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In final Johannes Brahms prelude, rage against dying light

Johannes Brahms’s tombstone in Vienna Central Cemetery.
Wiener Zentralfriedhof
Johannes Brahms’s tombstone in Vienna Central Cemetery.

On May 24, Winsor Music presents a concert featuring artistic director Peggy Pearson’s arrangement of three of Johannes Brahms’s Eleven Chorale Preludes for organ (Op. 122), including the concluding prelude of that set, on the chorale “O Welt, ich muss dich lassen” — the last piece Brahms ever finished. Whether intended as a final testament or not (and it would have been characteristically wry for Brahms to make his valediction a set of preludes), Brahms wrote the work and its immediate predecessor, the Four Serious Songs (Op. 121), under the shadows of his own illness and the May 1896 death of his longtime friend, the pianist and composer Clara Schumann. Both works are, essentially, meditations on death.

“O Welt, ich muss dich lassen” (“O world, I must leave you”) is one of the most famous Lutheran funeral chorales. It began as a rather more wistful song about leaving the city of Innsbruck, the tune composed (or, at least, arranged) by the great Netherlandish master Heinrich Isaac. Sometime in the 1500s, an anonymous lyricist turned the farewell to the city into a farewell to life itself: “To die is my gain; there is no remaining on the earth.” (Brahms knew well the song’s genesis; his own hand-copied score of Isaac’s original was still in his library at his death.)

Op. 122 contains two different preludes on “O Welt, ich muss dich lassen.” The first is Bach-like, the four-to-a-bar tune converted into a slow triple meter, afloat on a stream of counterpoint suffused with descending two-note sighs. The final “O Welt” is more straightforward, the tune only lightly embellished, but with a dramatic wrinkle: Each phrase’s cadence is repeated twice more, on different manuals, getting softer each time.

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It’s poignant symbolism, the dying person unwilling to let go even as the light fades. But Brahms adds further exegesis: The harmonies keep shifting within those echoes. Cadences that at first reinforce the home key reverberate into minor-key demurrals; retreats into autumnal modes circle back to unstable, expectant dominant chords. It is the quiet disquiet at the heart of so much of Brahms’s music — the continuous variation another restive composer, Arnold Schoenberg, cited as inspiration. Here it became a last redoubt against mortality, the process of judgment holding off the day of judgment. Faced with death, Brahms instinctively and expressively exercised that most vital and human of prerogatives: uncertainty.

Winsor Music performs at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Brookline, May 24 at 7 p.m. Tickets: $10-$20. 781-863-2861, www.winsormusic.org

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at matthewguerrieri@gmail.com.