Analysis of Brahms Vier Ernste Gesänge by Geert Woltjer

Song 2

The second text is also from Salomo, chapter 4. Looking back the writer sees the oppressions done on earth. Neither the people that oppressed nor the people that were oppressed got comfort. Therefore, it is better not to live at all. In the bible, the text follows immediately after the text of song 1.

The second song is in g minor, and follows logically on the d minor of the first song. The first two notes are even d's, so after the first song you become only aware in the second measure that the song is not in d minor, but in g minor. And there is another relationship with the first song: the clear statement of the d chord at the end of song 1 is mirrored in the broken g chord at the start of song 2. The chords have a dominant-tonic relationship to each other. Finally, the basic theme in the bass has been introduced already in the first song in m. 46ff and transposed in m. 60ff.

The song has four main parts. The first (m. 1-14) mentions the perception of the oppressions. The second (m. 15-35) tells that both the people that oppress and those that were oppressed have no one to comfort them. The third part (m. 36-60) concludes from this that the dead are better off and those who have not been born even better than this. The last part (m. 61-75), in G major instead of g minor, is the explanation why those who don't exist yet are best off; they don't know about the evil yet.

The first part has already two themes. The basis of the first is the broken g chord (m. 1-4) followed by a second half (m. 5-6) that seems to be based on the D chord. At the introduction of the theme an echo effect is very pronounced. When the voice repeats the theme, the piano echo's the theme in full chords in the right hand, but in double speed, and split up in two parts as a consequence. If you look at voice for the second half of the sentence (m. 5-6), this seems to be based on a D chord, but the piano uses a, followed by D (i.e. II-V) instead. In m. 5 the four chords in the middle just follow the a chord (with the third an octave lower), where in m. 6 the piano has the same structure has in m. 3, starting again at D, with following the D chord instead of the g chord.

The second theme of the first part has in the voice some resemblance with m. 5-6. The second theme of the first part (m. 7-10) is build around G-Bes, suggesting g minor, with the Fis in the end suggesting the dominant. But again, the harmony of the piano is much more complicated. The bass line goes through Es in m. 7 towards a c7 chord in m. 8 (with the middle chord suggesting an F chord), going to a diminished chord in m. 9, that transforms into an A major chord as the dominant of the dominant, where the whole of m. 10 is the D chord, i.e. the dominant, making of the A in the voice an appoggiatura. Recognize that the motive on "leiden" in m. 8 is echoed in the piano, and comes back in m. 12 (voice and piano) and in the piano also in 13-14 as an afterthought.  Then the second theme of the voice is repeated a third higher with a variation in the end. If the harmony would be transposed, too, this would be Bes-Es-C-F. But the harmony in the piano is exactly the same in m. 11 as in m. 7, so starting in g minor, but the harmonic development becomes faster in m. 12, creating the opportunity to find a solution in the tonic, g minor, in 12.

The second part of the song introduces a third theme, that is related to the first theme by starting with a broken g minor triad (harmonized as an Es chord for the first two beats), but goes towards a seventh in m. 6 that wolves to an Es as part of a c minor chord. In m. 7 the right hand piano repeats the theme in double speed, where the bass line in m. 15-18 as well as 19-22 has the mirrored theme in half speed. Even the middle voice of the piano (m. 15-18: Bes-G-F-As) resembles the theme. The text on the theme is "da waren Thränen" (m. 19-20). Especially the fast version of the theme suggests those tears, the word "Thränen" is repeated on this fast theme.

Interesting is the voice in m. 17-18 on "Siehe". The first "Siehe" is simply in the F chord, but the second "Siehe" is a diminished fifth, creating already tension and surprise, where the As is on the seventh of the Bes chord, creating also tension. This suggests already a change in perspective of what you see. The new harmony with a lot of movement (F7-Bes7-Es), that through a third relationship (Es-g) goes from g to C and finally F (the same as m. 17, but with the F only at the end of the measure). In the "Thränen" motive in m. 17-18, the E respectively A clash with the Es and F, respectively As and Bes of the main harmony, reinforcing the "Thränen"-feeling that you are perceiving.

Another interesting issue is the right hand piano in m. 18-19; each of the three notes in the figure are part of a broken chord (first one Es, second g, last one Es. Also m. 21-22 is interesting in its inverse movement of the voice in m. 21. The very small chromatic movements in a lot of directions give a complex feeling, where the D and F in the voice in m. 22 are part of the Bes triad. In m. 23 the open Es chord movement goes into a C7 chord and finally a combination of an A bass with a diminished chord in the rest of the voices on the first beat of m. 24. But it develops fast through A7, F a7 into a new diminished chord, now with a consistent bass, on the first beat of m. 25. When in m. 28 the other side of the oppression, i.e. the oppressor, is introduced, a diminished chord is used during the whole measure and even partly in m. 28, although it is also the start of a D7-g-A-D-D7-G development. The voice melody is going from high to low, in contrast to the feeling one would have by the word "mächtig". The development towards m. 31 gives a little bit the feeling of the "mächtig", but then develops in a variation of the "Thränen"-theme, comparable with m. 15 and 19, but with much more movement in the right-hand piano (a variation of the voice) and the left hand broken chords that with its staccato give a contrast with the downwards movements of the left hand. In m. 33-34 the fast Thränen motive is repeated twice, as was in m. 17-18 for the piano, while the piano resembles m. 21-22. Finally, the whole story ends in a straight D-chord, although with an Es-G appoggiatura in m. 35.

A general break on m. 36 increases the uncertainty of what will be the next step. Part 3 starts with a restatement of the first theme in the tonic, but with the voice and piano parallel. Its simplicity is an enormous contrast with the complexity before. This is consistent with the content; if you are dead, the world is much simpler than if you are alive. Part 3 consists of three variations on the first theme of the piece, followed by a simple cadence that has basically the same rhythm as the first theme. The first variation is in g minor with a cadence VII-IV-V (f-C-D) with a resolution in the g minor of the first theme. The second variation starts in g minor, but transforms through C to A by third steps downwards, and the cadence is a cadence in A (f-d-A), i.e.  a transformation from the world of the death to the world of those that are alive. The third variation uses a diminished chord build on A. This is on the words "Und der noch nicht ist", and suggests the lack of certainty in such a situation. After the statement of the first theme, there is a long pause (m. 55) and after that the piano starts (instead of the voice, as was in the case in the first two variations). The piano starts on an Ais, a tone that was not in the diminished chord before, and that is inconsistent with the harmony before that; the Ais is part of the B chord, and that is the end of the last cadence ((I)-IV-II-V-I). Recognize that the first cadence went to the tonic, g minor, the second to the dominant of the dominant of g minor, A major, and the last to the dominant of the dominant of A major, B major. The world of the dead people, the world of the people alive, and the world of those who are not born.

The fourth part of the song uses another tonality: G major instead of g minor. But in first instance, the harmony starts with a C7 chord (or perhaps first an e minor chord in m. 61, that would be logical resolution of the B chord), that could be a development towards F, but in practice goes to a D chord that develops into a b minor chord and finally into a G major chord in m. 65. After that the harmony is rather straightforward (I-VII-I-II-V-IV-I).

The voice in the fourth part starts with a theme derived from the second half of the first theme (m. 5-6) and the start of the second theme (m. 7), and then continues with a theme derived from the second theme, m. 8-10. The voice ends on the third of the G chord, instead of the tonic, after weighting a moment, where the line in m. 66-67 would suggest otherwise. This makes the end a little bit open.

The piano uses during the first part a variation on the first theme, but instead of broken chords, as arpeggios.  The echo effect is the same as at the start of the song. And the chord is a seventh chord, with a sharp seventh. Combined with the sharp seventh of the voice in m. 62, it represents the word "Bösen" beautifully. Also in m. 64 a seventh chord with a seven jump is used, but the seventh is not sharp. Then, in m. 65-66 the echo effect continues as an echo on the voice, where the bass line is a countermovement for the voice line.

The last part of the song, maybe even starting in m. 67, uses the motive of "Sonne" in a lot of variations: countermovement, and faster, with perhaps an echo effect of the left hand in the right hand in m. 67-68. The right hand line in the coda moves downwards an octave (and if you include the last G chord even more than an octave), partly chromatically, with repetitions of the "Sonne" motive. During this process, a C7 chord is suggested in m. 70, and two diminished chords are at the end of measures 72 and 73, remembering a little bit the indeterminacy of the situation of the people unborn. You may see a relation between the last three measures and  the first song, m. 72-75, with the same rhythm, and after a movement before with three tones downwards.

Let us finally have a look at the relationship between text and music. Part of this is rather speculative. It is obvious that the text is fitted well on the music, but doesn't come from declamation. In contrast to a lot of songs by Schubert or Schumann, the musical structure seems to be more important than the declamation. But the structure of the music is determined fundamentally by the content of the text. The downward movement at the start of the song symbolizes the bad things and death. The echo effect the remembrance of them. The piano movement in the chords may symbolize the turning, looking back, while the complex harmony in m. 7-8 stresses the oppressions. The motive of the downward half, as well as the right hand piano melody in m. 9 (including the suggestion of a diminished chord in this line) suggests the tears. A variation of this motive becomes the main motive of the tears in m. 15 ff, where the tears flow in all speeds and directions, with again complex harmonies. The diminished chord in m. 25 suggests the directionless feeling if you have no comforter. And the whole structure ends in a dominant to the tonic, i.e. a resolution, or an answer, in m. 37, where voice and piano a synchronic. The A major harmony starting in m. 47 suggests another world of the dead people, where the indeterminacy of those who don't live yet, is suggested by the diminished chord. The long break in m. 55 and the out of harmony open Ais octave in m. 56 increase tension, where the new harmony of e minor that is generated and then transformed in to B major, suggests a completely different world again, that is finally transformed into G major, but not before first symbolizing the evil by the sharp C7 chord in m. 61-62 and the two seventh jumps in the voice melody of m. 62 and 64. The remembrance of the seventh chords in m. 71 and 72 in a traditional I-II-V-I-IV-I cadence give the feeling of acceptance.