Brahms’ Two Motets, Op. 74: Sacred Music for A Cappella Choir

In the Old Testament Book of Job, God allows Satan to strip the righteous Job of his family and wealth as a test of his faith. Job cries out in anguish (“Why has light been given to the weary of soul?”), and reflects on existential questions of worldly evil and divine grace.

This is the subject of the first of Johannes Brahms’ Two Motets, Op. 74, Warum ist das Licht gegeben den Mühseligen (“Why has light been given to the weary of soul?”), composed during the summer of 1877 in the Austrian vacation town of Pörtschach am Wörthersee. The a cappella choral work was composed at a time when Brahms was finishing his Second Symphony. Later, when a conductor expressed bewilderment at the way the trombones, with their supernatural connotations, cast long shadows over the Symphony’s otherwise sunny and pastoral first movement, Brahms referenced the newly composed Motet, Warum? (“Why?”):

I very much wanted to manage in that first movement without using trombones, and tried to. […] But their first entrance, that’s mine, and I can’t get along without it and thus the trombones. Were I to defend the passage, I would have to be long-winded…I would have to confess that I am, by the by, a severely melancholic person, that black wings are constantly flapping above us, and that in my output—perhaps not entirely by chance—that symphony is followed by a little essay about the great ‘Why.’ If you don’t know this (motet) I will send it to you. It casts the necessary shadow on the serene symphony and perhaps accounts for those timpani and trombones.

The Motet’s opening (Warum) begins with a radiant D major chord (the home key of the Second Symphony) which falls to G minor on the second syllable on the way to somber D minor. A chromatic four-voice fugue develops. The question, “Why?, returns persistently as melodic lines drift off without resolution. The music traverses the circle of fifths, leaving behind the original key of D minor. Following the Motet’s first section (Job 3:20-23), the second and third sections respond with reassurance, moving to F major and C major with settings of Lamentations 3:41 and James 5:11. Sunshine returns, and the music becomes both sensuous and dancelike. Brahms dedicated this piece to the Bach scholar, Philipp Spitta. In an homage to Bach, the Motet concludes with a Lutheran chorale, Mit Fried und Freud ich fahr dahin. 

The full text is here.

Warum ist das Licht gegeben den Mühseligen (“Why has light been given to the weary of soul?”):

The second Motet, O Heiland, reiß die Himmel auf (“O Saviour, tear open the heavens”) was composed more than a decade earlier, between 1863 and 1864. It is a setting of an Advent song, first printed in 1622 and attributed to Friedrich Spee. Set in five verses, the Motet’s imitative counterpoint (known a stretto) looks back to the choral music of the Renaissance.  Amid a flurry of overlapping voices, the concluding “Amen” is a dazzling celebration of counterpoint.

The text is here.

O Heiland, reiß die Himmel auf (“O Saviour, tear open the heavens”)


  • Brahms: Two Motets, Op. 74, Marcus Creed, RIAS Kammerchor Amazon

Featured Image: Illustrations of the Book of Job, William Blake 

About Timothy Judd

A native of Upstate New York, Timothy Judd has been a member of the Richmond Symphony violin section since 2001. He is a graduate of the Eastman School of Music where he earned the degrees Bachelor of Music and Master of Music, studying with world renowned Ukrainian-American violinist Oleh Krysa.

The son of public school music educators, Timothy Judd began violin lessons at the age of four through Eastman’s Community Education Division. He was a student of Anastasia Jempelis, one of the earliest champions of the Suzuki method in the United States.

A passionate teacher, Mr. Judd has maintained a private violin studio in the Richmond area since 2002 and has been active coaching chamber music and numerous youth orchestra sectionals.

In his free time, Timothy Judd enjoys working out with Richmond’s popular SEAL Team Physical Training program.

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