Enlightenment on a sacred Brahms motet

One of the a cappella works we will feature at our season-opening concert on Sunday 15 October is the sacred Johannes Brahms motet "Warum ist Licht gegeben dem Muhseligen", from his Opus 74. The motet, which translates as "Why is light given to him that is in misery", uses Biblical texts with added text from Martin Luther. If you are familiar with and enjoy Brahms' German Requiem, you will love this motet.

  Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) is widely regarded as one of the preeminent German composers of the 19th century.

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) is widely regarded as one of the preeminent German composers of the 19th century.

Background

Brahms wrote this motet in 1877, during what has been described as a period of "high maturity". After 15 years, Brahms felt inspired to compose unaccompanied sacred choral music, and the "Warum" motet from his Opus 74 is a real standout.

Brahms describes the motet as “A little essay about the great ‘Why’, especially in stark contrast to his sunnier Symphony No. 2. The "Warum" motet as a whole has a great emotional impact, whether it be the anguished cries of “Warum?” in the first section or the joyous six-voice counterpoint in the second and third sections.

The motet has four distinct sections.

  1. The opening section is severe and imposing in the key of D minor, the key often used during the 19th century to characterize melancholy. Listen to how Brahms sets the Biblical texts from the Book of Job, particularly for the anguished cries of "Warum" throughout.
     
  2. A canonic setting in six parts in the key of F major, the key of complaisance and calm. Here, Brahms sets text from the Book of Lamentations by the prophet Jeremiah, Lasset uns unser Herz samt den Händen aufheben zu Gott im Himmel (Let us lift up our heart
    with our hands unto God in the heavens).
     
  3. The third section (Siehe, wir) is in two parts, set to words from the Letter of St. James in the New Testament. The second part of this section begins with the words Die Geduld Hiob (The Patience of Job), which echoes back to the text of the first section. Melodically, this second part also develops into a recap of the second section (Lasset uns).
     
  4. The final section is a chorale that sets the words of the Lutheran Nunc Dimittis by Martin Luther. In it, death is seen not as something to be feared, but rather as a will of God and the fulfillment of a promise. Perhaps it's fitting that Brahms sets this section in the key D major, which is the key of Handel's "Glory to God", "Worthy is the Lamb" and "Hallelujah" movements from Messiah, and the triumphant conclusion to Beethoven's Symphony No. 9.

Forming musical roots

For Timothy Shantz, founder and artistic director of Luminous Voices, the "Warum" motet is a beloved choral work. "It is music that seemingly forms my own musical roots in counterpoint and romanticism," says Shantz. "He was a composer who carried the great German musical and choral traditions of Schütz and Bach deep into the 19th century yet with his own rhythmic style and personal sense of expression. Those musical ideas are encapsulated in this motet." Indeed, Bach's influence is strong in this motet, such as the use of counterpoint and the structure of the motet, right down to its concluding harmonized chorale.

YOUTUBE: Watch and listen to the La Maîtrise de l'Académie Vocale de Paris, directed by Iain Simcock, perform the motet in 2011.

Translations:

Accessed 06 October 2017, http://www.kellydeanhansen.com/opus74.html

From Job 3:20-23

Warum ist das Licht gegeben dem Mühseligen,
und das Leben den betrübten Herzen,
Die des Todes warten und kommt nicht,
und grüben ihn wohl aus dem Verborgenen,
Die sich fast freuen und sind fröhlich,
daß sie das Grab bekommen,
Und dem Manne, deß Weg verborgen ist,
und Gott vor ihm denselben bedecket?

Wherefore is light given to him that is in misery,
and life unto the bitter in soul;
Which long for death, but it cometh not;
and dig for it more than for hid treasures;
Which rejoice exceedingly, and are glad,
when they can find the grave?
Why is light given to a man whose way is hid,
and whom God hath hedged in?

 

From Lamentations 3:41

Lasset uns unser Herz
samt den Händen aufheben
zu Gott im Himmel.

Let us lift up our heart
with our hands
unto God in the heavens.

From James 5:11

Siehe, wir preisen selig,
die erduldet haben.
Die Geduld Hiob habt ihr gehöret,
und das Ende des Herrn habt ihr gesehen;
denn der Herr ist barmherzig,
und ein Erbarmer.

Behold, we count them happy
which endure.
Ye have heard of the patience of Job,
and have seen the end of the Lord;
that the Lord is very pitiful,
and of tender mercy.

From Martin Luther

Mit Fried und Freud ich fahr dahin,
in Gottes Willen,
getrost ist mir mein Herz und Sinn,
sanft und stille.
Wie Gott mir verheissen hat:
der Tod ist mir Schlaf worden.

With peace and joy I travel to that place,
according to God's will;
my heart and soul are comforted,
gently and quietly.
As god has promised me,
death has become sleep to me.