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Ein deutsches Requiem, op 45

“Blessed are they that mourn:”

A German Requiem and Brahms

by Troy Peters

The Cascadian Chorale will perform "A German Requiem" on March 21 and 22, 2009. [Learn more]

Of his choral masterwork, A German Requiem, Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) wrote: “As for the title, I must admit I should like to leave out the word ‘German’ and refer instead to ‘Humanity’.” This comment points directly to the heart of his greatest choral composition, in direct contrast to his tendency to speak cryptically, even jokingly, about most of his works. (Of his life-affirming and lyrical Second Symphony, for instance, he quipped that the orchestra should wear black funereal armbands “because of its dirge-like effect.”) A German Requiem may be the most comforting, humane requiem ever written.

The traditional Roman Catholic liturgical text for the requiem mass is a prayer for the dead, filled with images of the horrors of the Last Judgment. Brahms’ text, on the other hand, which he compiled from Martin Luther’s German vernacular translation of the Bible, seeks to comfort the living who must deal with and accept death. Just 33 years old when he completed the bulk of A German Requiem, Brahms already had a very personal perspective on mourning. The requiem had begun to gestate in Brahms’ mind a decade earlier, in response to the untimely and protracted death of his close friend and mentor, Robert Schumann: And there can be little doubt that the death of Brahms’ mother in February 1865, spurred him on to complete the work.

A German Requiem, however, is not simply a memorial to the composer’s mother or mentor, but a message of hope for us all. Brahms took great pains putting together his text, piecing together fragments from throughout the Bible to create a tapestry of solace. Nowhere in A German Requiem do we glimpse the vivid darkness of the traditional requiem text’s dies irae (“day of wrath,” a detailed explication of the terrors of Judgment Day). It is also worth noting, that nowhere does the text specifically mention Jesus Christ. Brahms was, at best, ambivalent about Christianity, and he seems to have sought to create a work that transcends specific belief systems.

The musical form is a tightly wrought edifice, a seven movement arch with the music of brightest comfort at its center. The first and last movements echo each other in conveying blessings, first upon the mourners, finally upon the dead. The second and sixth movements are the darkest (and longest). The third and fifth movements feature soloists in meditations, the baritone seeking hope, the soprano bestowing it. Nestled in the middle is the shortest movement, the gorgeous chorus of tranquility, “How Lovely Is Thy Dwelling Place.”

Throughout the work, Brahms’ orchestral and choral skill is magnificent. In the first movement, he leaves out the violins, considerably darkening the orchestral palette (a trick he had already tried out in his beautiful A-major Serenade, Op. 16). When the violins enter in the second movement, they arrive with mutes and in close harmony, a spectral reflection of the piece’s most mournful text (“For all flesh is as grass”). Through the requiem’s final chords float the heavenly arpeggios of the harp, as the chorus quietly repeats the word selig (“blessed”). One of Brahms’ better orchestral effects also led to a famous gaffe. At the end of the third movement, the timpani obsessively intones a single pitch, D, for about three minutes while the chorus weaves a complex fugue above. At the movement’s first performance, however, the timpanist misunderstood his role and pounded out a cacophonous roar throughout this fugue, as many in the audience covered their ears. Brahms carefully revised the orchestration to ensure that the mistake would not recur — and the timpanist never worked for him again.

Johannes Brahms was not the first composer to create a “German Requiem.” Much has been made of the fact that Brahms’ beloved mentor, Robert Schumann, made preliminary sketches toward a deutsches Requiem, but all evidence indicates that Brahms knew nothing of Schumann’s idea until years after he finished his own work. Brahms would, however, have known the similar efforts of his predecessors Heinrich Schütz, Michael Haydn, and Franz Schubert. Each of these composers, like Brahms, set texts from the Lutheran Bible or other Protestant documents. Only Brahms, though, created a work that has endured beyond its time.

Indeed, the Brahms requiem opened the door to a new genre, which we might call the “requiem of consolation.” In stark contrast to the overwhelming sorrow of Mozart’s unfinished requiem or the operatic wailing of the famous 19th century requiems by Verdi and Berlioz, Brahms offers his listeners peace and hope. Many later composers are undoubtedly in his debt — Brahms’ aesthetic influence can be felt in the restrained and lyrical requiems of Gabriel Fauré and Maurice Duruflé, while his freedom with the text emboldened Benjamin Britten to compose his haunting War Requiem.

In the end, A German Requiem is Johannes Brahms’ magnum opus. He labored over it for eleven years (from 1857 to 1868), and it is his longest major work. While Brahms never finished an opera, his requiem is at once his most theatrical piece and a stunningly symmetrical symphonic form. It is also a candid glimpse into its composer’s heart, a place he was usually reluctant to let his listeners explore.

Proud member of the Greater Seattle Choral Consortium