start of the second allegro theme, including the piano after-beat. Recognize that the first chord is after the third main beat, i.e. on the eight beat of the measure.