Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Brahms' Requiem: The Major Third Motive

So I am currently preparing for my lectures tomorrow at Lasell Village, and for the "Ten Greatest Choral Works" class I am working on the Brahms' Requiem, and trying to come up with some things for them to listen for.

And one thing that really annoys me, as one of the procrastinators of the world, is that all kinds of sites have program notes and essays about this piece, and they give you the exact same bit of tiny information.

"A German Requiem is unified compositionally by a three-note motif of a leap of a major third, usually followed by a half-step in the same direction. The first exposed choral entry presents the motif in the soprano voice (F–A–B♭). This motif pervades every movement and much of the thematic material in the piece." (via the Wikipedia article)

Well, that's very nice, but where else is it? Nobody will say. Some of us are preparing at the last minute here! How about throwing us a bone? Where else does this motive show up? Nope, everyone seems to have just cribbed from the Wikipedia article. (Like I wanted to do, except there's not enough info!)

So HERE, for anyone ELSE preparing a lecture last minute on the Brahms' Requiem, are some other places that the motive of a rising major third followed by a rising half-step occurs.

Movement 3, m. 164, if you put the bass and tenor lines together, on the words "I hope"
Movement 3, m. 173, the beginning of the fugue subject (the tenors have it first) on the words "The righteous souls" (actually just "the right--") and of course whenever else the fugue subject comes in
Movement 4, m. 4-5, the first three notes of the soprano melody, on the words "How lovely", and whenever else the melody reoccurs.
Movement 6, m. 208, the first three notes of the fugue subject (the altos have it first) are this motive in reverse (descending half step followed by a descending major third) on the words "Lord, you are worthy." Provides kind of a nice contrast to the corresponding fugue in Movement 3.
Movement 7 obviously reincorporates the material from Movement 1.

This is just after a 10-minute glance through the choral score. Anyone have any other points where this motive occurs? Want to argue that Brahms used an inversion of it somewhere? Leave a comment! Help the future procrastinating music lecturers of the world!


  1. Anonymous8:31 PM

    The instrumental opening to movement 4 is the motive in inversion.

    Movement 3, the pizzicato bass line is the motive in inversion; at the high point of the baritone tune is the motive ("das ein Ende", A - C - D).

    also in movement 5 (first three notes of the oboe part as the soprano enters, for example, and then often in this form throughout the mvt)

    And how 'bout this?? Look at the bass line of the instrumental introduction of the first movement: F - D flat - C. Which is also, of course, the long term harmonic plan of the first movement (B section, "Die mit Traenen" is in D-flat, and it resolves to C).

    And the second key area of the final movement, which is the mirror of the first movement, is A (a major third up from F, mirroring the D-flat second key area of movement 1, which is a major third down from the home key of F).

    It doesn't appear in movement 2, since that movement was actually written first - before Brahms decided on the motive. But there is a thread connecting mvt 2 to mvt 1 - the first unison vocal tune of movement 2 is based on chorale (Wer nur den lieben Gott laesst walten). The chorale tune in b-flat minor would be: f bflat c dflat d bflat c a (or aflat) f. This is the skeleton of mvt 2's vocal line; now play it in major (with d natural) and compare it to mvt 1 instrumental opening . . .

    last cool fact: this chorale appears in bach cantata 21, which we know Brahms conducted around the time he was composing this . . .

    I'm sure there are more, but it's everywhere!!

  2. Excellent - I don't have time to verify these myself, but procrastinating music lecturers, there you go!