Brahms composed this motet in the village of Pörtschach in 1877, one year after the effortful completion of his First Symphony. He begins the summer by quickly composing his Second Symphony, generally held to be his most cloudless, ebullient piece. He then proceeded immediately to this motet (a few phrases of which had actually been composed twenty years before). He dedicated it to the great Bach scholar Philipp Spitta, with whom he was collaborating on the first complete Bach edition (the relationship of Brahms’ composing to the serial appearance of those volumes is a large and fascinating subject).
When an admirer, Vincenz Lachner, writes to Brahms about the strange shadows (trombones and tympani) in Brahms sunny Second Symphony (he is among the first to notice them) Brahms responds as follows:
I would have to confess that I am. . . 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.
So the motet, Warum, its powerful sequence of texts assembled by Brahms himself, is the ‘necessary’ response, and for us a shadowed gateway to the new light of Advent.
© John Harbison