“Nänie”: Brahms’ Choral Lamentation

Death is an inevitable part of life.

This is the theme of Johannes Brahms’ 1881 lamentation for chorus and orchestra, Nänie, Op. 82. The work was composed in memory of the painter, Anselm Feuerbach, a close friend of Brahms. It’s a setting of a poem by Friedrich Schiller which opens with the line, “Even the beautiful must perish!” “Nänie” is the German form of the Latin “nenia” which translates as, “a funeral song.”

An opening statement in the oboe is filled with nostalgic longing. This is the same plaintive, pastoral voice we hear in the second movement of Brahms’ Violin Concerto. In the Violin Concerto, the oboe becomes a prominent character, taking the stage in an extended melody before deferring to the solo violin. In Nänie, something similar happens. When the chorus enters, the oboe’s theme is transformed into an expansive fugue. As the piece unfolds, there are echoes of the monumental timpani “footsteps” from the opening of Brahms’ First Symphony as well as the glistening Alpine streams and pastures of the Second. Then, as we seem to be entering the most profound moment of hushed transcendence, suddenly the oboe pulls us back. As with the vibrant colors of autumn leaves, Nänie finds ultimate beauty in impermanence.

Here is a 2009 recording with the Monteverdi Choir and the Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique conducted by John Eliot Gardiner:


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