Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
Op. 30 Geistliches Lied (Sacred Song) is Brahms’ earliest accompanied choral work, composed in 1856 at the age of twenty-three. Set to a poem by the chorale author Paul Flemming (1609-1640) about the acceptance of fate and trust in God, it began as an exercise in counterpoint.
Geistliches Lied is set as a double canon, with the tenor part imitating the soprano part four beats later at the unusual interval of a ninth, and then the bass doing the same with the alto using a different melody that fits in with the first. The imaginative organ interludes also incorporate quasi-canons at the ninth. While accompanying the voices, the organ moves to a secondary role, but becomes active in the middle section. All of the compositional complexities somehow come together in a piece of exceptional beauty, most notably in the final “Amen,” where the basses lead the altos instead of following them. The archaic 4/2 or “double cut time” meter signature, with its frequent double whole notes, is meant to evoke the Renaissance composers Brahms studied while writing contrapuntal works such as this one.