Analysis of Brahms Vier Ernste Gesänge by Geert Woltjer
The text is from Jesus Sirech, capital 41. How bitter is death for those that are happy and prosperous. How welcome is death for those that suffer.
The harmony of the second song is e minor, the parallel of G major, the harmony where song 2 ends. The starting motive resembles the starting motive of the second song, with its downwards broken chord, the same sharp C7 chord as in m. 62 of song 2, and just as it suggested in song 2 "Bösen", it represents here the bitterness of the death.
The song is broken in two main parts, broken into five parts. The first part (m. 1-5) is about the bitterness of death. The second part (m. 6-12) is about the happiness of happy people, where the statement about the bitterness of death for those people is repeated in m. 12-17. The second half of the song is in E major. M. 18-30 tell that death is good for those who have nothing. The last part (m. 31-40) restate how welcome death may be for those who have nothing but pain.
The third is an important interval in the song. The voice starts with this interval and with a little bit of good will, you may say that the first five measures of the voice are completely build around this interval: B-G, E-C, Cis-E, D-B, A-C, B-D, A-C. The voice starts before the piano in contrast with the other songs that have a piano prelude, and the first four notes are together a C7 chord. The second interval is anticipated by the piano bass, and in m. 2 the piano bass continues with the downward third intervals. During the process the harmony moves very fast from e minor through C, a to Fis, the dominant of the dominant of e minor. The downward movements in combination with the fast harmonic development, the heavy chords and the slow metric together may suggest death.
In m. 2 the voice has an extended octave (C-Cis) as interval, that generates a lot of tension. In m. 3 the Fis7 chord transforms through the neighboring G chord to an e chord. The motive of the voice may be a motive of tears, with its downwards movement, movement from major to minor and the eight notes at the end. Also the diminished fifth (C-Fis) around which the second "bitter bist du" is build, creates a bitter tension. The voice starts here a sequence of this motive, firsts starting on E, then on C and finally only the last part going to the B chord, i.e. the V of e. On the second "bitter" a diminished seventh chord is used, but m. 4-5 further just have a I-IV-V-I cadence.
The real metre of the voice is different from the notated metre. It is a 2/2 in m. 3-4 and a 2/4 in m. 5, while starting with m. 6 it is more a 6/4, with its much faster movement when the song is about the happy people.
The second theme (starting in m. 6) has some resemblance with the first theme in that it starts with a sixth (the complement of the third), and you may see the step form C to A in m. 6 as the next third. Also m. 6-8 may be seen as a sequence, concluded with a melody build on thirds downwards in m. 10 (Fis-D-B-G-E Cis) ending with an inverse movement of the motive on "bitter" (m. 3), where the long note is reciting and finally jumps into a B , the same note as the start of the song. The end of the downwards movement on "Dingen" in m. 11 gives an uncomfortable feeling, certainly in combination with being an appoggiatura for the off-beat D. Both voice and piano anticipate this appoggiatura by jumping from a g harmony into a Cis harmony at the end of m. 10, that ends in a Fis chord on the first beat of m. 11.
The second theme starts with a fugato: the theme presented by the piano in starting in m. 53 with a B that continues with the G in the right hand piano, is the same as the voice melody starting on the first beat of m. 6 till the word "Mensch". After the presentation of the theme by the piano the piano makes a small variation of "Gedenket ein" in the second half of m. 7. The harmony below m. 6-7-8 is I-VI-II7-I-IV7-VII-III-I (e-C-fis7-e-a7-D7-G-e), where the whole sequence C-G consists of steps in the circle of fifths, jumping over B.
When the text starts with summing all the gut things the happy person has, repeating each time "und", as a child would do, the piano has a warm, beautiful bass melody that by the way resembles the start of the song in the inverse interval of B-G (with the voice doing it correctly, by the way!) and continuing with E-(D)-C. The right hand piano gives an echo effect, but seems further only to create the harmony. m. 8-10 are more or less a sequence, where in m. 10 the jumps in the bass are becoming enormously, consistent with the different pattern in the voice in m. 10. The bass line is related very much to the voice melody. by starting with the inverse interval of the voice (D-Fis, but again the right hand does it the same has the voice) and then going B-G-E-Cis. The harmonic line of m. 10-12 is D-g-(Cis7-Fis-)D-b-(Gis7-Fis)e-B7, in order to go back to the a second exposal of the first theme, as a refrain. It is by the way nice to see how the repeated Fis in the bass (and the voice in the second half of m. 11) is consistent with all the four different harmonies in m. 11.
The second half of the song is in E major instead of e minor (compare song 2 that starts with g minor and has its second half in G major). The basic metre is a four-beat one, i.e. 4/2. The atmosphere is very mild. The upward movement of the right hand melody in combination with the open chords create an atmosphere of acceptance. The bass line use the sixth as its main interval, but implicitly follows again a third movement: E-Cis-A-Fis-Dis-B, where the bass is always the ground tone of the harmony. The right hand piano is build around one motive: two rising quarter note, followed by a half note, that in m. 19 ends in a bourdon-like repeated A with in the middle voice (Fis-E-Dis-Cis) a sort of echo of the gradual downwards movement of the bass line (Dis-Cis-B), that finds a very nice resolution with the start of the voice.
The voice line has some resemblance with the first theme, but is different. The first two notes are the same, but the jump is a sixth upwards instead of a third downwards, giving peace and quietness (as was the case for the piano bass in m. 18). Then it takes immediately a variation of the melody on the second "bitter bist du" (m. 4-5/16-17), where it is build around a straight fifth (Cis-Fis_ instead of a diminished fifth (C-Fis) in m. 4-5/16-17. The melody is also reduced to broad halves, instead of the mourning motive in m. 4-5/16-17. Only in the third sequence of this motive, the bitter-motive is taken up, but in half speed and without the last mourning motive and hav ing the long tone on an A in stead of the Cis, making the Cis that follows much better to digest.
The piano has a sequence of three measures, with only a small variation. Also the right hand middle voice has a sequence, already starting in m. 19 (Fis-E-Dis-Cis-(B), followed by Gis-Fis-E-Dis-Cis, and then going downwards. The bourdon-like sixth in the right hand, that started in m. 19, continues till m. 21 in a gradual downwards movement, with the last note of each measure being shorter and transforming into a lower pitch. When the "Dürftigen" are introduced in m. 22, the right hand movement the line starts on a Dis at the end of m. 22 (instead of the repeated E of the bourdon) and becomes almost a chromatic downwards line till Gis in m. 24.
The harmony in the bass below m. 20-22 is: E-A-|dis7-(A)-gis7-(E)-|cis-(E7)-fis-(A), where the voice and right hand piano suggest E-|Fis-|E. This implies that the bass only casually takes the main harmony of the voice and right hand piano, and has itself as its main line dominants of dominants from dis7 in m. 21 to B in the second half of m. 23. Then a new sequence is created from Gis7 in m. 24, skipping the fis, and continuing till A in m. 25. (where the D instead of Dis on the last beat of m. 24 suggests that it will really become A major instead of E. In m. 25 start three measures build around the A chord, where perhaps the portamento of the right hand piano in m. 25 on "schwach", suggests the weakness in the text, and the diminished chord on the last beat of m. 25 may suggest the same.
In m. 27 the motive Cis-Cis-Dis-Dis-E, an extension of the motive in m. 25, on a diminuendo is presented by the piano, and repeated immediately by the voice in a counter-movement. In m. 28 this is repeated with a variation, where in m. 29 the piano does the motive without the repetitions of the same tones in a countermovement, where the voice starts the movement at an off-beat moment culminating in a long and complex line on "erwarten hat". The bass of the piano in m. 30 may be seen as a new variation of the motive, in thirds instead of seconds, but introduces also the thirds of the main motive again.
In m. 31 the theme of m. 20 (and the start of the song) is taken up again, but with variations. The 3/2 measure is back as is the E major tonic. The voice first sixth is followed by a second one, and then a downward sixth, starting from a high Fis. The same last part of the theme is repeated also a third lower, generating the ground tone of the E chord as the last note of the voice. It is the same motive as on "Dürftigen" in m. 23/24. The start is with an E on m. 36, generating a seventh downwards towards an Fis, that is defined as the dominant of the dominant by the piano in the second half of m. 37, and transforms from Fis7 through B7 to E.
The bass line in m. 35-36 resembles the voice in m. 34-35, where the right hand piano has an upward moving chain of chords (m. 35-38) transform the E major chord through cis, A into the Fis7 chord that is the starting point to find peace in the E major chord at the end of the song. The last two measures are build around a plain E chord, starting with a very low bass, just following the natural tones; the frequencies of all the bass tones of measure 39 compared with the base E are: 1-2-3-4-5-6, and the last chord you hear in the left hand piano (the pedal is prescribed) is the same chord.
Let us speculate also in this song a little bit about the relationship between text and music. As in the second song, also in this song the movement downwards suggests death. But the fast transformation of the harmony by the third steps reinforce this feeling, as do the seventh in the voice in m. 3, the mourning motive in the voice, the fast transformation from Fis through G to e, with the very open G chord in the piano and finally the C-Fis interval in the voice on "bitter" (m.4-5). The fugue structure of the music starting in m. 6 suggests the remembrance of the person, where the transformation of the death motive into a very cheerful bass melody integrates the bitterness of the death with the happiness of the person involved. The piano in measure 12 suggests the continuance of the remembrance, but presents at the same time the dominant for the restatement of the first theme.
The open sixth intervals derived from the third intervals of the first theme, create a variation of the theme that make it more optimistic.