Recording: Edith Mathis, soprano; Brigitte Fassbaender, alto; Peter Schreier, tenor; Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, bass; Karl Engel, piano [DG 449 641-2]
Published 1884.

Brahms’s return to the genre of mixed voices with piano accompaniment reflects the more mature style heralded by the masterpieces of the late 1870s and early 1880s.  These quartets are quite different from the earlier dialogue-based quartets and duets (including the Liebeslieder and Neue Liebeslieder waltzes), and are more tightly argued than the first two of the Op. 64 quartets, with which they share aesthetic similarities. The pieces are unusually unified in mood, all having a very atmospheric or nocturnal quality.  They also form a natural complement to the contemporary unaccompanied part songs, Op. 93a.  Some of these also share the elegiac quality of Op. 92, and both sets end with a setting of a brief, aphoristic text by Goethe.  The first quartet is the composer’s penultimate setting of Daumer, the poet whose words he used more often than any other.   One of his most gorgeous creations, the quartet’s rapturous harmonies and gloriously illustrative piano writing set it apart, as does its exceedingly romantic mood.  The second quartet is as melancholy as the first is rapt.  Its distinctive, turning triplet melody exudes sadness and regret, although there is a hopeful major-key ending.  The third quartet returns to the warmly nocturnal mood of the first, including the adventurous harmonies at the end of the second stanza and the magnificent ending, whose decreasing activity without decreasing speed is a trademark Brahmsian technique.  The final Goethe setting uses unstable harmonies, restless rhythms, and intricate counterpoint to set its titular question.  The response, which sets most of the poem in a new meter and tempo, transforms a melodic figure heard near the end of the “question” section and turns it into the main melody of the “answers.”

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

ONLINE SCORE FROM IMSLP (First Edition from Brahms-Institut Lübeck)
No. 1: O schöne Nacht
No. 2: Spätherbst
No. 3: Abendlied
No. 4: Warum?

1. O schöne Nacht! (O Lovely Night!).  Text by Georg Friedrich Daumer, adapted from a Hungarian source.  Andante con moto.  Rondo form (ABAB’CA’).  E MAJOR, 3/4 time.

German Text:
O schöne Nacht!
Am Himmel märchenhaft
Erglänzt der Mond in seiner ganzen Pracht;
Um ihn der kleinen Sterne liebliche

Es schimmert hell der Tau
Am grünen Halm; mit Macht
Im Fliederbusche schlägt die Nachtigall;
Der Knabe schleicht zu seiner Liebsten sacht -
O schöne Nacht!

English Translation

0:00 [m. 1]--Introduction.  The piano begins with a large arpeggio reaching up from a very low opening pitch and stretching up four octaves in three beats over the chord of E major.  This leads to a bar of gentle syncopations of a third in the right hand after the beat.  The arpeggio and thirds are repeated a third higher, still outlining the same chord.
0:10 [m. 5]--Stanza 1, line 1 (A).  Brahms treats the title line as a refrain.  The four voices enter and move very narrowly, propelled by the downward-turning line in the bass.  The soprano and tenor follow this and expand it slightly.  Under the voices, the piano arpeggio is heard again, still another third higher.  This time the piano breaks into reiterated octave E’s after the beat.  After the voices drop out, these octaves continue, with the bass of the piano echoing the line of the vocal bass before reaching upward with two-note harmonies.  The right-hand syncopations also imitate the very narrow vocal motion, still in octaves.
0:26 [m. 13]--Stanza 1, lines 2-5 (B).  The bass presents the second and third lines with a leisurely melody that simply outlines the E-major chord at the beginning before gradually moving to the harmony of the “dominant” chord.  The piano accompaniment consists of the continuing two-note harmonies in both hands, the left hand playing on the beat, moving upward, and the right hand after the beat, moving down.  The right hand abandons the previous octaves in favor of thirds, sixths, and fourths such as those in the left hand.
0:42 [m. 21]--The tenor takes over for the fourth and fifth lines with a slightly more active melody that leaps up and down.  The piano begins to play triplet arpeggios in the left hand with somewhat more filled out motion in the right, still placing the most emphasis after the beat.  The tenor repeats “liebliche Genossenschaft,” beginning with a slight syncopation.  He also ends his line on the “expectant” dominant.
0:55 [m. 28]--Stanza 1, line 1 (Refrain, A).  The tenor leads into the refrain with another slightly syncopated entry.  After he states “O schöne,” the other three voices enter for their presentation of the line as at the beginning (including the piano arpeggio).  The tenor must repeat “schöne” after his lead-in.  The small piano interlude that followed the first presentation of the refrain is omitted.
1:05 [m. 33]--Stanza 2, lines 1-3 (B’).  The alto sings the first line (twice) and the first part of the second line to the same melody the bass had used at 0:26 [m. 13].  Revealingly, the piano accompaniment under her is almost exactly the same as the music of the interlude that had preceded the bass entry!  After this “interlude” music is complete, the right hand breaks into a more flowing syncopated line as the alto completes her phrase.
1:20 [m. 41]--The soprano takes the rest of the second line and the third line, beginning in a similar manner to the tenor at 0:42 [m. 21].  The soprano line quickly diverges, however, repeating “mit Macht” and expanding to six leaps to the top note (the tenor only had two).  She is much more exuberant and does not settle to a gentle half-cadence as he did.  The piano part is completely new, breaking into a much faster motion with left-hand arpeggios and right hand trills that graphically illustrate the singing of the nightingale.  The name of the bird (“die Nachtigall”) is repeated.
1:28 [m. 45]--As the soprano completes “die Nachtigall” with the expected motion to the keynote E, the harmony in the piano makes a strong and sudden motion (in a so-called “deceptive” cadence) to the distant key of C major.  The cascading right hand arpeggios are in faster groups of six.  The piano very quickly quiets down in preparation for the next line.
1:32 [m. 47]--Stanza 2, line 4 (C).  Brahms marks that this passage should be quite subdued (sotto voce in the piano and mezza voce in the voices).  The tenor and bass present the line with a rapt C-major duet.  There is a distinct countermelody in the top voice of the piano above fast arpeggios in the right hand and slower ones in the left.  The word “sacht” (“quietly”) is repeated four times, with rests between the repetitions.  The piano breaks into triplets alternating between the hands, the right hand playing on the vocal rests.  This creates the effect of two 4/4 bars superimposed on 2 bars (plus 2 beats) of the prevailing 3/4.  The first and third statements of “sacht” are over a mysteriously dissonant “diminished seventh” harmony.
1:46 [m. 54]--The last beat of the bar [m. 53] restores the 3/4 meter.  The tenor and bass continue their duet, leading into the repetition of the line by all four voices.  When the women enter, they sing to the harmonized countermelody heard in the piano with the previous tenor/bass duet.  The piano itself begins the previous tenor melody in its top voice, later imitating this in its bass.  This is a very elegant alternation of music between voices and piano.  Because the tenors and basses led into the repetition, they repeat the word “seiner” and the line is extended by one bar.  The repetitions of “sacht” are the same as before, except that the women join the harmonies and the piano right hand is an octave lower.
2:01 [m. 62]--Stanza 2, line 5 (Refrain, A’).  The voices enter strongly on the last beat of m. 61, restoring again the 3/4 meter and holding their chord for another full bar.  With the piano, which begins playing the faster arpeggios again, they sing another “diminished seventh” harmony.  This helps them to pivot very smoothly back to the home key of E major.  They then settle down and continue their statement of “O schöne Nacht” as before, but holding one chord longer and repeating “schöne” to extend it by yet another bar.  More left hand arpeggios are also added under the extended right hand after-beat octave syncopations.
2:14 [m. 68]--The bass leads into a second statement of “O schöne Nacht” that emphasizes the “dominant” harmony and swells in volume, increasing the tension.  The soprano repeats no words, the alto and tenor “schöne,” and the bass “schöne Nacht.”  The piano continues its now moving (not repeated) octave after-beat syncopation with short left-hand arpeggios.
2:22 [m. 71]--The soprano now leads into a final statement of the refrain that settles to the close with heavy cross-rhythms, the soprano singing a beat before the others.  The piano returns to its repeated octave E’s, still after the beats.  All voices except the soprano begin with “schöne” and all voices repeat “O schöne.”  The warm final chord, which brings the voices together, is supported by the familiar E-major arpeggio, which is then reiterated with a faster rolled chord.
2:43--END OF QUARTET [76 mm.]

2. Spätherbst (Late Autumn).  Text by Hermann Allmers.  Andante.  Varied strophic form.  E MINOR, 3/4 time.

German Text:
Der graue Nebel tropft so still
Herab auf Feld und Wald und Heide,
Als ob der Himmel weinen will
In übergroßem Leide.

Die Blumen wollen nicht mehr blühn,
Die Vöglein schweigen in den Hainen,
Es starb sogar das letzte Grün,
Da mag er auch wohl weinen.

English Translation
0:00 [m. 1]--Stanza 1, line 1.  Low bass piano octaves set the song in motion.  The lower three parts, in repeated chords, lead into the faster melody presented by the soprano.  The piano begins a characteristic accompaniment with detached triplet arpeggios in the bass and chords or octaves, also detached, in the right hand.  The effect is imitation of plucked strings.  The soprano, on “tropft,” introduces a highly characteristic downward turning melody in triplets.  The alto, harmonized by the tenor, imitates the turning melody.
0:14 [m. 6]--Stanza 1, lines 2-3.  The soprano leads into a statement of the downward turning “triplet” melody a step lower, on “Wald.”  The soprano moves faster than the other parts.  The bass skips the word “Wald” to catch up to the soprano, while the alto and tenor again trail her with a harmonized imitation.  The bass and soprano proceed with line 3 as the alto and tenor complete their line with “Heide.”  Line 3 is a gently arching melody.  The alto and tenor still lag behind with the text.  The piano continues its pattern.
0:26 [m. 11]--Stanza 1, line 4.  The soprano swells to a passionate high note on “Leide,” where she again sings the downward turning figure.  As she finishes her line, she drops out.  The alto catches up with the text in time to imitate the downward turning figure on “übergroßem.”  The tenor does not harmonize it in rhythm this time, and sings on slower notes, sometimes moving with the bass.  The bass himself has sung “übergroßem” on much longer notes so that he can add a second trailing voice behind the alto on “Leide.”  The lower three parts finish the word “Leide” together as they settle down, the bass having held it from the imitation.  The soprano, alto, and bass have sung the same triplet melody in a chain of descending octaves.
0:40 [m. 16]--Stanza 2, line 1.  The piano briefly breaks its constant motion for the lead-in from the lower three voices.  It is much shorter this time, only a beat and a half before the soprano enters.  Her line is the same as in stanza 1, but the other three parts are different, especially the tenor, who harmonizes not only the alto
s imitation of the triplet melody, but also the soprano’s first presentation (on “wollen” and “nicht”).  The piano right hand is also changed.  It has longer connected chords instead of detached chords and octaves.
0:48 [m. 20]--Stanza 2, lines 2-3.  Again, the soprano is the same as in stanza 1.  The alto is very close.  The tenor and bass are again quite varied, with the tenor harmonizing both the soprano and the alto in the triplet melody (on “schweigen” and “in”).  The piano right hand still plays connected chords.  The parts all come back to their stanza 1 forms during line 3.
1:01 [m. 25]--Stanza 2, line 4.  With the exception of the smooth piano chords in the right hand, line 4 begins exactly as in stanza 1 in all four parts, with the triplet melody on “weinen” in the soprano and “auch” in the alto.  But at the point where the bass imitation would be expected, there is a change.  The alto instead repeats her triplet melody, now on “weinen,” and makes a beautiful shift to the major key.  The soprano does not drop out.  This extends the line by a bar.  The bass follows with a varied version of the triplet melody.  The piano, in an inner voice, doubles the triplet melodies of the alto and bass.  The top three parts repeat “auch wohl weinen,” the bass “wohl weinen,” with the second “weinen” on his triplets.
1:14 [m. 30]--The trailing alto and tenor add an extremely gentle, lilting cadence in the major key.  The bass extends his line with a third “weinen” and is in fact the last voice to end.  The piano breaks its pattern and inserts rests.  These subvert the triple meter in the final bars of postlude that trail the vocal cadence.
1:31--END OF QUARTET [33 mm.]

3. Abendlied (Evening Song).  Text by Friedrich Hebbel.  Andante.  Two-part form with common opening passage (ABA’C).  F MAJOR, 4/4 time.

German Text:
Friedlich bekämpfen
Nacht sich und Tag:
Wie das zu dämpfen,
Wie das zu lösen vermag.

Der mich bedrückte,
Schläfst du schon, Schmerz?
Was mich beglückte
Sage, was war's doch, mein Herz?

Freude wie Kummer,
Fühl ich, zerrann,
Aber den Schlummer
Führten sie leise heran.

Und im Entschweben,
Immer empor,
Kommt mir das Leben
Ganz wie ein Schlummerlied vor.

English Translation

0:00 [m. 1]--Stanza 1 (A), lines 1-2.  The piano establishes the pattern that will be constant throughout the stanza.  The left hand bass is played in octaves with a constant two-bar formula, first a rising arpeggio, then a broken downward cadence gesture.  This is moved according to the harmonies.  The right hand follows the octaves with descending chords after the beat.  After a two-bar introduction establishing the pattern, the voices enter with the first two lines, all singing together in gentle harmony with a descending melody.  The bass voice somewhat follows the piano bass, and the inner voices trail behind at the end of each line.
0:15 [m. 7]--Stanza 1, lines 3-4.  The piano follows the same pattern, but now the right hand after-beat chords arch up and down.  The voices still sing together.  Line 3 makes a striking harmonic motion to D major, but line 4 quickly restores the home key of F after the soprano reaches her highest pitch.  This line swells dramatically in volume.  The words “zu lösen vermag” are repeated (the soprano nearly an octave lower) to confirm the cadence and settle back down.  The two-bar introduction is then repeated.
0:33 [m. 15]--Stanza 2 (B), lines 1-2.  The piano suddenly drops out.  The bass presents a descending melody on line 1, imitated by the alto and tenor harmonizing in sixths.  The piano then enters in stark bass octaves, also imitating the descending line of the vocal bass.  The lower three voices then sing line 2 in very quiet, mysterious harmony, the piano still playing only bare bass octaves.  The questioning line is repeated, growing very strongly in volume.  These lines also move to D, first minor, then major.
0:48 [m. 21]--Stanza 2, line 3.  The piano drops out again as the voices reach their high point.  The soprano, who has rested, enters on a high note (F), as the others sing their last “Schmerz.”  The voices come together and become quiet again.  They move back again to the home key (F), the soprano singing plaintive half-steps.  The voices reach a dissonant “diminished seventh” on “beglückte.”
0:53 [m. 23]--Stanza 2, line 4.  The voices continue to sing on unstable, tension-filled, but very quiet diminished seventh chords.  The piano enters, again playing the bare octave bass line.  After “Sage,” there is a pause from voices and piano.  When they re-enter, the piano is still on bare bass octaves.  The voices have diminished sevenths on “was” and “doch,” then pause again before finally resolving to a half-cadence on “Herz.”  A piano bridge with arpeggios in contrary motion leads back to the opening music.
1:09 [m. 29]--Stanza 3 (A’), lines 1-2.  The music is as in stanza 1, lines 1-2, but without the introduction.
1:18 [m. 33]--Stanza 3, lines 3-4.  These lines begin similarly to the corresponding lines in stanza 1, but instead of moving to D, the goal is a half-step lower, D-flat, with darker colors.  To help with the transition back to F, the word “leise” is stretched out with long held notes.  The following descent is also slower, roughly doubling the values of the corresponding moment on “lösen” in stanza 1.  The rise and fall in volume is much less dramatic, the previous forte not indicated here by Brahms.
1:30 [m. 39]--Stanza 4, lines 1-2 (A’, continued).  For the first two lines of the last stanza, Brahms lengthens the material of A.  The lower voices enter on a long upbeat, and all sing in a narrow range.  The soprano’s entry sweeps down on line 1, then back up on line 2.  Also in line 2, the piano finally begins to break from the constant pattern, holding bass notes over bar lines.
1:39 [m. 43]--Stanza 4, lines 3-4 (C or Coda).  For these lines, the motion gradually decreases.  This has already begun with the piano bass.  The right hand chords after the beat are reduced to thirds, and they are sustained.  The piano bass begins to be more static, placing emphasis on a descending octave F.  The voices, propelled by soprano and bass, sing gently rocking phrases.  They pause after “ganz” and again after “wie.” The piano right hand also inserts pauses there.  The piano drops out for the florid “Schlummerlied.”
1:55 [m. 49]--At “vor,” the voices avoid a full arrival and lead into a very quiet repetition of the two lines.  The melody is a third lower.  The piano accompaniment is reduced to longer chords on weak beats, the bass now only playing the rising and falling octave F’s.  The moving line is now in soprano and tenor, and the soprano adds extra rests after “mir” and in the middle of “Leben.”  “Schlummerlied” is again sung without piano, but the moving lines are now in alto and tenor instead of soprano and alto.
2:14 [m. 56]--The voices finally reach their full cadence on “vor.”  The piano enters with them for a postlude.  The bass is the same two-bar pattern used in stanzas 1 and 3, but with note values twice as long.  The right hand, entering after the beat, plays figures recalling the gentle rocking motion in the last section.  Finally, the bass is reduced to one falling octave with a right hand response on the second half of each bar.  A warm, rich rolled chord ends this extremely atmospheric setting.
2:36--END OF QUARTET [60 mm.]

4. Warum? (Why?).  Text by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.  Lebhaft (Lively)--Anmutig bewegt (Gracefully moving).  Two contrasting sections, the second of which contains three subsections resembling varied strophes.  B-FLAT MAJOR, 4/4 and 6/8 time.
NOTE: This piece is not to be confused with the great motet Op. 74, No. 1, also often called “Warum?”

German Text:
Warum doch erschallen
himmelwärts die Lieder?
Zögen gerne nieder
Sterne, die droben
Blinken und wallen,
Zögen sich Lunas
Lieblich Umarmen,
Zögen die warmen,
Wonnigen Tage
Seliger Götter
Gern uns herab!

English Translation

SECTION 1 (Lebhaft--4/4).  Lines 1-2
0:00 [m. 1]--The piano ascends in powerful, vigorous chords on the “dominant” harmony of the home key.  They play in dotted (long-short) rhythm.  At the last moment, the harmony is diverted unexpectedly to G-flat major, where the voices enter together powerfully on the question word “Warum.”  The soprano continues with the question on a wide melody (a downward arpeggio and a dissonant upward leap), moving from G-flat to B major.  The strong chords of the piano in dotted rhythm are heard again under her line.
0:10 [m. 6]--The voices all enter again on “Warum” as the soprano finishes her line.  The alto, overlapping with the soprano, begins her own statement, moving to C major.  When the other voices enter again, overlapping the alto, the men state “Warum” and the soprano repeats the second line with the continuing alto.  The bass then begins his statement of the line, with a more conventional motion from C to F major.  The dotted-rhythm piano chords again underpin both the alto and bass lines.
0:18 [m. 11]--The tenor’s presentation of the line is quite different.  All voices enter together again, with the tenor beginning his line while the bass finishes it.  Things settle down, however, the piano being reduced to F-major chords, then bass octaves.  The women repeat “Warum” twice, then continue with “doch erschallen,” as does the bass, who only states “Warum” once and trails them slightly.  The tenor’s moving line introduces a new, wider-ranging downward-upward leaping sequence.  The motion is home to B-flat.
0:25 [m. 15]--The soprano takes over the tenor’s leaping sequence, bringing it to the forefront.  All voices sing “himmelwärts die Lieder,” the soprano and tenor repeating “himmelwärts” twice.  Under all of this, the piano begins a new, less assertive accompaniment in flowing arpeggios.  The music has settled on B-flat.
0:31 [m. 18]--The voices, after a pause, present two more isolated statements of “die Lieder.”  The soprano does not sing in the second one.  The harmony of both these and the piano arpeggios becomes active.  Through a so-called “augmented sixth” chord on the first “die Lieder,” the key moves to D major.  This change of key places the final question mark on the inquiry.  The piano, under the last “Lieder,” moves to oscillating bare octave D’s in both hands, continuing them in a one-bar bridge to the second section.
SECTION 2 (Anmutig bewegt--6/8).  Lines 3-11
0:42 [m. 23]--Subsection 1, lines 3-5.  The answers all begin with “Zögen,” a subjunctive word meaning “would pull,” “would lure,”
“would draw,” “would entice,” etc.  The voices enter in the new meter in gracefully flowing block harmony, in the main key of B-flat.  The main melody is the leaping sequence sung by the tenor and the soprano around 0:25 [m. 15].  The piano plays flowing, arching arpeggios.  These break apart into isolated rising arpeggios in lines 4 and 5.  The men lag slightly behind the women in line 4.  Line 5 moves to F major.
0:56 [m. 30]--Subsection 2, lines 6-7.  The piano bridges to the next subsection and back to B-flat.  It begins as had the first one., with line 6 slightly varying line 3.  The piano right hand plays melodic octaves before “Lunas” is repeated, with the men trailing the women.  The music moves to G-flat major, a key heard early in Section 1.  The piano breaks as “Lunas” leads into line 7, then plays isolated rising arpeggios again.
1:14 [m. 38]--Subsection 3, lines 8-10.  The piano bridge is similar to the previous one.  The motion back to B-flat is more abrupt.  Line 8 is similar to line 6.  In line 9, the women begin before the men, but stretch “wonnigen” out, the soprano holding a long note and the alto repeating the word.  Under this, the piano breaks again, as it had at the corresponding spot in subsection 2.  The music changes keys again, this time to D major, another prominent key in Section 1.  After two rising arpeggios, the piano breaks again under line 10, where the voices sing together, the bass lagging slightly behind.  The piano enters again under “Götter.”
1:32 [m. 46]--Subsection 3, line 11.  For the last line, Brahms breaks apart the men and women, who sing in canon (direct imitation), both pairs singing in thirds.  The women’s entrance moves back to B-flat.  The men enter as the women reach their last note and syllable.  The piano plays the isolated rising arpeggios from here until the end.
1:40 [m. 50]--The women enter before the men sing “herab.”  They lead a second canon on the line.  This time, rather than moving in strict thirds, the alto has a beautifully leaping and sighing line on “gern.”  The men imitate them with only a short breath at a much closer distance than in the first canon.  The bass has the leaping, sighing line.  The women hold “uns,” allowing the men to catch up.  All four voices sing the final sonorous “herab” together.  The final piano arpeggios under the last vocal chord quietly slow to the end.
2:12--END OF QUARTET [55 mm.] (runoff after 2:03)