Brahms, A German Requiem, 3rd movement

Close listening


Restless, unsettled, troubled, agitated: these could be the keywords depicting an experience of Brahms’ A German Requiem, the 3rd movement. This subjective mark is probably shared by many listeners, to begin with the composer himself, as the music is set on quite gloomy and fatalistic text, taken from the Bible:

Herr, lehre doch mich,

daß ein Ende mit mir haben muß,

und mein Leben ein Ziel hat,

und ich davon muß.


Siehe, meine Tage sind

einer Hand breit vor dir,

und mein Leben ist wie nichts vor dir.

Ach wie gar nichts sind alle Menschen,

die doch so sicher leben.


Sie gehen daher wie ein Schemen,

und machen ihnen viel vergebliche Unruhe;

sie sammeln und wissen nicht

wer es kriegen wird.

Nun Herr, wess soll ich mich trösten?

Ich hoffe auf dich.


Der Gerechten Seelen sind in Gottes Hand

und keine Qual rühret sie an

Lord, make me to know mine end,

and the measure of my days,

what it is:

that I may know how frail I am.

--Behold, thou hast made my days

as a handbreadth;

and my age

is as nothing before thee:

verily every man at his best state

is altogether vanity.

--Surely every man walketh in a vain shew:

surely they are disquieted in vain:

he heapeth up riches,

and knoweth not who shall gather them.

--And now, Lord, what wait I for?

My hope is in thee.

                                --Psalm 39:4-7

But the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God,

and there shall no torment touch them.

                                --Wisdom of Solomon 3:1




The uncertainty of thoughts, including occasional hope, set against the certainty of mortality (in the text) is reflected in music on several levels. On the tonal level, the home key of D minor is always returning (together with the opening theme/motif), while the other keys (including stable major keys - glimpses of hope?) are passing by. On the level of phrasing, the structural moments are subverted by weak cadences, and the dis-synchronicity of the phrasings of the soloist and the accompaniment (delayed resolution of the cadence in the bass - uncertainty?). Occasional ‘sonorous attack’ in the form of tutti fortissimo, with agitated timpani and either long sustained-tone pedals or repeated-tone pedals, are prepared but still come as surprising force upon the listener. The dynamic range between thin-textured phrases such as the opening one, and the music set to the stuttering words: “Nun Herr, wess sol lich mich trösten?” is enormous, implying a dramatic power of the latter, and adding to the restlessness of the piece.

The last part of the piece is often referred to, for its curious long pedal underlying the fugue. Interestingly, when the first three movements were previewed, Clara Schumann, violinist Joseph Joachim, and the great music critic Eduard Hanslick all complained about the fugue in the third movement, whose repetitive pedal point in D allowed none of Brahms's usual harmonic scope. Brahms called this "the eternal D," and despite some revisions he refused to alter the music.”[1]

In this short essay, I will try to present this piece from the perspective of an (informed) listener. I will follow the musical events from the beginning, and try to understand the working of pedal tones in it, especially the pedal of A German Requiem. First I will briefly go through the material before the appearance of the pedal. This is needed as it constitutes the atmosphere and defines the context in which the rest of the piece will be understood.

The baritone soloist opens the piece, supported by long notes in low strings and horns. The troubled mood sets in, primarily due to three factors: weakened harmonic functionality of the opening chords, stuttering beginning of the melody on the dominant, and conflicting phrasing of double bass and timpani with the melody. The uncertainty is evoked by harmonic and structural means. The key is clear, still, not presented as peaceful ‘home’, but rather as a questioned necessity: the first chord is the tonic but not in the root position. The score shows F# in double bass, but this is almost inaudible, which allows the strong A (the dominant) in horns to function as the bass. This means that both the bass and the melody emphasize ‘the other’ of the tonic. However, this ‘other’ is itself not clearly profiled: it is represented with the minor chord on V in m.2. Listen to mm.1-16:




Although the main focus of this essay are the pedal tones, I believe that their ‘working’ in this piece is very much influenced by various destabilizing factors. Before the listener hears the pedal tones, these factors create a particular atmosphere. Evoking of the ‘troubled’ mood is important, as it becomes the perspective from which the musical events are understood. With this in mind, let us quickly examine the unfolding of the events.

The very beginning of the soloist’s exposition is interrupted after one note (“Herr”) - turning this one into an exclamation, opening the movement in a kind of fragmentary way. This influences the perception of the form of the first phrase: the clear 4 bars (mm.5-8) at its end are not balanced with the first 4. The voice begins only in the second bar, after long notes (insufficiently bringing the metrical connotations) in the orchestra began to sound. The listener recognizes the usual short introduction and the piece begins perceptively at the moment the voice enters.[2] That means that there are 7 bars in this phrase, which feels as a deviation. When the choir repeats the same phrase (from m.17), Brahms reveals the ‘reconstruction’ of the beginning: the melodic call at the opening of the baritone line corresponds to m.18. Comparing the two phrases (baritone vs choir) we can understand how much impact was made with the omission of the first note in the opening of the movement. The structural and the melodic agents are interacting, resulting in destabilization of the form.

Another destabilizing factor is the opposition between the metrical organization of the motifs in double bass and timpani (all having an upbeat), and the accents of the soloist. The same procedure will later weaken some cadences (delay of the cadence resolution in the bass, see figures 1 and 2).



The structure of the piece) is a kind of rondo: the main theme (opening phrase) is returning after other themes. The choir repeats the melody of the soloist (now as a chorale). The phrases are clearly arranged, one after the other, nevertheless, only few cadences are perfect authentic. This certainly has effect on the perception: the phrases ‘fail’ to close, the ‘breathing’ of the piece cannot have a peaceful exhalation. The feeling of uncertainty sets in as the melody is repeatedly deprived of full completion. See the cadences in the formal analysis (figure 3 - below):

The P.A.C. in m.24 at first sight denies my previous statement about the non-completeness of phrases. However, interestingly, structural actors undermine its power as formal differentiator. The two phrases (mm.17-33) are grouped in a higher-level whole, so that the position of the P.A.C. is somewhat conflicting with its closural strength.[3]  Listen to mm.16-33:



[1] Arthur D. Colman, Johannes Brahms: The Musical Resolution of a Conflicted Personality at

[2] After the piece is heard several times, many of the ‘surprises’ will not be there anymore. Most of the analysis in this chapter refers to the first time the piece is heard.

Figure 1 Requiem, mm.1-7. Interaction of the trochaic rhythm of the soloist and the iambic rhythm of the accompaniment 

Figure 2. mm.15-18. Weakening of the cadence

Figure 3. Formal structure

The choral phrase in mm.48-66 is very important for the perception of the first pedal in this movement, the dominant pedal under the return of the main theme in soloist’s part (m.67, see the scheme above). Especially in its second part (from m.56), the tension is strongly increasing, which focusses the listeners’ attention, in expectation of some kind of event (e.g. climax or resolution). When the expectation is not completely fulfilled, the tension that the listener experiences has an effect on the experience of the pedal tone.


As shown in Figure 4, the dynamics increase, as well as the conflict between the highest and the lowest voice, that are moving in the opposite directions. The soprano is gradually ascending to a very high register, while the bass is moving downwards. This all is happening above the pulsating triplets in the accompaniment (as opposed to long notes accompanying the soloist). The climax is reached in mm.61-62, where the whole orchestra enters and sounds the dominant chord. But the expected resolution is not coming. Instead, there is a prolongation of the dominant chord, now realized by interrupted notes in the choir and the orchestra, and supported by the organ pedal-tone A (doubled by double bass). The sopranos descend and reach the bottom, two octaves lower, an anticlimax. The energy of the growing tension is not transformed into the satisfaction of the resolution, but instead is left without direction. At some point the chord becomes minor, which neutralizes its dominant power, and suggests the possibility of another key.




The rich sound suddenly thins out: all we hear is the continued pitch A (the dominant scored in the organ pedal and double bass is moved to other voices). Several further developments are possible, the listener is in the state of stand-by, alert for the coming events. However, only few things change. The dominant is yet prolonged, now presented by the sustained tone in the horn and tremolo in timpani. Scarce pizzicato chords in strings just emphasize the insecurity in the darkness. And this is the moment when one voice (soloist) rise, repeating the opening theme. The pedal tone is the continuation of the darkness. It is felt as the inevitable. The listener does not expect this pedal to resolve in the way most dominant pedals do, this pedal has grown from the germ seeded before, it has just become more obvious.

Interestingly, the termination of the pedal (m.74) is almost not noticed as such. At the end of the first soloist’s phrase (a weak A.C. in m.73) one of the two pedal tones is resolved - which is clearly perceptible. However, the lower of the two tones is resolved a bar later, at which moment the dominant does not sound any more. Strange enough, the ‘phantom’ pedal still sounds, or at least it is possible that the listener is not sure whether it is present or not. How can we explain this possibility? Listen to mm.63-93:

On this place, several actors are active. One of the most important is the recurring A (in horn but also in other parts), which could, in principle be felt as continuation. Then, our knowledge of form says that the dominant pedal will resolve in the cadence (although, this pedal is already felt as not being normative), which could lead the listener to assume its existence until a structurally important moment. Further, there is a conflicting timing between the pedal and the form of the phrase, which requires some mental capacity to understand, and possibly puts the ‘peddal-issue’ to the background. Also, the meaning of the harmonic progression is not straight-out: the opening of the phrase is accompanied with an open fifth (together with D-pedal it is understood as V), but three bars later we hear an unexpected minor third.


The law of Prägnanz states that “psychological organization will always be as ‘good’ as the prevailing conditions allow” (Meyer, 1956:86), which means that one will always interpret the stimuli in such way to get the most logical story. The listener knows that the theme consists of two related phrases, so she expects that all the musical events will cooperate to realize this. The termination of the lower pedal after the second phrase has already begun is not cooperative with the form and at the moment also not explainable from another perspective. As such, it is temporary ignored, until more facts can outline another interpretation. And there come ‘more facts’: after several beats, the sound of the pedal is clearly perceptible. The listener interprets the returning A as the continuation of the same pedal, and thereby perhaps excludes the possibility to hear it as (just) a part of the horn-line.



All the A’s are perceptively tied because this gives the most logical interpretation. The pedal-ness of A decreases and disappears without notice around the expected (but not realized) cadence in m.81 (at 0:35 in the audio fragment).

So far we have heard a small ternary structure, a-b-a1. The balance is achieved in proportion (approximately the same size of each part), and the tonal plan (the home key embracing the modulative contrasting section). The return of the opening theme is even more ‘dark’ than before, due to the texture, the dominant pedal, the choir that is repeating the soloist’s words in an echo, and a somewhat fragmentary grouping of musical events at the end. Sudden fortissimo in the cadence (m.93) strikes us both as unexpected (surprise-tension) and in a purely physical way (sonorous symbol of ‘inexorable’).

Next comes the change: new episode in D major (m.105). In contrast to the opening theme this one is quite lyrical. The first cadence is an A.C. (weakened by the late resolution in the bass, comparable to m.16). The soloist continues with the phrase that resembles the parts of the main theme but closes without cadence, on a hybrid harmony: i (vertical tone collection)+ V (melodic connotations). The choir repeats the bright theme in F major (different key) and the same type of cadence.


In m.142 there is again a variant of the main theme (even more varied), in the home key. This section is in a direct relation with the pedal of the Requiem, thirty bars later. The soloist starts with the words “Nun, Herr,…”, this time agitated. Coming back to the gloomy and unsettled mood of the beginning, after the bright section in major keys, feels like rounding off, the final conclusion. The opening question returns as a cry, an urge. The choir repeats it in ‘commotion’, a fugato begins. The tension rises, tutti in fortissimo: the gesture of finale. The listener experiences thrill caused by the sonorous power, intensified by the meaning of the text. The harmonic progression of the soloist’s part prolongs the dominant. The choir is not resolving it, instead the instability is intensified by the chain of dominants without resolution. The melodic layer features imitation, however, the one that is rather circling than progressing. The contour of each phrase is an arch, but due to the fugato that emphasizes each new imitation, the listener perceives primarily the ascending movement: the tension rises. The implicability of the musical events is not primarily local. There is a slight feeling of saturation; the listener expects change but cannot envision in which direction the change will take place. The expectation-tension is related to the events on the structural level: some resolution must take place.

[3] The second phrase forms with the first a whole: the material is similar and together they resemble a mini rounded binary form (the beginning of the second phrase serves as the contrasting middle with the dominant as its goal, and the last six bars bring a varied recapitulation of the related bars in the first phrase). The second phrase is given more weight through the expansion of the cadence (doubled note values). The cadence is thereby more emphasized, felt as more important, and more final. Because of the integration of the two phrases, the last cadence is felt as the cadence of the whole.

Figure 5. The first pedal point

Figure 6

Figure 4. Mm.48-66, climax - anticlimax

Figure 7.

But the one who is addressed does not speak; the question “Now, Lord, how can I console myself?” remains open. After reaching the climax, the accumulated energy has to disintegrate somehow. Repeating the last words in an echo functions as ‘discharging’. Everything slows down and finally comes to a halt on the question mark: the #ivo7. The expectation of a resolution is not fulfilled; the expectation-tension turns into denial-tension. At the same time, there is a harmonic expectation, as this last chord implies continuation. It doesn’t, however, need to be the continuation that one expects in the theoretical way (the V, perhaps of the A.C.). The G# dim7 chord has lost some of its harmonic implications due to the changed register, so many iterations, and the B in the lowest voice (without the bass). Listen to the section from m.142:

When the music finally continues, the cadential V6/4 sounds and the listener is relieved, this is going to be the final cadence. The dominant, underlined with the D-pedal (A) in the bass is greatly expanded, hosting another imitative part on the words “My hope is in Thee”. This clearly cadential progression has another closing feature: the Picardy third.[4] The harmonic progression above the dominant pedal is: V6/4 ->5/3 - V6/4 -> (viio7)ii - ii - V7 - V6/4 -> 7. The starting V6/4 is retaken at the end of the phrase. The harmonic rhythm is decelerated close to the final resolution into V7, the tempo is retarded, and the final chords are emphasized by the wind instruments: it is the gesture that prepares us for the final tonic chord, the harmonic end of the piece. Listen to the section before the fugue begins:




The final, major tonic has arrived. The tempo has immediately become faster, which suits well the overwhelming excitement about the fulfilled expectation of the so-long-expected ‘final’ chord. The insecurity throughout the whole movement is now over. The excitement puts focus on the strong cadence, strong tonic, major, synchronized in all the voices; the listener enjoys the final resolution.

The fast movement in all the voices has the mood of a motoric Baroque polyphony. The interaction of this notion, with awareness of the tonic pedal and continuation of harmonic progression confirms the closure: the listener recognizes the model closing tonic pedal (of a fugue or a prelude). The ‘exhaling’ after so much tension is taking place, after all it was not a sad end, there is hope. The attention is weakened. In the text, this last part is a sort of epilogue, an external conclusion, the final words that come after the story is told. Musically, a coda. Listen to the fugue:


At the moment the listener becomes aware that the tonic pedal is not just prolonging the final harmony, that the piece is not ended and that something else is taking place, the first voices have already exposed the theme of the fugue. The last section of the third movement is the whole fugue, set above the tonic pedal in the bass, the pedal of A German Requiem.

The fugue could certainly not be expected. If the listener was indeed overwhelmed by the resolution, if she has indeed allowed herself to just enjoy in the moment and lose focus, then she cannot perceive the wholeness of the fugue, she has missed one part due to the pedal. But at a certain moment she is aware that this is a new section.

At that moment things invert: the pedal was the foundation of the final resolution but now it is accompanying a new section, it is ‘just’ a tonic pedal. At some point it is becoming dissonant, first with the harmonies, then with the keys. The moments it is still considered being the end of the movement (closing T-pedal), the listener is not surprised to hear the subdominant and the dominant chord above it.  The first surprise comes when the following, tonic chord (D major), transforms into (viio7)V. This means directing towards the dominant area, which is not characteristic of closing T-pedal. The dominant hosts the answer of the fugue-theme, and naturally, the tonic comes back with the next entry. The pedal is so alternating between being consonant and being dissonant. The listener is possibly in a momentary confusion, trying to find the interpretation that will fit all the musical events, including the higher-level structure. Recognizing imitation of a (quite long) theme, the listener perhaps sees the possibility that the other voices are also going to imitate it. This would result in a fugal exposition, and the listener becomes aware of the pedal that starts sounding as a deviation. What has begun as a textbook example of T-pedal, is now turning into a ‘too-long’ pedal. The pedal should have stopped. Perhaps Brahms has envisioned another structural moment to terminate it. As it is discussed in the chapter ‘Models’, opening T-pedals are often either very short, hosting the basic idea, or somewhat longer, hosting the first phrase (or its first half). In either case, the termination of the pedal comes at a moment of structural differentiation. If one focusses on this ‘deviating’ pedal, the attention gets directed to the structural gestures, such as closing figures, retardations, culminations, and similar. When recognizing these gestures, the listener experiences also the expectation-tension related to the pedal, as she knows that the pedal is just ‘waiting’ for the right moment to stop (or resolve or contribute to any change). The listener is also waiting.


After all the voices have exposed the theme, the soprano starts the fifth entry, that transforms into a long melismatic line in the home key (the other voices decrease their activity, to make space), quite closural in its nature (see figure 7). This gesture, together with the pedal, create the ground for the expectation of the closure. However, instead of a proper resolution into the tonic chord, the movement continues, modulating into G major. Not only that the piece is not finalized, the pedal tone has changed its harmonic function, and shortly after that, the key is again changed. The listener might not have any more expectations concerning the pedal.





The listener might experience a slight confusion related to the pedal tone, and turn the full attention to the polyphony, ignoring the pedal. At the moment the music modulates to A major (with a number of stretto entries), the pedal becomes dissonant also with the key. Although it does belong to the tone collection, at the moment it is not the tonic or the dominant, and thus it is (temporary) not any more perceived as harmonic pedal (see the discussion in ‘Models’), it is not implicative in harmonic sense. Its working is in sonorous realm. In this case, the pedal on D under the other events in A major is probably not felt as subdominant but as simply dissonant. The function of its pitch in this context is not clear, and it is slowly losing the harmonic potential. It is coloring the other events more with its sound than with its harmonic function: it is turning into a drone. This drone is not foundational in the sense of anchoring the music to one central pitch - because in this context the D cannot be the central pitch on the local level. It becomes a textural drone. The most important relations at the moment are counterpointal - at least if the attention is focused on the local-level events. This is, however, just one of the possibilities. Another is holding on to the home-key tonic, in which case the events in A major sound as becoming more and more detached, as a digression that has perhaps become an independent story.

‘Duck or rabbit?’ Probably both, to a certain extent (or alternatively). When the conflicting interaction (dissonance) between the pedal tone and the current key, or between such a long pedal and the fugue polyphony transforms into competitive interaction, the listener’s focus is a crucial factor, deciding which of the two to follow as the primary source. In case the listener chooses to hold on to the tonic-ness of the pedal, it does, indeed become the harmonic anchor to the home-key. In case the listener wants to enjoy the interweaving of themes and other polyphonic layers, she might (unconsciously) choose to ignore the drone for a moment. If this happens, the drone becomes a part of the canvas, a sonorous foundation for the events in A major. It will not be possible to totally ignore it, as the pedal is scored in organ pedals, basses and cellos, contra bassoon, continuous timpani beats, tuba, and trombones. The sound will be there even if one tries not to listen, but the meaning of it will change.

This short case study has shown how the interaction between the pedal tone(s), the other musical events, and the listener’s experience with tonal music influences the meaning of the perceived patterns. The assigned meaning of the dominant pedal before the fugue starts influences the forming of the meaning of the fugue pedal. The forming of the understanding of this extraordinary pedal (while listening to this movement) influences the way this pedal is heard. In turn, the kind of attention we want to give to this pedal will influence the way it colors the music. 


[4] This place could be ascribed double meaning. On the one hand, as interpreted here, the harmonic means (especially the dominant pedal) realize the closing gesture: we are in the cadence that still has to resolve. On the other hand, the Picardy third, which is indeed the sign of the end, is usually coming at the end of the cadence, as the resolution of the dominant. The ascending motif that is spreading throughout the voices (reaching very high register in soprano and tenor), in such calm unfolding are almost symbolic for the ascension of the soul and uniting with God. In this sense the melodic means suggest a coda.