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Brahms: A German Requiem

How, and more importantly why, does a man in his early 30s write music intimately concerned with death, mourning and comfort for the bereaved? This post is about such a work, written by such a man. The man is Johannes Brahms, the music his Ein deutsches Requiem. The title is usually translated literally into English: A German Requiem.


In the 1863 Brahms turned 30. He was still struggling to make a name for himself as a composer but from 1862, after leaving his native Hamburg, he'd started to make his mark in Vienna as a pianist, and many of his important chamber music and piano works date from this time.


Johannes Brahms (1853)

In April 1865, just before he turned 32, Brahms mentioned the idea of a “German Requiem” in letters to Clara Schumann, widow of the composer Robert Schumann and herself one of the foremost pianists in Europe. In February of the following year he began intensive work on the piece and by August most it - five of the eventual seven movements - was complete. By the end of 1866 the first version of the work - in six movements - was finished.


Clara Schumann (1857)

Given the overtly Protestant nature of Brahms's conception, he was keen for it to be premiered in Bremen, in the heart of Protestant North Germany, and a city where he had a strong personal following. He was persuaded, though, to allow the first three movements to be given in Vienna in December 1867. Given Brahms's relatively low public profile in Catholic Vienna, the response was mostly negative.


The premiere of the complete work (as it then was, still in six movements) took place in Bremen Cathedral four months later, on Good Friday, 10 April, 1868. Brahms himself conducted, and the occasion was a great success. The performance took place in the city's cathedral and the program included excerpts from Bach's St Matthew Passion and Handel's Messiah.


Johannes Brahms (1866)

Brahms revised the work further after the Bremen performance and over the following months added another movement, the one involving the soprano soloist, making the seven movement work as it now stands. Over the next few years the piece travelled rapidly with many performances in Protestant Germany, as well as in Britain and the United States. Its acceptance in Catholic countries was slower, with much argument against the work on textual and religious grounds, not to mention some of the stylistic features of the music. Those who supported Wagner also generally disliked anything by Brahms, even at this early stage, but even the toughest critics acknowledged the grandeur of Brahms's design and the skill with which he executed his work.


Brahms's German Requiem doesn't set the usual Requiem text, the Catholic Mass for the Dead. Instead, Brahms selected passages from Martin Luther’s German translation of the Bible which focus on comforting those who mourn, as opposed to the Catholic Requiem, which prays for the dead and focuses on the last judgement and the afterlife. The first movement sets the tone for the work setting texts from Matthew's gospel and the Psalms: "Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted. They that sow in tears shall reap in joy." The violins are silent in this movement, with the string texture dominated by the rich warmth of divided violas and cellos.


First movement


The comforting tone of the first movement is contrasted with the darkness of both the key and the text at the start of the second. The text is from the New Testament, specifically the first epistle of Peter: "For all flesh is as grass, and the glory of man as the flower of the grass. The grass withers, and the flower thereof falls away." Brahms sets this as a dark march but in triple time, something which elicited negative comment at the first performance in Vienna; the Viennese heard in this a parody of the popular Austrian dance known as the Ländler. To other ears the music has a forward momentum, an inevitability, about it. Instrumentally the composer here expands his palette of musical colours; the violins are heard for the first time.


The violins are in three parts, as are the violas, and the whole texture is immediately thicker and more arresting than that of the first movement. Melodically, the music falls and rises and waves, again creating the feeling of being swept up in an irresistible force of nature. Then there’s a change of mood which sets a new text from the epistle of James: "Be patient therefore, brethren, unto the coming of the Lord..." Brahms deliberately juxtaposes the positive against the negative, the hope of comfort after the experience of the inevitability of death.


Brahms here is very much speaking to the living, to those left behind, rather than focusing on the fate of the dead. This is what makes the German Requiem unique. Many composers setting the traditional Catholic Requiem had aimed at downplaying the texts which deal with judgement and hell - most notably Gabriel Fauré and Maurice Duruflé - but Brahms avoids the liturgical requirements of the true Requiem Mass entirely by compiling his own concert work to German Bible texts.


The "German" of the title would have meant much more than a mere location or nation to Brahms's first audiences, who were German speakers. The notion of a German Requiem would have been understood by many as meaning a Protestant Requiem; perhaps some even read it as a Humanist Requiem. While Brahms may have chosen texts from the Christian tradition to make his point, it also seems clear that he was not seeking to make a particularly doctrinal or sectarian statement, but rather seeking to set texts which focus on comfort for the bereaved rather than the fear of death, regardless of their individual beliefs.


The second movement continues its march of inevitability, but the goal becomes brighter as the music progresses. After a reprise of the opening "All flesh is as grass" music, Brahms shocks us out of our melancholy with an appeal to shake off fear and embrace confidence. From Peter's first epistle we are told, "But the word of the Lord endures for ever", after which we have the first of German Requiem's three mighty passages of counterpoint, this one setting words from the prophet, Isaiah: "And the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with songs and everlasting joy upon their heads..." The transformation from the darkness of the opening of the movement is stunning.


Second movement


The German Requiem originally required only one soloist, a baritone, and it's at the start of the third movement that we hear the solo baritone for the first time. This movement covers a similar emotional journey to that experienced in the second movement, but here the focus is personal rather than universal. The soloist starts with words from the Psalms: "Lord, make me to know mine end, and the measure of my days, what it is: that I may know how frail I am".


The text continues from the same psalm, reminding us of the impermanence of life. In this movement the shadow of Beethoven is much in evidence, and especially Beethoven's two late choral/orchestral masterpieces, the ninth symphony and the Missa Solemnis. As with the second movement, Brahms leads us on a journey in this section which goes from the negative to the positive, and the question, "Lord, what do I wait for?" is coloured by sounds reminiscent of the mystical calm before the final storm in Beethoven's ninth. This is answered by, "My hope is in you."


The ensuing fugue, the second great counterpoint passage in the piece, contains vocal lines which at times remind me of the great fugue at the end of the Credo in Beethoven's Missa Solemnis. Perhaps more shocking, though, and more an evidence of the young Brahms's incredible skill, is the pedal point, the note D sustained in the bassline of the orchestra for the entire fugue.


Third movement


The choir sings in all seven movements of the German Requiem, which at around 70 minutes or so makes it a tiring sing. When I’ve conducted the piece I’ve given the choir a minute or so to sit at this point. We're not quite half way through but it's a good moment to let the energy of that last onslaught dissipate before the complete change of mood - and key - we encounter in the fourth movement.


Luther's translation of the Bible (1534 printing)

The fourth movement is perhaps the best-known as it's often sung by choirs as a stand-alone piece. It's a relatively simple, gentle setting of verses from Psalm 84, which begin "How amiable are your tabernacles, O Lord of hosts." Those who choose to dislike the German Requiem criticise this music for being too much like Mendelssohn or too sentimental, just as the contrapuntal sections are accused of being too much like Bach or not sentimental enough. You can't please some people...


Fourth movement


It's at this point that we encounter the movement Brahms added to the German Requiem after the first performance of the six-movement version in Bremen. This new fifth movement calls for a soprano soloist, the only movement in the work to do so, and it has led to much speculation as to Brahms's motives for adding it. While we can't know exactly why he wrote the German Requiem - and there are usually a number of complex intertwining factors in any creative enterprise - most scholars draw our attention to two bereavements Brahms suffered at this point in his life. The first, in 1856, was the sad demise of his friend and supporter Robert Schumann. The second was much closer to home, the death of his mother in February 1865. This was just a couple of months before the first references to the German Requiem in the composer's letters to Clara Schumann.


It's impossible to say one thing or another led Brahms to write the work, but it does seem as if thoughts on death - and on remaining behind after a loved one has gone - were on Brahms's mind at the time he wrote this piece. More specifically, this added movement with the soprano solo specifically refers to a mother's love as a metaphor for the comforting love of God. The text is drawn from the Old and New Testaments, and the Old Testament Apocrypha, with Brahms's musical depiction of calm reassurance transcending all doctrinal boundaries. I never fail to find this movement deeply moving in performance.


In the larger scheme of things, this movement with the soprano acts as a companion piece to the preceding movement which, as a pair, provide a period of utter calm, almost bliss, in the centre of Brahms's musical structure.


Fifth movement


Bremen Cathedral

The sixth movement is, along with the second, one of the major sections of the piece. The reassurance of comfort in the fifth movement is briefly brushed away with the opening of the sixth, which seems to have no home key for a while as it says, in words from the New Testament epistle to the Hebrews, that here on earth we have no permanent home. The baritone soloist then sings again, ushering in - in German of course - the text which Handel set so memorably in English in Part 3 of Messiah: "Behold, I tell you a mystery; We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed...for the trumpet shall sound and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed." The thunderous entry of the full orchestra and chorus depicts the last trumpet in terrifying tones. There's no trumpet solo, but there doesn't need to be.


Very soon Brahms takes us further: "Then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is thy sting?" This tremendous music builds in intensity and power until the minor key gives way to the major to end with the third great fugal section of the German Requiem. This sets a passage from the Book of Revelation: "You are worthy, O Lord, to receive glory and honour and power: for you have created all things, and for your pleasure they are and were created".


Sixth movement


I always get to this point and wonder if Brahms ever considered ending the German Requiem there. It's a tremendous conclusion and it would be totally satisfying to end on that tumultuous cry of victory. It's also worth noting that the final, seventh movement wasn't part of the initial five Brahms had completed by August 1866, so maybe he did consider ending here at some early point in the work’s gestation. But as it stands in the final version there is one more movement, and it returns us in many ways to where we started. The work began with "Blessed are they that mourn". Now the seventh movement sets a short passage, also from the Book of Revelation, which begins "Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord".


The similar opening to the texts led Brahms to refer in the last movement to the music of the first, thus providing us with a very satisfying, and above all comforting conclusion to the German Requiem.


There are mystical moments in the final movement, where Brahms sets the words "Yes, says the Spirit, that they may rest from their labours; and their works follow them". The mood is calming and reassuring, with the final pages of the score setting "Blessed are the dead" to the music we heard setting "Blessed are those who mourn" earlier. It brings the work full circle, and to a perfectly satisfying end.


Seventh movement


Johannes Brams (c. 1872)

Brahms's Ein deutsches Requiem was very early on regarded as a masterpiece, even by many of those who could not abide its tone or its message. It remains one of the major choral works of the 19th century, one of Brahms's very special contributions to the repertoire.


I acknowledge Nancy Thuleen's online essay on the German Requiem as my primary source for this post. It can be found here.


This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in March, 2013.

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