Recording: Berlin Radio Chorus (Chorus Master: Dietrich Knothe); Berlin Philharmonic, conducted by Claudio Abbado [DG 435 683-2]

Published 1883.  Dedicated most respectfully to His Highness Duke Georg of Saxony-Meiningen.

The last of the four one-movement secular works for chorus and orchestra, this powerful piece is in some ways reminiscent of the Schicksalslied (Song of Destiny), Op. 54, but is even more grim and fatalistic, and a complement to the more “optimistic“ fatalism of the Nänie, Op. 82.  The text is from Goethe‘s Greek play Iphigenia auf Tauris.  The seven stanzas have irregular lengths of five, six or seven lines, but the stark dactylic meter (stressed syllables followed by two unstressed ones) is fairly consistent.   Brahms set the poem for six-voice choir with his usual divided altos and basses.  The voices sing in block harmonies to a surprising extent, but there are some sections of close counterpoint and imitation.  The orchestration is unusually large for such a brief work.  The full wind complement includes four horns, piccolo, and contrabassoon as well as trombones and tuba.  The timpani play a prominent role. While technically through-composed, so much material is similar through the composition that it does not have that effect.  The piece moves with a deliberate but inexorable pace, the only real period of respite being the 3/4 section setting the sixth stanza. There are tremendous, forceful sections as well as quiet, ominous ones.  The stark setting of the last stanza, with prominent piccolo, muted strings, and circular harmonies, was a favorite passage of twentieth-century composers who liked to consider Brahms as a “progressive” traditionalist.

Note: The link to the English translation of the text is from Emily Ezust's site at  For the most part, the translation is line-by-line, except where the difference between German and English syntax requires slight alterations to the contents of certain lines.  The German text (included here) is also visible in the translation link.

ONLINE SCORE FROM IMSLP (First Edition from Brahms-Institut Lübeck--Note that soprano, alto, and tenor clefs are used in the voice parts.)

Gesang der Parzen (Song of the Fates).  Text by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, from the play Iphigenie auf Tauris.  Maestoso.  Continuous through-composed form with return of stanza 1 (music and text) after stanza 5.  D MINOR, 4/4 time (stanza 6 in 3/4 time).

German Text:
Es fürchte die Götter
Das Menschengeschlecht!
Sie halten die Herrschaft
In ewigen Händen,
Und können sie brauchen,
Wie's ihnen gefällt.

Der fürchte sie doppelt
Den je sie erheben!
Auf Klippen und Wolken
Sind Stühle bereitet
Um goldene Tische.

Erhebet ein Zwist sich,
So stürzen die Gäste,
Geschmäht und geschändet
In nächtliche Tiefen,
Und harren vergebens,
Im Finstern gebunden,
Gerechten Gerichtes.

Sie aber, sie bleiben
In ewigen Festen
An goldenen Tischen.
Sie schreiten vom Berge
Zu Bergen hinüber:

Aus Schlünden der Tiefe
Dampft ihnen der Atem
Erstickter Titanen,
Gleich Opfergerüchen,
Ein leichtes Gewölke.

Es wenden die Herrscher
Ihr segnendes Auge
Von ganzen Geschlechtern
Und meiden, im Enkel
Die ehmals geliebten,
Still redenden Züge
Des Ahnherrn zu sehn.

So sangen die Parzen;
Es horcht der Verbannte,
In nächtlichen Höhlen
Der Alte die Lieder,
Denkt Kinder und Enkel
Und schüttelt das Haupt.

English Translation  NOTE: The fourth and fifth stanzas are joined here.

0:00 [m. 1]--INTRODUCTION.  The full orchestra makes a powerful entrance.  After the leaping opening gesture, a three-note figure that turns down and back up becomes prominent and will remain so throughout the piece.  It is treated in counterpoint between the strings.  The orchestra continues its dramatic presentation with forceful downward scales and prominent timpani rolls.
0:23 [m. 6]--The orchestra subsides slightly, but there are still surging strings with syncopation over bar lines, along with short rising lines in the winds and low strings.  There is then a further receding of volume.
0:49 [m. 12]--The violas, cellos and bassoons lead a reduced orchestra in halting figures that become ever quieter in preparation for the first choral entrance.
1:26 [m. 20]--STANZA 1.  The first two lines are quietly presented by the three male parts in block harmony in a very steady, grim minor-key march.  They are underscored by ominous timpani beats and rolls as well as low strings and bassoons.  The three female parts then restate the lines exactly an octave higher.
1:44 [m. 24]--The men continue with the last four lines of the stanza in the same style and scoring, but swell markedly on the penultimate line, only to recede just as quickly.  They end on an open, questioning unison cadence.  The thumping timpani and the ominous sounds of low strings and bassoons continue.  The women begin to imitate the men’s presentation exactly an octave higher, but their parts are altered at the end to move to a complete, closed unison cadence coinciding with the return of the introduction music.  Clarinets join the orchestra on the women’s statement.
2:16 [m. 32]--Return of the first part of the introduction music, displaced metrically by half a bar.
2:35 [m. 36]--STANZA 2.  The full choir enters in harmony and with great power on the first two lines.  There is a brief suggestion of the related major key (F major).  The full orchestra now accompanies.  The same march rhythm is used.  The second line is then repeated in longer note values as the trombones make a prominent entrance and the strings play an angular long-short rhythm.
2:51 [m. 40]--The next two lines are set in close counterpoint, the men following the women at a distance of half a bar with half a line on each imitative entry.  The strings continue their angular dotted rhythm, passing between higher and lower instruments.  On the fifth and last line of the stanza, the women and men come together on a slightly smoother melodic line.  They sing it twice.  The angular string rhythm continues unabated, however.  The entire passage is brighter, in F major moving toward C major.
3:23 [m. 48]--STANZA 3.  The strings end their angular rhythm.  The stanza begins immediately with the full six parts in unison.  The entry is at full force, with the entire orchestra playing descending lines against the choir.  The words “ein Zwist sich” are repeated as the voices again move into harmony.  The key moves to F minor, following the F major of the previous passage.  The next three lines are set to the march rhythm and basic melodic shape of Stanza 1, with an ominous descent on “in nächtliche Tiefen.”
3:50 [m. 55]--The previous three lines (lines 2-4 of the stanza) are repeated to similar, but varied music.  Notably, the tenors sing a line in longer notes, eliminating “so stürzen die Gäste” and lengthening “geschmäht und geschändet.”  This time, the last line (“in nächtliche Tiefen”) is repeated by all parts as the music greatly subsides.  Despite the harmonic differences in the repetition, the music remains in F minor.  A plaintive, isolated bassoon line leads to the next lines.
4:12 [m. 61]--The next line (line 5 of the stanza) is set to another passage of close imitation.  The altos and basses (both now in unison) move in contrary motion, altos going down and basses going up.  They are followed by the sopranos and tenors, who reverse the directions of the contrary motion (sopranos up, tenors down).  The line is then repeated with thinner texture as the altos and basses again split.  The first basses sing only “und harren,” passing “vergebens” to the dovetailing second basses.  The tenors are absent in the entire repetition.  The women’s parts, with the second altos more active, add an extra repetition of “harren.”  The passage, with light pulsing wind and low string accompaniment, moves to B-flat minor.  A mournful, angular violin entry bridges to the next line.
4:37 [m. 66]--The sixth line is set in a similar way, but now the tenors and second basses (in contrary motion, tenors up, second basses down) are followed by the joined altos and first basses (altos down, first basses up).  The scoring is even lighter and avoids the pulsing.  The second basses add a very low, trailing downward repetition of “gebunden” that seems to lead toward the key of C.  Suddenly, the entire choir enters together brightly on the last line (“gerechten Gerichtes”), with a strong motion to C major.  The line is stated twice, followed by almost joyously cascading strings.
5:05 [m. 72]--STANZA 4.  The voices are again in close imitation, in a passage similar to 2:51 [m. 40] in Stanza 2.  Again, the men follow the women at the distance of a half-bar.  The angular strings are again present, but now they play in triplet rhythm.  The music is in F major (as in the Stanza 2 passage), but moves to E-flat at the second line.  As in the Stanza 2 passage, the voices come together on the third line, which is repeated and moves toward C major.  The line is again much smoother, but the angular strings in triplet rhythm continue.
5:35 [m. 80]--The last two lines of the stanza are set in a similar manner to the first line of Stanza 3, but the choir is not in full unison (the sopranos and basses are).  The strings abandon their triplets, but continue to play angular figures in straight rhythm, along with the winds.  The passage is at full force and still grows stronger.  The key slides upward, to D-flat/C-sharp instead of the F minor heard after the Stanza 3 line.  The harmonies here are primarily major.
5:50 [m. 84]--STANZA 5.  The first three lines are set in a very similar manner to lines 2-4 of Stanza 3, with descending lines reminiscent of the opening.  They key is now C-sharp minor.  The two alto parts follow the others at a distance of a bar.  The tenors then briefly drop out.  The text repetition varies between the parts.  Only the two bass parts repeat all three lines in their entirety.  The women repeat lines two and three with extra interjections of “der Atem.”  The altos, entering later, do not repeat “dampft ihnen.”  The tenors, because of their pause, do not repeat line three, singing it for the first time as the other parts repeat it.  The passage is greatly agitated and excited, with frantic tremolo strings and even more buildup.  A huge climax arrives as the sopranos reach a high note on “Atem” with blazing trombones and powerful descending lines reminscent of the introduction in both voices and instruments.
6:16 [m. 90]--The last two lines of the stanza suddenly subside.  The fourth line is again set in close imitation, this time with the men following the women at a distance of a bar under soaring winds.  The last line (“ein leichtes Gewölke”) is stretched out greatly as the instrumental texture subsides to held wind chords and quiet arching string lines.  The descending sopranos lead the other parts.  The first altos trail behind them.  The first basses and tenors invert the motion to an ascent.  All parts repeat the entire line at least twice, the sopranos three times.  The sopranos, tenors and first basses add an extra repetition of “leichtes.”  The second basses and second altos have longer notes.  At the end, the sopranos have a gently upward arching line, imitated closely by the tenors.  All instruments but flutes and clarinets drop out.
7:02 [m. 100]--STANZA 1 REPRISE.  The voices from the previous passage reach a unison cadence on C-sharp with flutes and clarinets, but as they do, the timpani, low strings, horns, and bassoons enter with a mildly clashing note (A) that wrenches the music up a half-step to the home key of D minor.  These low instruments establish the ominous rumbling from the first vocal entry.  The bassoons have a prominent, isolated descending line.  The trombones lightly punctuate the entry of the voices.  The first two lines of Stanza 1 are heard from the men, then the women, as before.
7:36 [m. 108]--The last four lines are now stated by the entire choir in harmony, rather than in imitation.  The swelling on the penultimate line and subsequent receding is retained.  As in the women’s statement the first time the stanza was sung, clarinets now prominently join the instrumental accompaniment.  The voices end on the open, rather than the closed unison cadence.  The violas, accompanied by bassoon, horns, and other strings, lead a quiet transition to the major key for Stanza 6.  It is very similar to the lead-in from the introduction at 0:49 [m. 12].  Timpani are absent for the rest of the work until the last chords.
8:14 [m. 116]--STANZA 6.  The key switches to major (still on D), but more importantly, the meter shifts to a gently flowing triple time (3/4).  Brahms includes an unusual German direction--“sehr weich und gebunden” (“very softly and connected”).  The voices sing in block harmonies, entering on an upbeat as the orchestra completely drops out.  They sing the first three lines a cappella, the trombones entering very quietly at the end of the third line.  There are some slight minor-key tinges.
8:32 [m. 122]--The winds and strings begin a repetition, standing in for the voices in a wordless restatement of the music from the first line.  The voices themselves enter for the second and third lines.  The winds continue, but all strings except cellos drop out.  The trombones again punctuate the ending of the third line.
8:50 [m. 128]--The strings gently connect to the next lines with sighing gestures.  The tenors then lead the other voices except the sopranos (who are completely absent here) in the last four lines of the stanza.  The voices are a cappella again except for some bare octaves from the horns.  The music is still flowing and gentle, with some mild syncopation.  Only the tenors sing the word “ehmals,” but it is quite prominent.  The trombones join at the last two lines, where there is some extension.  The notes become longer and the syncopation more prominent.  The first altos stretch their notes out, the second altos end early, and the men repeat “des Ahnherrn.”  The tenors add a third repetition of those words, and all men sing “zu sehn” twice.
9:39 [m. 144]--The sopranos make a dramatic re-entrance to lead in a repetition of the last four lines.  The melody is essentially the same, but the vocal counterpoint is more closely aligned.  All voices now sing “ehmals.”  The winds accompany lightly, along with plucked string chords.  The cellos begin an isolated line at “ehmals.”  Again, there is extension on the last line, with a prominent trombone entry.  The sopranos sing the previous tenor line.  The lower voices sing with the sopranos in mostly block harmony, but with varying text repetition of “des Ahnherrn” and “zu sehn.”  As the sopranos reach the last note, it is lengthened, and the other parts state the last line again under them in long syncopated notes.  The sopranos themselves drop down and repeat “zu sehn” again.  All instruments except clarinets and bassoons drop out.
10:34 [m. 161]--STANZA 7.  As the voices hold and resolve their final motion on “sehn,” the horns, closely followed by trumpet and oboe, surreptitiously enter with the opening leaping gesture from both the introduction and Stanza 1.  They are followed by a more prominent entry of the piccolo (making its first appearance), and the violins.  These instruments lead back to the 4/4 meter (of which the first bar is m. 162) and the minor key.  All strings are now muted until the end.  The sopranos and second basses sing the first line of the stanza on bare octaves.  The altos and first basses follow them.  The three-note turn figure is treated in imitation between piccolo, violins, and violas in very short notes.
10:51 [m. 164]--The second line is sung by tenors and second basses, moving down in unison with a very striking harmonic detour to F-sharp.  The harmonic motions of this last stanza are often noted as forward-looking.  The bare voices are accompanied by strings, who abandon the three-note turn figure in favor of mixed triplet and straight motion.  Bassoons and horns play long notes.  The winds in triplets take over from the strings as the altos and first basses, then sopranos and tenors, sing the third line on bare F-sharp octaves.
11:15 [m. 168]--Altos and first basses make the same striking harmonic motion and downward unison descent on the fourth line (as heard by tenors and second basses before), this time to B-flat (the overall motion is circular).  The winds continue against this, now in syncopated rhythm, the violas and cellos taking the long notes (the scoring is essentially reversed).    The horns drop out.  Now the sopranos, tenors, and second basses, followed by altos and first basses, sing the fifth line on bare B-flat octaves against long notes in winds and strings.  The piccolo makes another entry, and the first violins reach very high to double it.
11:41 [m. 172]--A brief vocal pause as the contrabassoon and low strings play a note.  All voices now sing the last line in the “striking” unison descent and harmonic motion, now reaching back to the home keynote of D.  The notes are very detached.  The brass is absent from the accompaniment, and the violins are staggered behind the voices.  At the last word, “Haupt,” on the bare D, the long-absent timpani enter on a quiet roll.  Two solemn wind chords, now with the brass instruments, are heard over the roll after the choir drops out.  The strings maintain the unison D.
12:42--END OF WORK [176 mm.] (Runoff after chord ends at 12:29)