Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
Es ist das Heil uns kommen her, Op, 29, no. 1, was probably written in 1860, about the time when Brahms and several like-minded musicians signed a “declaration” published in the Berliner Musik- Zeitung Echo. In it he states that“...the products of the leaders and students of the so-called New German school [a direct reference to Liszt]...can only be condemned and deplored as contrary to the innermost essence of music.” This “innermost essence” for Brahms has to do with his preference for “absolute music”–music that can stand on its own merit, without reference to a setting or literary allusion. Brahms had recently studied and performed Bach BWV 4 with one of his choirs, and undoubtedly Bach’s works represented to Brahms a prime example of absolute music.
Es ist das Heil uns kommen her begins with a straightforward homophonic harmonization of the chorale tune written in 1523 by Paul Speratus. Brahms then produces a vigorous five voice fugue with the chorale tune sung in augmentation by the baritones, presented one phrase at a time. Each phrase is preceded by fugal entries motivically derived from that phrase. Brahms also inverts these motives, composes canonic counterpoint to accompany them, and deconstructs them further into harmonic sequences.