The composer Johannes Brahms (b. Hamburg, 7 May 1833; d. Vienna, 3 April 1897) was a central figure in Western European musical culture in the later nineteenth century. In a learned and eclectic style alternately praised and denigrated for its complexity, he drew together preexisting trends from art music and vernacular idioms that spanned a continent and hailed from every period then known to the budding discipline of musicology.
The most forceful and innovative composer of his generation to continue writing in traditional instrumental genres, he was often caricatured in contemporary polemic as a cold reactionary indifferent to the storytelling capacity of sound. Yet the preponderance of his oeuvre consisted of vocal pieces, and, although he remained permanently skeptical of Christian beliefs, he set biblical texts expertly and sympathetically in ten compositions, including several of his most ambitious and affecting works, and incorporated biblical characters or imagery in more than two dozen others. In their technical achievements, their broad cultural resonances, and their aura of deeply personal engagement with scripture, his compositions remain among the most important monuments to the varied and continual influence of the Bible on late Romantic and early modernist music.
The Bible as Poetry.
The eldest child of a seamstress and a professional musician, Brahms grew up in a working-class neighborhood in the northern port city of Hamburg, an independent city-state that retained its long-standing Protestant identity despite the diverse sailors and merchants to whom it played host. His mother was a devout Lutheran with a pious outlook frequently expressed in surviving letters, and her son received a thorough religious education, including confirmation in the faith.
Concrete evidence concerning his continued interest in the Bible survives in his own copy of Martin Luther’s translation in an 1833 edition. Brahms retained this copy throughout his career; handwritten annotations bear witness to copious use and sophisticated habits of reading. Moreover, the mature Brahms took pride in his detailed knowledge of scripture and church history, which ranged from the Pentateuch through Revelation and from the Apocrypha to the writings of Luther and other figures of the German Reformation.
His religious learning became a tangible asset when he stood as godfather to the children of numerous close acquaintances beginning in 1854. When the baritone Julius Stockhausen (1826–1906) asked him to sponsor his third son in 1877, Brahms composed an essay on proper techniques and permissible liquids for baptism; the singer responded by dubbing him “Mann Gottes” (Man of God) in parody of Luther’s title for the prophets Elijah and Elisha in 1 and 2 Kings.
Brahms’s essay and Stockhausen’s sobriquet aimed squarely at erudite humor rather than shared piety and, in this regard, typified attitudes toward traditional religion within the composer’s circles. From the earliest extant correspondence with friends his own age, Brahms maintained a studied distance from orthodox Christian belief, Catholic or Protestant. His fundamentally secular outlook found reinforcement among his acquaintances, most of whom explicitly espoused agnosticism and religious tolerance as tenets of Liberal politics and principles of modern living. To friends of all stripes, Brahms enjoyed pointing out that he himself preferred obscure and “heathen” passages from canonical scripture. And yet, when setting biblical texts to music, he treated them with the utmost respect, refusing to modernize the language or simplify its syntax. In other words, he approached such texts as if they were treasured poetry.
Especially in German translation, then, the Bible occupied an ambiguous position in his social sphere and aesthetic outlook, at once chided as representative of outdated dogma and revered as powerful and culturally essential literature in its own right. Among the educated upper middle class that dominated the market for Brahms’s music, similar ambivalences established a broad spectrum of potential interpretations for any given biblical passage and thereby cleared the way for all manner of compositional experimentation in the setting of scriptural text.
Scripture as Compositional Discipline (1854–1864).
Four of Brahms’s ten biblical settings date from the first decade of his public career, along with the majority of his liturgical and religious opuses. Scored mainly for choir with or without instrumental accompaniment, these compact works explore a wide range of styles, balancing the demands of sensitive text setting against the young composer’s search for technical expertise and flexibility of expression. At one extreme are pieces that originated as studies of Renaissance and Baroque church music. In March 1856, Brahms initiated a correspondence course with the violinist and composer Joseph Joachim (1831–1907) in which the two musicians critiqued each other’s efforts in strict counterpoint, the venerable and rarified art of interweaving separate iterations of a single melody into complex musical textures. Since sacred choral music had long been seen as the ideal proving ground for contrapuntal craft, it was natural for Brahms to use biblical or religious texts to add narrative shape, emotional content, and the potential for liturgical performance to exercises that might otherwise have remained completely academic.
His inaugural effort, Schaffe in mir, Gott, ein rein Herz (Create in Me a Clean Heart, O God), op. 29/2, was a setting of Psalm 51:10–12. The music for verse 10 is built around an augmentation canon: the sopranos sing a single melody twice in a row, while the basses sing precisely the same melody once, twice as slowly. In the context of his shared project with Joachim, Brahms’s chosen invocation invited interpretation as a gentle pun: What better way for a composer to clean his heart and renew his spirit than to submit himself to the discipline of contrapuntal self-improvement? Likewise, ensuing verses provided opportunities to explore alternative methods of learned construction; the hoped-for return of God’s favor in verse 12 coincided with a surreptitious canon at the obscure interval of a seventh, as if the Holy Spirit were already patiently shadowing the psalmist without his knowledge. Similar conjunctions of compositional erudition and scriptural sensitivity mark several other early choral works, including a setting of Psalm 13, op. 27, the Geistliches Lied (Sacred Song), op. 30, to a text by the Reformation poet Paul Fleming, and even the Benedictus from a suppressed setting of the Latin Mass Ordinary, WoO 18, where the gradual accretion of canonic entrances mirrors the swelling crowds surrounding Jesus’s triumphant procession into Jerusalem in Matthew 21:9. The results are highly effective when performed liturgically, especially for musically educated congregants.
But in tandem with strict contrapuntal studies, Brahms also spent the initial years of his career developing a more straightforward idiom better suited to the setting of secular lyric and the instrumental evocation of pastoral beauty. Here his religious detachment and scholarly eclecticism served him well, for among the early crucibles of this new idiom were several settings of Marian texts. First, in 1859–1860, the seven Marienlieder (Songs of Mary), op. 22, paired anonymous folk poetry with deliberately restrained and overwhelmingly tuneful music for women’s chorus. The following year brought a more opulent setting of the biblical portions of the Ave Maria (Brahms omitted all but five of the nonscriptural words with which the prayer concludes in traditional Catholic practice), scored for women’s voices and instruments as op. 13 and pervaded by stepwise melodies and the swaying lilt of compound duple meter. Related works followed until, in 1864, Brahms combined the artful simplicity of his Marian settings with the rigor of his counterpoint exercises to produce the Geistliches Wiegenlied (Sacred Lullaby), op. 91/2. Here a solo alto sings a German translation of Garcia Lope de Vega’s sixteenth-century lullaby, while piano and viola interpose motives borrowed from the late medieval Christmas song “Josef, lieber Josef mein” (Joseph, my dear Joseph). The interplay between the solitary Virgin portrayed by the singer and the absent husband evoked by the instruments repositions the imagery of pre-Reformation Christianity within the alienating dynamic of middle-class motherhood in modern urban centers. Initially designed for the private enjoyment of friends, the song became one of Brahms’s most popular works upon its publication in 1884.
Religion and the State (1865–1875).
Having mastered the technical and expressive challenges of his craft in short settings of coherent, preexisting religious texts, Brahms then began to cultivate a more assertive and original mode of engagement with scripture in a series of large-scale, multi-movement pieces. The first of these was his most important work to date in any genre: the German Requiem, op. 45, a 70-minute, seven-movement masterpiece for chorus, soloists, and large orchestra. Its successful premiere in 1868 solidified his reputation as Germany’s preeminent composer in traditional forms—even though the Requiem is anything but traditional in its selection and treatment of text. It avoids the Latin of Roman Catholic liturgy in favor of Luther’s German Bible, and it juxtaposes short passages from across scripture: Isaiah, the Psalms, the Gospels of Matthew and John, the epistles of Paul, Peter, and James, the book of Revelation, and the apocryphal Ecclesiasticus. To biblically literate listeners, Jesus himself speaks familiar words of comfort (Matt 5:4; John 16:22), but his name is never mentioned, and no salvific power is attributed to it. Instead, out of diverse fragments Brahms assembled a single, nondoctrinal voice that sings of consolation for the bereaved. The implicit message of inclusion also extends to the music, which knits together styles reminiscent of Renaissance motet, Baroque cantata, and eighteenth-century oratorio, all undergirded by the sweeping gestures and kaleidoscopic harmonies of the nineteenth century.
The Requiem marked a watershed for Brahms in many ways. In combination with the breadth and sheer quality of its compositional fabric, its promise of solace for Christian and agnostic alike secured a permanent place for his music in the repertoire of choirs and orchestras worldwide. Furthermore, its fabrication of a new, poetic perspective from multiple, independent scriptural passages would soon become a common hallmark in his subsequent, more overtly personal settings of biblical text. Yet for audiences who attended the first performances in Bremen and Leipzig, communal excitement probably took precedence over private interpretation. Against the backdrop of the rapidly coalescing German nationalism that followed Prussia’s victory over Austria in 1866, Brahms’s preference for Luther’s Bible carried pointed significance, and the creative audacity of his textual and compositional strategies staked a bold claim for Teutonic artistry on the European stage.
Whatever his initial intentions, the political leanings latent in the Requiem emerged outright in summer 1871 with the Triumphlied (Song of Triumph), op. 55. Scored for the largest ensemble Brahms would ever employ and sumptuously dedicated to “his majesty the German Emperor Wilhelm I,” the apocalyptic description of Christ as triumphant warrior in passages from Revelation 19 resonated explicitly with the euphoria of German unification and victory in the Franco-Prussian War six months prior. The work begins with the voices of the heavenly multitudes in verses 1–2: “Hallelujah! Salvation and glory and power to our God, for his judgments are true and just.” As if to avoid overt reference to the fall of Paris in January 1871, Brahms omitted the remainder of verse 2 (“For he has judged the great whore … ”), but he could not resist penciling the continuation into his own copy of the piece beneath an orchestral passage that aligns neatly with the accentuation patterns of Luther’s German. Here biblical erudition played handmaid to a jingoistic militarism whose bitter taste has virtually silenced the Triumphlied in recent decades, despite its overwhelming popularity at the time and place of its composition.
Aesthetics of Ambivalence (1876–1896).
Brahms would return to the question of nationalism once more in the Fest- und Gedenksprüche (Festival and Commemoration Sayings), op. 109, of 1888–1889. Comprising six passages from Psalms 22 and 29, Luke, and Deuteronomy, these three motets for unaccompanied voices adopt a far more equivocal perspective than the Triumphlied, encouraging national pride but also admonishing the people to recall the lessons of their shared history. For ears so inclined, the pivotal exhortation “so that you do not forget” (Deut 4:9, lit.) found poignant reinforcement in direct quotation of a gentle phrase from the opening movement of the Requiem, now echoing across the joys and disappointments of nearly two decades of German unification.
Brahms’s comparatively subdued brand of patriotism mirrored a larger shift in his later settings of biblical text. As Liberal politics came under concerted assault in Germany and Austria, and several of his own friendships faltered because of neglect, misunderstanding, or physical ailment, the composer gravitated increasingly toward a more overtly ambivalent aesthetic. An early but decisive move in this direction came in 1877 with his most ambitious piece for unaccompanied choir, Warum ist das Licht gegeben dem Mühseligen? (Why is Light Given to One in Misery?), op. 74/1. In three of the work’s four sections, passages from Job, Lamentations, and James are set to music partially borrowed from the unpublished Mass Ordinary of 1856; the spiraling canon of the old Benedictus now accompanies the invocation “Let us lift up our hearts as well as our hands to God in heaven” (Lam 3:41). The only entirely new section in Warum? is the last, which, in retrospect, defines the arc of the entire motet. Here, a text and tune by Martin Luther are harmonized in what sounds, at first, like one of J. S. Bach’s chorale settings. For Bach or any fervent believer, however, the closing lines of Luther’s text would have called forth a ringing affirmation of the afterlife: “As God has promised, death has become sleep for me” (lit.). By contrast, after a vigorous beginning, Brahms’s setting of the chorale grows ever slower and quieter. Its prolonged departure from historical precedent brings into focus the lack of Christian eschatology in the preceding scriptural passages, which imagine death not as a gateway to another world but simply as a welcome release from present suffering. The unmistakable impression is of a personal credo at once compassionate and skeptical.
After knitting together passages from Exodus and Psalm 69 in the first of three austere motets, op. 110, that credo found its most complex and intimate expression in the last opus Brahms published. Completed in 1896, the Four Serious Songs for bass and piano, op. 121, drew passages from Ecclesiastes, Sirach, and 1 Corinthians into an intricately ambiguous affective landscape. If the songs are sung in order as a set, death is first feared as a confirmation of the meaninglessness of life, then embraced as an end to the suffering of the aged and sorrowful, then suddenly and drastically set aside in favor of the famous Pauline celebration of love. Scored with increasingly lush harmonies and ravishing textures in a genre principally associated with secular romance, the results are fundamentally enigmatic, poised between resigned acceptance of the inevitable end and nostalgic musing on the human connections that must first be severed. The Four Serious Songs thus exemplify the most important legacy of Brahms’s long and varied relationship with the Bible: his careful text selection and flexible musical settings allowed scriptural language to raise ultimate questions without answering them conclusively, creating rich and open-ended conversations among words and tones that continue to engage scholars, performers, and listeners, regardless of theological stance.
- Avins, Styra. Johannes Brahms: Life and Letters. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997. The most comprehensive collection of Brahms’s correspondence in English translation, including letters that touch on the majority of his settings of biblical texts; also includes copious annotations and detailed essays on relevant topics. Best read in tandem with MacDonald (2001).
- Beller-McKenna, Daniel. “Brahms, the Bible, and Post-Romanticism: Cultural Issues in Brahms’s Later Settings of Biblical Texts, 1877–1896.” PhD diss., Harvard University, 1994. Later revised and republished in a series of articles, the dissertation is still the single most comprehensive English-language treatment of Brahms’s mature biblical settings, including Warum ist das Licht gegeben dem Mühseligen?, the Three Motets, op. 110, and the Four Serious Songs.
- Beller-McKenna, Daniel. Brahms and the German Spirit. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2004. A seminal examination of nationalism in Brahms’s religious music, including the Geistliches Wiegenlied, the German Requiem, the Triumphlied, and the Fest- und Gedenksprüche. Best read in tandem with Minor (2012).
- Die Bibel oder die ganze Heilige Schrift des alten und neuen Testaments samt den Apocryphen, nach der Deutschen Übersetzung D. Martin Luthers. 5th ed. Hamburg: Hamburg-Altonaische Bibel-Gesellschaft, 1833. Brahms’s personal copy of Luther’s translation, heavily annotated in pen and three colors of pencil. Described in Brachmann (2003).
- Brachmann, Jan. Kunst—Religion—Krise: Der Fall Brahms. Kassel, Germany: Bärenreiter, 2003. The most recent and comprehensive German-language treatment of Brahms’s perspectives on religion and the arts; provides a Continental European outlook on the biblical settings complementary to Beller-McKenna, Minor, and other Anglo-American scholars. Includes detailed description of Brahms’s annotations in his personal Bible and other relevant volumes in his library.
- Kalbeck, Max. Johannes Brahms. 4 vols. Berlin: Deutsche Brahms-Gesellschaft, 1915–1927. An indispensible and occasionally frustrating biography by an acquaintance of the composer; presents foundational readings of virtually all of Brahms’s works in fascinating and sometimes biased prose that spans 2,000 pages.
- MacDonald, Malcolm. Brahms. 2d ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001. The most cogent and reliable English-language biography of Brahms; addresses both life and major works for each period in the composer’s career. Best read in tandem with Avins (1997).
- Minor, Ryan. Choral Fantasies: Music, Festivity, and Nationhood in Nineteenth-Century Germany. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2012. A study of nineteenth-century choral music and national self-image in German-speaking lands; provides detailed music-analytic and cultural-historical interpretations of Brahms’s Triumphlied and Fest- und Gedenksprüche, as well as works of other composers. Best read in tandem with Beller-McKenna (2004).
- Musgrave, Michael. Brahms: A German Requiem. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1996. A concise guide to Brahms’s single most important biblical composition; addresses text selection, biographical context, compositional process, musical structure, reception, and performance.
- Notley, Margaret. Lateness and Brahms: Music and Culture in the Twilight of Viennese Liberalism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007. A foundational study of political tendencies in and around Brahms’s music, especially the later works; complementary to Beller-McKenna (2004) in its emphasis on Austrian, rather than German, contexts.