Brahms’ A German Requiem stands unique among the great works of its kind. It is not an enacted prayer for the dead, nor does it employ the standard Latin liturgical text used on such occasions. It abjures the theatrical effects found in the Requiems of Mozart, Berlioz, Cherubini, Dvořák, Verdi, Britten, and others. It is not a Catholic mass for the dead, but rather a Protestant one for the living. Its message is one of consolation for the bereaved, of reconciliation, confidence in the future and the anticipation of a blissful life in the hereafter. It is one of the most deeply personal and spiritually uplifting compositions by any great composer, yet Brahms was still a young man in his early thirties when he wrote it.
Actually, the first music for the Requiem was written as far back as 1856, when Brahms was just 23. His dear friend and mentor, Robert Schumann, died that year, and Brahms was devastated. At the time he was working on a symphony in D minor, most of which eventually was transformed into the First Piano Concerto, and part of which became the second movement of the Requiem ten years later. The death of Brahms’s mother in 1866 is widely believed to be the catalyst that impelled Brahms to write his Requiem. The grief that he had experienced over the death of Schumann now returned even more intensely, and he attempted to sublimate this renewed grief in writing A German Requiem.
Brahms chose his texts from the Old and New Testaments and the Apocrypha of the German Lutheran Bible. It was not the first time a requiem had been set in the German language (cases appear as far back as the seventeenth century), but, as biographer Malcolm MacDonald points out, “it was the first in which a composer had selected and shaped his text, for essentially personal resonances, to speak to a contemporary audience in a shared tongue, transcending the constraints of ritual: a prophetic sermon from individual experience, with universal application. Patience brings dignity and perspective to the mysteries of life and death, and instills a conviction of the immortality of the spirit; if there is a God, this is how He has made things, for reasons we cannot require from Him but in whose fitness we must repose some trust. … It is an inspired synthesis of archaic and modern, one of the most seamless, the most infused with personal emotion, he ever achieved.”
Some commentators have suggested that the title might more aptly be “A Protestant Requiem,” while Brahms himself even wrote to a friend that “as regards the title, I will confess I should gladly have left out ‘German’ and substituted ‘Human.’” Composer Jonathan Kramer sums up its import as “a work of art, not of liturgy. Its ideas are of deep human significance. In a fundamental sense, therefore, it is indeed religious.”
The first complete performance of the seven-movement Requiem took place on February 18, 1869 under the direction of Carl Reinecke in Leipzig. However, there had been earlier performances of the first three movements in 1867, conducted by Johannes Herbeck, and of six of the seven movements in Bremen on Good Friday of 1868 with Brahms conducting. Following this Bremen performance Brahms then added one more movement (the fifth), the most serene music of the whole work, and dedicated this movement to the memory of his mother. The dedication is particularly apt in view of the text’s consoling message, “I will comfort you, as one whom his own mother comforteth.” (The slow movement of the Horn Trio, composed three years earlier, was also written in memory of his mother.) Brahms expressed his own sense of consolation and satisfaction in his achievement in these words, written after completion of the Requiem: “Now I am consoled. I have surmounted obstacles that I thought I could never overcome, and I feel like an eagle, soaring ever higher and higher.”
“Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted.”Brahms' Requiem, chorus
The opening movement omits violins, clarinets, and trumpets. A dark color and rich texture pervade this music. The chorus’ opening words, “Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted,” set the tone for the entire Requiem. A sudden change of key (from F to D-flat major) introduces the movement’s central passage ̶ a gently rocking motif with discreet accompaniment from the harp, an instrument Brahms rarely used. Just before the end, sopranos soar to a high A, the highest sung note in the movement, in a beatific gesture that will return in the Requiem’s final moments more than an hour later.
In the third movement (the second is not performed tonight), the baritone soloist recites the words of the 39th Psalm, asking God to teach each human soul about the inevitability of death. The directness and simplicity of the delivery, set to discreet orchestral accompaniment, suggests a personal address from the pulpit. The chorus (as congregation, perhaps) responds. The words “Ich hoffe auf dich” (My hope is in Thee) have a liberating effect, as the entire choral and instrumental apparatus swings into a thrilling fugue. Though it travels widely over a complex harmonic system, the fugue is also solidly rooted in a pedal point on D, pulsing powerfully in the depths of the orchestra. The musical symbolism here is hard to miss.
Lightness and grace return in the gentle fourth movement, the shortest, and written for chorus throughout. Still another fugue ̶ this time a double fugue (two subjects, each treated independently but simultaneously ̶ a true feat of contrapuntal dexterity) is set to the final line of text: “die loben dich immerdar” (they praise Thy name evermore).
The delicate, almost ethereal fifth movement introduces the soprano soloist, with her quiet but inspired message of the promise of comfort in sorrow.
The Requiem’s evocation of the Last Judgment and the first mention of the dead occur in the sixth movement, following the words “zu der Zeit der letzten Posaune” (at the time of the last trumpet ̶ but literally, “trombone” in German). Yet even here the message of the text is essentially that of victory over death, even while the orchestra and chorus thunder out fearsome visions of the wrath of God. It all lasts but a few minutes. The movement concludes with the Requiem’s longest and mightiest fugue, in which sonority piles on sonority to reach ever-greater levels of praise for the Lord’s good deeds.
With the final movement, we return to the Requiem’s opening key of F major, and to musical material from that movement now reinterpreted in light of the blessed dead. The radiant final moments set the seal of benediction on the music, which closes with the very word that opened A German Requiem, “selig” (blessed).
Program notes by Robert Markow & Le Festival de Lanaudière