JOHANNES BRAHMS (1833 - 1897)

Elf Choralvorspiele, opus posth. 122

orchestration by Henk de Vlieger, 1999


1. Mein Jesu der du mich
2. Schmücke dich, o liebe Seele
3. Herzliebster Jesu
4. O wie selig seid ihr doch, ihr Frommen
5. O Gott, du frommer Gott
6. O Welt, ich muß dich lassen (1. Fassung)
7. Herzlich tut mich erfreuen
8. Es ist ein' Ros' entsprungen
9. Herzlich tut mich verlangen (1. Fassung)
10. Herzlich tut mich verlangen (2. Fassung)
11. O Welt, ich muß dich lassen (2. Fassung)

The Eleven Chorale Preludes for organ are among the less conspicuous of Brahms' compositions. Biographies of the composer often suffice with the simple remark that they were his last works. The name of Brahms brings to mind chamber music, symphonies and songs rather than works for the organ. Although as a young man he entertained ambitions to become an organ virtuoso, he wrote only a small number of pieces for the instrument. Beside the Eleven Chorale Preludes, which were posthumously given the opus number 122, only four shorter organ works without opus number survive from earlier periods.

The dedicated and skilled composer Brahms was not only thoroughly familiar with the stylistic principles of the past, but put them into practice too, drawing inspiration from the classical Viennese composers with their command of form, employing variation technique, and even creating a Baroque chaconne in his fourth symphony. His chorale preludes are modelled on the north-German (Lutheran) organ tradition, and inspired particularly by Pachelbel, Buxtehude and Bach. In this genre too Brahms demonstrated his undisputed mastery, and his command of counterpoint is undoubtly comparable to that of his great seventeenth- and eighteenth-century predecessors. At the same time, some chorale preludes point the way to the twentieth century in terms of bar and rhythm or far-reaching chromaticism. In at least one respect, however, these pieces form an example of nineteenth-century romanticism, as they lend expression to the composer's most personal experience.

Brahms wrote his Eleven Chorale Preludes in May and June 1896, immediately after completing the Four Serious Songs opus 121. Both works may be considered as meditations upon death. In the chorale preludes Brahms the composer seems to want to say farewell to life once and for all. The composition of the first seven was prompted by the death of his beloved friend Clara Schumann. And although Brahms preferred to play down the seriousness of his own illness (cancer of the pancreas), he must have realised that these pieces could well be his last. This would appear from the choice of nine chorales (two are set twice) upon which they are based. Although the texts of chorale preludes were not sung, the tunes of these old German hymns were familiar enough to the informed listener to bring the intended associations to mind and give the pieces profound spiritual significance.

The chorale texts speak of reconcilement with death, resignation and even joyful longing for the world to come. The proud mood betrays great spiritual strength but is at the same time reflective and meditative. The direction 'forte ma dolce', which Brahms used frequently here, would seem to typify the entire work, in which vigour and mildness are continually united.

In December 1997, shortly after the death of my father, and greatly impressed by a concert given by the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra, in which Brahms' Haydn Variations were combined with two chorale preludes by Bach in Arnold Schönberg's orchestration, I decided to try to orchestrate the Eleven Chorale Preludes. I finished this project a year later, in February 1999. In contrast to Schönberg's orchestrations, my principle was to remain as close as possible to the composer, convinced as I was that Brahms' own characteristic tone colour does most justice to his music. His orchestral palette was in fact no larger than that of Beethoven. The instrumental developments of his time seem to have been wasted on him, and he was the last great composer to write consistently for natural horns and trumpets. I therefore took up the challenge to study his orchestral technique and remain faithful to it in my arrangement.

The numbering of the chorale preludes in my orchestration deviates from the published version. In one of Brahms' manuscripts pieces 2 - 7 are in a different order, and they are often performed today in this 'authentic' sequence. At first my preference for this sequence was intuitive: I felt that the simple 'Schmücke dich, o liebe Seele' should follow the extensive and elaborate opening chorale. Later on I discovered that this alternative sequence reveals a certain musical logic. The eleven pieces form a cycle, a kind of discourse, in which their order is indeed of importance. In this sequence the even movements are generally more reflective and subdued than the livelier uneven ones. This natural contrast between tension and relaxation was helpful to me in creating my orchestrations.

In only two of the eleven chorale preludes, the first and seventh, have I employed the full orchestral instrumentation, which is the same as that of Brahms' first symphony: doubled wind plus double bassoon, two pairs of horns, three trombones, two trumpets, timpani and strings. In all uneven movements the double bassoon and second pair of horns are used, and the trombones too in the fifth and eleventh pieces. In the even movements the instrumentation is more modest. In the second and eighth it is derived from Brahms' Serenade opus 16, which does not employ violins. Thus the sequence of pieces gave rise to a pattern of instrumentation in which nos. 1 - 5 roughly correspond to nos. 7 -11. The central sixth movement, hardly by coincidence the first setting of 'O Welt, ich muss dich lassen' (Oh world, I must leave thee), is orchestrated (or rather, copied) for string orchestra.

Unlike the French organ masters of his time, Brahms did not give concrete registration directions in his organ works. Nonetheless, much can be derived from his dynamics. In most of the chorale preludes forte alternates with piano; as has been mentioned, the term dolce is used frequently. In a few pieces Brahms indicates a change of manual; this is most conspicuous in the final piece, in which a double echo of each frase of the chorale lends rhetorical significance to the words "...ich muss dich lassen". In my arrangements I have taken all these aspects into account in order to preserve as much as possible of the original organlike character. In the orchestra too 'terraced dynamics' are therefore employed, as 'stops' are added or omitted abruptly. Only in 'Herzliebster Jesu' and 'O wie selig seid ihr doch, ihr Frommen', the shortest piece, did Brahms prescribe a gradual crecendo, which I have naturally retained.

Upon first acquaintance the Eleven Choral Preludes may sound slightly academic and cerebral. In my own experience they yielded their inner merits only slowly. Upon repeated listening their aesthetic and spiritual qualities are unveiled, as it were. And I cannot refrain from remarking that this is something quite different to the so-called spirituality fashionable in some of today's music. I sincerely hope that my orchestrations of Brahms' final compositions will contribute to their accessibility, and herzlich tut mich erfreuen that the first performance has been given by my friends of the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra.

Henk de Vlieger


This orchestration of the Eleven Choral Preludes was recorded by the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Jaap van Zweden on June 21 and 22, 2000.

The first performance of some movements was given on March 22, 2003, in the Amsterdam Concertgebouw.

Orchestra: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon,
4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, strings
Duration: 30'00"

Published by SCHOTT Music


Brahms’ last picture, June 1896

Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra
Jaap van Zweden

Columns Classics 99945
Brilliant Classics 99946

Mvt. 9:  Herzlich tut mich verlangen

(1. Fassung)

Mvt. 10: Herzlich tut mich verlangen

(2. Fassung)