A German Requiem

Ein Deutsches Requiem, Op. 45 (A German Requiem), Johannes Brahms

As for the title, I must admit I should like to leave out the word ‘German’ and refer instead to ‘Humanity.'

Johannes Brahms

The breadth of Opus 45 embraces all of us, and the universality of this requiem moves far beyond nationality or a specific religion. The title German Requiem referred specifically to the language. In no part does Brahms use the words Jesus or Christ in the original translation. This requiem, as contrasted to the Catholic mass for the dead, presents no doctrine, Instead it offers hope and solace without suggest judgment or terror.

He first mentioned the idea of the German Requiem in correspondence to Clara Schumann in 1865. Between 1857–1868, Brahms worked in part on elements which would appear in the Requiem. Many standard interpretations say that this was a deeply personal response to the death experience: that of Robert Schumann (1856) and his mother (1865). Others have said it was in part a reaction to the deaths incurred in the Franco-Prussian War.

In 1866, the composer worked with increasing intensity, and by August he had completed parts 1,2,3,4, and 6. Part 5 was written in 1867–68. Originally there were six movements in the first version, premiering in 1868 at the Bremen Cathedral on Good Friday. The fifth movement—a tribute to his mother’s memory—was inserted shortly thereafter, and was heard as part of the German Requiem in Leipzig, February, 1869.

Brahms used selections from both the Old and New Testaments of the Lutheran Bible and Apocrypha. His message remains theistic, but not specifically Christian.  He never went to church, although was obviously well acquainted with the Lutheran Bible. When criticized for this behavior, the composer responded, “Nonetheless, I do have my faith.”

Movements 1–3 address the mourning process and experience.

  1. Matthew 5:4: Opening Chorus; “Blessed are They that Mourn.”  The music is serene and calm, conveying resignation to the situation. There are no violins, piccolo, or clarinets, thus considerably darkening the orchestral palette.
  2. I Peter: 1:24: “All is flesh is as the Grass.” This is a funeral march over timpanic throbbing in triplets. An interlude “Now therefore be patient” offers respite (winds) , and the march returns before a tranquil conclusion. Also included are quotes from James 5:7, Peter I:25, and Isaiah 35:10.
  3. Psalm 39 4–7: “Lord Make us to Know Mine End” and the Wisdom of Solomon, 3:2. This request for guidance includes a powerful fugue. It opens with a baritone solo in dialogue with the chorus.
  4. Psalm 84: 1, 2, and 4 :“How Lovely is They Dwelling Place.” This text offers a meditation on the beauties of heaven and eternal life. It is possibly the most cherished section of the entire work, and is the shortest movement in the Requiem.
  5. John 16:22 :“Ye now are sorrowful.” This section opens with a tender orchestral prelude and concludes on a note of exaltation. Rosa Newmarch observed “The music is logically linked up with the opening chorus by the reappearance of its basic theme and the codas of the first and last movements with the peaceful and conciliatory tones of the harp. Softly fading triplet figures are identical.” Texts herein also used are from John 16:22, Isaiah 66:13, and Ecclesiastes 51:35.
  6. Corinthians 15:51, 52, 54, and 55: “Behold I show you a mystery, we shall not all sleep, but we shall be changed, in the moment, in the twinkling of an eye… and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed….” Also, texts from Hebrews 13:14 are included at the beginning. This reads “For here we have no continuing city, but we seek one to come.”
  7. Revelation 14:13: “Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord henceforth. Yea, says the Spirit, that they may rest from their labors and their works do follow them.” At the beginning, the chorus sings slowly above a gently moving orchestra. This steady pace speaks securely to the ultimate promise of eternal peace: notice the angelic high voices of the sopranos. Brahms brings us calmly and quietly to a comforting close. Those whom we have lost are safe and in a beautiful place.

Early reactions were divided: those who loved and acclaimed the Requiem, and heavy vitriolic criticism by Hanslick and Wagner (“the work was too academic”) and dogmatic criticism as well. Catholic and Protestant responses were predictably different, but by 1900 there was a meeting of the minds throughout Germany and the Requiem sailed forward steadily on international waters into the twentieth century, finding its place in the concert hall rather than the church. In 1950, Schoenberg wrote a powerful essay of support titled “Brahms the Progressive” which gave the Requiem a significant boost and ongoing popular momentum.

Opus 45 was Brahms’ largest work in any medium. Steven Ledbetter concluded, “Here for the first time, Brahms not only established himself as a mature composer in the eyes of his contemporaries, but also wrote one of those special choral works that singers return to with as much delight as audiences, a unique masterpiece of technique and affect expressing the universal longings of mankind.”

© Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, 2017

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