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View Diary: Thursday Classical Music Series: Brahms's Ein deutsches Requiem (46 comments)

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  •  If he were an atheist (1+ / 0-)
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    Why make so many references to God in this piece? Why set so many Biblical verses, both here and in his motets? Why say "Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord?". Why not do what Delius did, and eschew the Bible altogether for his texts? I doubt it was salesmanship on Brahms's part, or catering to his audience. There was certainly belief in something required to produce a work like this.

    Moreover, for someone as devout a Catholic as Dvorak, it's entirely possible that agnosticism and atheism might appear nearly the same. It's not direct evidence—just someone else's opinion.

    •  Doesn't your Vaughn Williams quote refute (3+ / 0-)
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      Dumbo, Nespolo, lone1c

      the notion that one has to believe in something to write about it?  The world of art is full of people writing about things in which they don't actually believe, unless you think Tolkien thought Middle Earth was real and Wagner really believed in Valkyries...

      And Verdi was undoubtedly atheist, yet produced his own very Catholic Requiem which stands with Mozart and Brahms' works as the greatest of its kind.  He didn't need a belief in "something," beyond his own ability to compose beautiful, poignant music for well-known texts.  I categorically reject the idea that Brahms would have had to "believed in something" to produce this wondrous piece.  Why?  Why couldn't the sentiments move him on a purely secular, non-spiritual level and inspire the music?  The only reason to believe it couldn't is to assert that such masterpieces are result of "divine inspiration," which is rather insulting to the artist, IMO.

      The reason there are Biblical quotes used in the Requiem is obvious--it IS a requiem.  I'd say it was precisely a bit of catering to the audience that he used Biblical texts, as he knew for a young composer who hadn't yet made his mark to write a "requiem" in Lutheran Germany but not include Biblical texts would probably consign it to popular doom.  For his other works, Brahms relied on a variety of texts and sources.  That he sometimes used Biblical ones isn't a testament to his having beliefs.  In fact, he noted once how he'd looked to the Koran for "Nanie," and wrote a friend to find him something more "heathen."  

      You yourself note that Brahms didn't believe in an afterlife--doesn't that render the "Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord" a bit irrelevant to his beliefs?  Why would it matter whether or not anyone died "in the Lord" if one didn't believe there was a heaven?  We have plenty of examples of anecdotes wherein Brahms expressed his lack of beliefs to people and expressing his disdain for peity (i.e., Bruckner).  We don't have any examples of his stating some sort of spirituality.

      You seem to be misunderstanding what "atheism" means, as it is the lack of belief in gods.  We have no evidence Brahms believed in any, and quite a bit suggesting he didn't, so "atheist" seems the best term.  "Agnostic" has been bastardized in recent times to mean something that is actually covered by the term "athest."  Since the true meaning of an agnostic is "one who asserts impossible to know the truth," I don't see how we can apply that term to Brahms, unless there are quotes wherein he says such.  Even so, if we could prove he was agnostic even in that sense, that wouldn't in any way suggest he had any sort of spiritual beliefs.  He never expressed such in his correspondence or writings.

      •  I tend towards the notion (1+ / 0-)
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        that he was an atheist or at least an agnostic.  He described himself as a secular humanist.  He was very clear that he did not believe in an afterlife.

        But I'm not sure you can take it much farther than that.  There are a number of atheist fan sites out there that are eager to list Brahms as one of their own, but they did the same with Beethoven and with Thomas Paine.  Richard Dawkins's own site listed Beethoven and Paine, which is preposterous.

        One of the problems that taints and ruins the discussion of such things is that in the current environment, if you're not a fundamentalist, you must be, by process of elimination, an atheist.  Thus many dead people who can't speak for themselves get a free honorary membership in the club.  

        (The same thing seems to happen with bipolar disorder.  Every cool figure of history is supposed to be bipolar.  According to other bipolars.  Funny how that works out.)

        Once the language is contaminated, the discussion becomes contaminated.  By the definition above, "You seem to be misunderstanding what "atheism" means, as it is the lack of belief in gods," which I've heard before, a great many people who don't consider themselves atheists are classified as atheist.  The basic lack of agreement on a meaning for the word God means there are no common concepts and language for such a discussion.  I've been told straight-up by more than one person on Dailykos that I'm an atheist, and it puts me at a loss to explain why I'm not without getting into long explanations why that other people aren't prepared for because they have that whole toga and sandal thing stuck in their head.

        However, back to Brahms.  He doesn't seem to have been a deep theological thinker, so I don't think any of the above applies to him.  Agnostic or atheist seems appropriate.  He described himself as a freethinker and as a secular humanist, which seems vague enough.

        •  I guess I look at it from a slightly (2+ / 0-)
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          Dumbo, lone1c

          different perspective, that people tend to assume that if you don't explicitly state you're an atheist, they assume that if you did anything wonderfully creative and passionate that you at least have to be "spiritual."  Well, that really rubs me the wrong way, and thinking about my own legacy, I don't like the idea that after I've passed on, a bunch of people might try to co-opt me (much as you note Dawkins does with Paine, I'm not sure about Beethoven) as a fellow "spiritual" person, when I categorically am not.  But should I have to continually aver I'm an atheist to avoid that assumption?  

          I guess my overall point was that there is precisely zero evidence to suggest Brahms was in any way a "spiritual" person.  In fact, I'd say that everything I know about the man argues fervently against that notion.  And while the diarist in no way meant to rankle, I find the assumption-stated-as-fact in the diary to be inaccurate--if not outright untru--and warrants a clarification.  

    •  BTW, here's an article that (2+ / 0-)
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      Dumbo, lone1c

      discusses Brahms as a Freethinker, and more concretely lays out what we know of his lack of beliefs:

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