The Three Motets Op 110 were composed by 1889 and published the following year, the first performance being on 13 March 1890 in Cologne. They represent Brahms’s final works in this form, and maintain the vein of pessimism which is so typical of Brahms’s motets as a whole. Throughout ‘Ich aber bin elend’, Brahms’s high regard for the choral recitativo style and antiphonal textures of Gabrieli and Schütz is everywhere apparent, particularly the passage beginning ‘Herr, Herr Gott’. The intensification of expression at the words ‘Herr Gott, deine Hilfe’ arrives as an overwhelming plea for assistance. ‘Ach, arme Welt’ is in strophic form (three verses) and finds Brahms once again in cerebral mood. Like a finely tuned watch mechanism, one cannot but admire its workings, but the human dimension appears strangely muted. In ‘Wenn wir in höchsten Nöten sein’, Brahms builds the greater part of the motet from the opening phrase. For the first verse he presents a chorale-style melody antiphonally, and from this creates a variation for the third verse. Verses two and four, however, are scored homophonically.
from notes by Julian Haylock © 1991