Brahms: A German Requiem – a Requiem for Humankind

brahmsThe first concert of the HCS concert season 2016/2017 will take place on Saturday 12 November 2016 at All Hallows Gospel Oak, London NW3 2JP. It starts at 7 pm.

The programme has – appropriate for the season of the year – a sombre feeling. In the first half of the concert the New London Orchestra will play two orchestral pieces: Butterworth: The Banks of Green Willow and Ronald Corp: The Somme – A Lament. Then HCS joins the New London Orchestra for Vaughan Williams: Serenade to Music. Vaughan Williams set in this piece a text from Shakespeare: The Merchant of Venice to music.  After the interval follows Brahms: Ein deutsches Requiem (A German Requiem). 

The following blog post is about Brahms.

1. Johannes Brahms Ein deutsches Requiem (A German Requiem), Op. 45 is Brahms’ longest and also most popular choral work. It is written for orchestra, baritone soloist, soprano soloist and chorus. It is comprised of seven movements. Movements 1, 2, 4 and 7 are for chorus only. Movement 3 and 6 are for baritone soloist and chorus and movement 5 is for soprano soloist and chorus. A performance of A German Requiem lasts about 70 minutes.

A requiem is traditionally a mass for the dead. It focusses on the repose of the souls of the deceased using a Latin text which is a particular form of the traditional mass in the Roman Catholic Church. Brahms’ requiem is different in many ways. He did not use the traditional Latin text, but rather compiled a German text. He used Luther’s translation of the Bible and combined parts of the Old Testament, the New Testament and the Biblical Apocrypha. Brahms had a broad knowledge of the Bible and often put together passages from different sections of the Bible in one single movement. The title “A German Requiem” meant for Brahms only that the text of the requiem is in German. He probably chose it to distinguish his work from well-known traditional requiems, e.g. Mozart Requiem. Brahms mentioned in a letter to Karl Reinthaler, Director of Music of Bremen Cathedral, who was responsible for the first performance of the German Requiem in Bremen the following:

“Was den Text betrifft, so will ich bekennen, dass ich recht gerne auch das “Deutsch” fortließe und einfach den “Menschen” setzte.”
[“As far as the text is concerned, I will confess that I would very gladly omit the “German”, and simply put “of Humankind”.]

This focus on humankind or the human being becomes clear, when one looks at the texts Brahms chose for his requiem. It is not about the souls of the deceased, but rather about the consolation of the living who mourn the loss of loved one.

2. The earliest music material of the Requiem was written in 1854 as a funeral march which was a movement of a sonata for two pianos. 1854 was a difficult time in Brahms’ life. He had moved into the house of the Schumanns in the previous year and was a close friend of Robert and Clara Schumann. Robert Schumann had mental health issues which got worse over time. On 27 February 1854 Robert Schumann tried to commit suicide and was then taken to an asylum in which he died two years later on 29 July 1856. Brahms stayed with Clara during Robert’s illness and he and other friends supported her and tried to divert her mind from the tragedy. Brahms moved out after Robert’s death, but kept in close contact with Clara for all his life.

In 1861 Brahms put the text for the Requiem together and also started composing some of the movements, but then he seemed to have abandoned the work. In February 1865 Brahms’ mother died and he again took up the work on his Requiem. He worked on it through 1865 and 1866 and also sent parts to Clara Schumann and to other friends to get their opinion about it. For Christmas 1866 he sent the complete manuscript of A German Requiem (without the fifth movement which was not yet written) to Clara as a Christmas present.

One year later on 1 December 1867 the first three movements of A German Requiem were performed in Vienna by the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde (“Society of the friends of music”). It was not a good performance and it was not well received. On 12 April 1868 (Good Friday) Brahms conducted the whole work (still without the fifth movement) in Bremen cathedral. The cathedral was packed and it was an overwhelming success for Brahms. In May 1868 Brahms wrote the fifth movement which he called a “soprano solo with some measures of choir”. The first performance of the complete seven movement requiem took place in Leipzig Gewandhaus on 18 February 1869. It became immediately a very popular work which received 20 performances in 1869 alone. The London premiere took place in 1873 in St. James Hall.

3. The structure of A German Requiem is symmetrical with movement 4 as axis and heart of the work. Movement 4 describes the “lovely dwellings” of the Lord. Movement 1 and 7 share musical elements and also show a parallelism in the text which begins with “Selig sind” (blessed are). They unify the whole work. Movement 2 and 6 are both dramatic movements. The funeral march in movement 2 deals with the transient nature of life and is balanced with the triumphant theme of the resurrection of the dead in movement 6. Movement 3 and 5 are both movements which begin with a solo voice.

Movement 1 takes its text from the Beatitudes (Matthew 5.4) and Psalm 126. Brahms does not use the violins for this movement which means that the sound of the orchestra is warm and dark. The movement is divided in three parts (A – B – A). After an introduction by the orchestra the chorus sings hushed and subdued. The music stops each time when the chorus stars singing. The second part “They that sow in tears” is more agitated, but soon the serenity of the first motive returns. In a usual requiem the first movement asks for the souls of the deceased in Brahms Requiem it deals with the consolation of the living.

Movement 2 is in the form of a funeral march and the chorus proclaims the inevitability of man’s fate. The text is taken from different parts of the Old and the New Testament. As in the first movement the sombre funeral march is contrasted with a lighter middle section. After the return of the funeral march the music gets faster and joyful. It is a transformation from darkness to light and Brahms’ music enhances the text. When the choir sings about “Schmerz und Seufzen” (suffering and sighing) one can almost hear the pain and sighing in the music. The chorus ends this movement singing gloriously about “ewige Freude” (eternal joy).

The text of Movement 3 is taken from Psalm 39 and the Book of Wisdom. In this movement the baritone soloist and choir engage in a dialogue. The soloist asks “What is my hope?”. The question is full of grief and doubt. Everything comes to a stop and the chorus answers calm and confident “My hope is in you”. Also this movement ends joyfully in a fugue for the choir and the orchestra.

Movement 4 is one of only two movements which uses text from one source (Psalm 84). The movement is a serene pastoral and has the simplicity of a folk song. The movement provides rest and contemplation after the tumultuous and forceful movement 3. It is probably the most famous movement which is also sometimes used on its own as an anthem.

Movement 5 uses again text from different sections of the Bible. A soprano soloist is accompanied by woodwind, horns and muted strings. The chorus quietly provides a background of harmony for the soloist. The message of the soprano is maternal consolation and comfort. In movement 3 the soloist was the voice of the suffering and the one longing for consolation, in this movement the soloist is the voice of one who gives consolation.

Movement 6 is in clear contracts to movement 5. It has the most dramatic music of the whole requiem. The text is taken from different parts of the New Testament. At the beginning of the movement the chorus sings “Denn wir haben hier keine bleibende Statt” (For here have we no abiding city). This sentiment of uncertainty and homelessness is reflected in the music. The tonality is unclear and in the same way as the chorus sings that it does not have a place to stay the music does not stay in a clearly defined key. The baritone soloist then announces the mystery of the resurrection. As he sings about the twinkling of an eye (“in einem Augenblick”) the music stops for a moment and the character of the movement changes. Similar to movement 2 the chorus then gives a passionate and dramatic commentary on the text and sings about the victory over death. Also this movement ends with an elaborate fugue for the chorus on the text “Herr, Du bist würdig zu nehmen Preis und Ehre” (Thou art worthy, O Lord, to receive glory and honour.)

The final movement (movement 7) is the other movement which uses only text from one source (Revelation 14.13). The chorus sings again “Selig sind …” (blessed are), but this time it does not refer to the mourners, but to the departed. Also the music takes up a motive from the beginning of the work. The Requiem ends with the same word with which it began “Selig” (blessed).

4. A German Requiem was a turning point for Brahms –  financially (he received a fee which was about five times larger than for any work he had sold before) and in relation to his reputation. The Viennese critic Eduard Hanslick compared A German Requiem with Bach’s Mass in B Minor and Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis.

But its importance goes far beyond money and fame. Even if Brahms was reticent about his reasons for composing A German Requiem, one has to notice the link of this work to two crucial and tragic events in his early life (his mother’s death and Schumann’s illness and death). Brahms confirms the link with Robert Schumann in a letter to Joseph Joachim more than 15 years after the first performance of A German Requiem. I want to finish with a quote from this letter which gives a glimpse of the huge personal importance of the Requiem for Brahms:

Dächtest du der Sache und mir gegenüber einfach, so wüsstest du, wie sehr und innig ein Stück wie das Requiem überhaupt Schumann gehört. Wie es mir also im geheimen Grund ganz selbstverständlich erscheinen musste, dass es ihm auch gesungen würde.
[“If you were to consider the situation and how it relates particularly to me, you wold know how much and how profoundly a piece like the Requiem is altogether Schumann’s and how, in the secret recesses of my mind, it therefore had to seem quite self-evident to me that it would indeed be sung to him.”]

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