gestDoes the use of strict counterpoint preclude emotion? Of course not, and Brahms’ earliest accompanied choral work, Geistliches Lied, is proof (should proof be needed). Brahms was 23 when he composed it, the same year Schumann died, and it had only been three years since he first began to attract widespread public acclaim, during and after his concert tour of April and May 1853. This “sacred song”, to a poem by Paul Fleming about the acceptance of fate and trust in God, may have originated from complex exercises in counterpoint Brahms was exchanging with his friend Joseph Joachim at the time.

Geistliches Lied is set as a double canon, with the tenor part imitating the soprano part four beats later at the unusual interval of a ninth, and then the bass doing the same with the alto using a different melody that fits in with the first. It’s an entirely audible process, but listeners don’t need to know it’s happening and quite probably will not notice at all. Somehow the lines still come together at key points in the text (such as the rising figures on the words “sei stille”) and for cadences without breaking the canon. This is largely achieved through the careful placement of rests or the lengthening or shortening of notes in the individual parts.

The organ accompaniment also plays its part. The opening, as well as anticipating the canons to come, introduces the rising lines that (along with its low E-flat pedal point) underpin the amazing Amen coda. Here the thought of any formal musical procedures seems miles away as a soaring soprano line leads into a series of intense suspensions that descend and resolve with agonizing slowness to provide the emotional release. However, even here canonic elements remain in place, reversed this time as the basses lead with the altos following two bars later. They are allowed to complete their first Amen before the second canonic group enters for the climax of the work, with the sopranos and tenors (now a half bar apart) both reaching their highest notes in the piece.

I once had to arrange a funeral at St Bride’s Church in London (which had at the time a brilliant professional choir attached), and I asked them to sing this. Nearly 20 years later I still remember the incredible emotional impact on the congregation this final Amen had.

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