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I'd like to thank Dumbo for giving me another opportunity to fill in as a guest blogger in the Thursday Classical Music series.

After the events of last week, I felt that it was time to offer up a timely piece: Johannes Brahms's Ein deutsches Requiem (A German Requiem). It's a piece designed not only to mourn the dead, but to offer healing and consolation for the living. It's one of my favorite works, both as a listener and as a chorister—in spite of (or perhaps even because of) its amazing challenges.

The notes below are based on those written for a concert given by one of my choirs back in 2005. The analysis is not nearly as extensive as the normal entry in Dumbo's series; this is one of those pieces where the music speaks for itself, and anything I have to say almost gets in the way.

And stick around to the end for a special treat. (Dumbo made me do it!)

Few works have managed to win the admiration of performers, audiences, and critics so quickly or so completely as Johannes Brahms’s Ein deutsches Requiem. The work, written primarily between 1866 and 1868, arose out of Brahms’s need to commemorate two of the most powerful formative influences in his life: his mother and his mentor Robert Schumann. A synthesis of his career until then, it is his longest work, and calls for greater resources than he would ever assemble in his later works, including all of his symphonies and his Violin Concerto and Piano Concerto No. 2.

Ein deutsches Requiem was the work of a young man; Brahms was only twenty-three when he conceived of the work following Schumann's death in 1856, and in his mid-thirties at its premiere. However, the craftsmanship belies the composer's relative youth: the choral writing is confident and assured while the orchestration shows Brahms's usual restraint and sensitivity. Indeed, Brahms's skillful instrumentation reaches its zenith in the Requiem: the instrumental and vocal colors are so perfectly matched to the melodies and harmonies of the music that one cannot conceive how Brahms could possibly improve upon the final product.

A particularly notable feature of Ein deutsches Requiem is the primary role given to the chorus. They are Brahms's central means of communicating with the audience: throughout the work, the most personal and intimate moments are entrusted not to the soloists—who only appear in the third, fifth and sixth movements—but to the chorus. There are no comparable works in the classical literature that place as many demands on the chorus. There are no movements given over to the soloists to give the chorus a chance to rest throughout the work's seventy-five minute span, and the virtuosity of the choral parts is at times hair-raising: dynamic extremes are juxtaposed within a few bars, while long stretches are written in the highest and lowest registers of all the voices.

Antonin Dvořák, a close friend of Brahms, once derided him on his lack of religious faith; such criticism may be too harsh. Although Brahms never felt the need to belong to an organized Christian denomination, he was by no means an atheist, and like many other composers, his lack of religious affiliation did not stop him from writing a significant body of sacred music. [Before writing his Mass in G minor, composer Ralph Vaughan Williams remarked that he saw “no reason why an agnostic should not write a good mass.”]  A devoted reader of the Bible and other religious texts, Brahms considered himself a humanist for whom faith was a means of offering solace and peace to mankind. In particular, Brahms did not seem to believe in any concept of an afterlife. This is mirrored in the libretto, which studiously avoids any explicit mention of either heaven or Jesus. Brahms strongly believed that the message of his work should be of value to all mankind, so much so that he contemplated calling the work A Human Requiem.

The Requiem is a seven-movement arch, with a movement in praise of God at the center. The remaining six movements are brilliantly paired: the first and last movements are benedictions to the mourning and the departed; the second and penultimate movements deal with death and resurrection on the broadest scale; and the third and fifth movements are personal introspections. There are also many linking motives that run throughout the work, many of them based on the fragmentary motif of rising or falling thirds followed by a second (in the same direction).

[Texts and English translations for the work are available at Emily Ezust's wonderful Art Song texts website.]

I. "Selig sind, die da Leid tragen"

The opening words of a liturgical requiem offer a prayer for the departed: “Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine.” ("Grant them eternal rest, O Lord"). The very first words of Brahms’s libretto reveal the rather different aim of his conception: “Selig sind, die da Leid tragen” (“Blessed are they who mourn”). Rather than simply offer prayers for the dead, the texts, brilliantly woven together from nearly a dozen books of the Lutheran Bible, are meant to provide comfort and reassurance to the living.

A fourteen-bar orchestral prelude opens the work, with a melancholy tune in the violas and first cellos against a steady pulsing figure in the lower strings. The somber orchestration, further darkened through the omission of clarinets, trumpets, timpani, and violins, offers a searing contrast to the numerous brief a cappella passages throughout the movement. The mood ebbs and flows throughout, opening up suddenly at the words “ernten mit Freuden” (“harvest with joy”). Most of the movement is then repeated, before concluding with a brief coda featuring pizzicato strings, woodwinds, and harp arpeggios.

II. "Denn alles Fleisch ist wie Gras"

The second and longest movement of the Requiem, “Denn alles Fleisch es ist wie Gras,” begins as a lugubrious march. The orchestration is stark, syncopated strings and winds clashing with an ominous timpani motto and prominent brass motifs. Against this, the main melodic material is heard, first sung piano by the lower three voices in unison, then forte by the full choir. The mood lightens momentarily at “So seid nun geduldig” ("So therefore be patient") before the opening march section is repeated in its entirety. This is followed by “Die Erlöseten des Herrn” ("The redeemed of the Lord"), the first of the three major contrapuntal episodes in the work. Based on a majestic theme announced by the choral basses, the mood brightens continually until the end, with the chorus ecstatically repeating the words “ewiger Freude” ("eternal joy"). Instead of going out in a blaze of glory, however, Brahms ends on a note of quiet contentment.

III. "Herr, lehre doch mich"

“Herr, lehre doch mich” ("Lord, teach me") introduces a baritone soloist in a quasi-ceremonial role. The soloist, pleading with God for knowledge of man’s imminent and certain death, declaims each section of the text before the chorus elaborates on the text. Each entrance is more impassioned than the last, until the chorus introduces a new thought: “Ich hoffe auf dich” (“My hope is in thee”). This segues directly into a fugato episode in D major. Although the emotional theme of this section is that the dead shall not be tormented, the same can hardly be said for the chorus, which must sing its densely-woven and rhythmically intricate lines over an increasingly exuberant and enthusiastic orchestra reinforced by a pedal D in the trombones, tuba, string basses, and timpani. [At the premiere of the six-movement version of the work, the timpanist was so enthusiastic that he was apparently able to drown out the entire chorus and orchestra, leading to the only substantive criticisms about the new work.]

(While the video, of Nikolaus Harnoncourt leading the Vienna Philharmonic and Vienna Opera Chorus, is quite good, it still can't quite do justice to this moment. You should check out Otto Klemperer's performance with the Philharmonia Chorus and Orchestra, or the more recent Sir Simon Rattle recording with the Berlin Philharmonic to hear this as it really should sound—at least in my opinion.)

IV. "Wie lieblich ist Deine Wohnungen"

Much like the “Sanctus” acts as a pivot in Verdi’s Requiem, the fourth movement, “Wir lieblich sind deine Wohnungen, Herr Zebaoth” (“How lovely are thy dwelling places”) serves as the turning point here. Until now, Brahms has primarily dealt with the living—the mourners and those worried about their own mortality. After this movement, the shortest section of the work, the focus will be on the departed, providing reassurance that the dead are at peace. However, the music has more in common with the gentle lyricism of the “Sanctus” in Fauré’s lyrical Requiem than the pomp and circumstance of Verdi’s more extrovert march. The orchestra, less the trumpets, trombones, and timpani, offers a gentle and at times almost playful backdrop for the chorus’s paean to the Almighty.

V. "Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit"

At its premiere, Ein deutsches Requiem was a six-movement work, with the fourth movement leading directly to the sixth. However, following the passing of Brahms's mother, he added the fifth movement, “Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit” ("You now have sorrow"), as a tribute. It is to Brahms's credit that the movement fits in seamlessly with the others—indeed, we can hardly imagine the work without it!

Reminiscent of a lullaby, this is the quietest movement in the work, as it is marked piano or quieter throughout. The soprano soloist, making her lone appearance, sings a soaring cantabile line supported by a halo of woodwinds and strings (including a solo for cello—a mainstay in Brahms's major works), offering reassurance that after a life of labor and struggle, she has at last found rest and comfort. Notably, it is left to the chorus, singing melodic and harmonic material quite different from the soloist’s, to provide true comfort to the audience: to them alone is given the text "ich will euch trösten, wie Einen seine Mutter tröstet" (“As one whom his mother comforteth, so will I comfort you”).

VI. "Denn wir haben hie keine bleibende Statt"

The sixth movement, “Denn wir haben hie keine bleibende Statt” (For we have here no continuing city), covers much of the same text as Part III of Händel’s Messiah. However, thanks to a century’s progress in harmony and a larger orchestral palette, Brahms’s more compact setting carries a greater visceral and emotional impact than Händel’s restrained yet more protracted setting. The movement begins mysteriously, with the chorus intoning the odd text. Brahms then conjures up a horrifying vision of the Last Judgment at the words “zu der letzte Posaune” (at the Last Trump), with prominent parts for the brass, and in particular trombones ("Posaune" is German for trombone, not trumpet!). A turbulent setting of “Der Tod ist verschlungen in den Sieg” (“Death is swallowed up in victory”) follows. Scurrying, angular lines in the strings crash against sustained chords in the chorus, with all the voices singing in their highest registers. But Brahms’s conception of the hereafter resembles Mahler’s vision in his Resurrection Symphony, with neither judgment nor punishment. Thus, the section culminates with the chorus mocking death, at the dramatic high point of the entire work: “Wo ist dein Sieg?” (“Where is thy victory?”) A short bridge leads into a brilliant fugato episode. The principal theme of the fugue, “Herr, du bist würdig,” (“Lord, thou art worthy”) is often heard at two different speeds, as a “slowed down” version with note values doubled is frequently heard at the same time as the main theme.

VII. "Selig sind die Toten"

The last movement ties together the various motivic and emotional strands of the work. For its text, Brahms borrows from the finale of the very first “German Requiem,” Heinrich Schütz's Musikalische Exequien, in which three soloists sing “Selig sind die Toten” (“Blessed are the dead”) against a “Nunc dimittis” in the chorus. Here, the beatitude is taken up by the chorus in long-breathed melodic lines dominated by descending and ascending scales outlining a major sixth. The orchestra, syncopated against the chorus, responds largely in contrary motion, the effect seeming as if rushing to meet the departed souls. The other main idea, “Ja der Geist spricht” (“Yea, saith the Spirit"), is presented as a chorale, with accompaniment predominantly from horns, trombones, and winds. A brief return to the opening of the movement precedes the coda, a series of waves of choral and orchestral sound before one last climax at “die in dem Herren sterben” (“those who die in the Lord”). In a fitting gesture, at this point Brahms recalls the final bars of the opening movement, reminding the audience of the eternal cycle of life: while we may now be among those who mourn, one day, we shall be among the mourned.

Envoi: And now for something completely different. . . .

As a thank you (or perhaps a punishment!) for making it to the end of this diary, I'd like to offer up a treat: an orchestral transcription I did of the last of Brahms's Neue Liebesliederwalzen. It started out as a work for vocal quartet and piano (four-hands); I've arranged it for modern orchestra. I think it still has a bit of Brahms in it, and I hope you enjoy it.

Originally posted to lone1c on Wed Jul 25, 2012 at 09:59 PM PDT.

Also republished by DKOMA, Progressive Hippie, and Community Spotlight.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Many thanks for this. This is one (13+ / 0-)

    of my favorite pieces of music. The most memorable performance of it I heard was right after 9/11. The New York Philharmonic offered it at Lincoln Center with Kurt Masur conducting. Before the concert, he asked that there be no applause when it was over but that we quietly leave. Am keeping your diary to read again and again.

  •  Tx for the diary. I'm not much of a Brahms fan, (9+ / 0-)

    but this is one of my favorite works of his. I sang in the chorus for a performance perhaps 25 years ago and have subsequently heard the piece 2-3 times.

    The most recent one was a performance by the Tacoma Symphony Orchestra, which presented it in a Valentine's Day concert, along with other traditonal VD favorites such as the Bacchanale from "Sampson and Delilah". The name of the concert, I kid you not, was "Love's Eternal Flame." Unfortunately, someone omitted the apostrophe on the marquee. I saw it and said, "The TSO loves eternal flame. Hmmm...."

  •  I like requiems. (5+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    lone1c, rl en france, ExStr8, ER Doc, Dumbo

    Being a bit of a no-nothing, where classical music is concerned, I generally gravitate toward the requiems when I'm purchasing classical music.

    "The disturbing footage depicts piglets being drop kicked and swung by their hind legs. Sows are seen being kicked and shoved as they resist leaving their piglets."

    by Bush Bites on Thu Jul 26, 2012 at 04:35:29 AM PDT

  •  I performed the Brahms Requiem..... (10+ / 0-) principal trombone of the Oklahoma City Community Orchestra, with the combined choirs of the University of Central Oklahoma.  I had never heard the work before, but was immediately taken with it from the time we started rehearsals.  The first trombone part is written in alto clef, which usually means "up in the stratosphere" for us, and there's some writing of very high sustained notes in pianissimo.  As usual, we counted plenty of rests, but Johannes made us work for a living when we came in!

    I love the whole work, but Movement 6 is my favorite.  

    It turned out that it would be the last musical event I would participate in for almost 17 years; I left the Orchestra to start veterinary school.  I was happy to go out with this monumental work.

    Bradenton FL

    Keep fightin' for freedom and justice, beloveds, but don't you forget to have fun doin' it.--Molly Ivins

    by AAbshier on Thu Jul 26, 2012 at 05:01:44 AM PDT

  •  A beautiful piece which I love playing or (6+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    techno, lone1c, BachFan, Dumbo, Amber6541, Nespolo

    listening to. I just love how Brahms works with the inner voices and instruments.

    •  The SINGLE BEST thing about Brahms. (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Amber6541, Nespolo, lone1c

      He has to get credit for being the (post-Beethoven) champion of classical music counterpoint.  And he dovetails the parts so well, those inner voices, that they seem to come from nowhere and go back to nowhere.  Master craftsmanship.

      •  He was extremely fond of the music (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Dumbo, lone1c

        of Heinrich Schutz... much of his love of counterpoint came from that...

        Fear doesn't just breed incomprehension. It also breeds a spiteful, resentful hate of anyone and everyone who is in any way different from you.

        by awesumtenor on Thu Jul 26, 2012 at 12:03:08 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

  •  Good program notes and explanation (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    techno, lone1c, Dumbo, kpbuick

    of where Brahms was coming from with the work.  First sang the "How Lovely is Thy Dwelling Place" in English in high school, and performed it in college and with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra & Chorus.

    I like your "Neue Liebeslieder Walz" setting, having sung several of the Liebeslieder and the Neues Liebeslieder, including this last ("Zum Schluss"), in Glee Club in college.  I remember that the text is Goethe, as opposed to the rest of them being Daumer.

    And it's a fitting description of the knot that is the human heart, and our vanity in trying to desrcibe or untie it.  And that consolation comes only through the inspiration of art (including  musical composition!).

    Nun, ihr Musen, genug!
    Vergebens strebt ihr zu schildern,
    wie sich Jammer und Glück
    wechseln in liebender Brust.
    Heilen könnet die Wunden
    ihr nicht, die Amor geschlagen,
    aber Linderung kommt einzig,
    ihr Guten, von euch.

    Now enough, ye Muses!
    Vainly ye strive to show
    How sadness and joy
    Mix in the loving heart.
    You can not heal the wounds
    That Love has stricken
    But solace comes only,
    You kind ones, from you.

    Torture is Wrong! We live near W so you don't have to. Send love.

    by tom 47 on Thu Jul 26, 2012 at 07:30:33 AM PDT

  •  Sung it twice (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    lone1c, BachFan, Dumbo

    Once as a tenor, once as a bass.  The amazing thing about  the work is that, no matter what part you are singing, you have the best melody at any given point.  Some of Brahms' motets are so difficult to sing that you are working too hard to enjoy the experience, while the Requiem, although tricky in spots, also has long stretches that almost sing themselves.  I don't know about the soprano and alto parts, but the writing is for the men is pretty kind to the voice.  Both time I sang it, I had to sing in church the next morning, and I was fine (unlike singing Bach's b minor, Beethoven's 9th, or that scream-fest, the Berlioz Requiem!)

    •  Don't hate on the Berlioz Requiem :) (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      lone1c, Dumbo, Nespolo

      although the tenor part for the Lacrymosa  is not for the faint of heart... and it doesn't help in the least that after singing at the top of your range at fortissimo there, the movement immediately following is pianissimo... in the same range.

      Got to sing the tenor solo in the Sanctus at WNC a few years back... that was way cool...

      Fear doesn't just breed incomprehension. It also breeds a spiteful, resentful hate of anyone and everyone who is in any way different from you.

      by awesumtenor on Thu Jul 26, 2012 at 12:11:37 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  It's flashy but hollow, IMO. (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Dumbo, lone1c

        The Berlioz Requiem is devoid of the genuine intense emotion of the Mozart or Verdi, the comfort of the Brahms or the beauty of the Faure.  It's by no means bad, mind you, but it seems to be more of a showpiece for Berlioz's innovative and unorthodox compositional methods (i.e., the arrangement of the brass into a cross-shaped choir) than a profound statement about death or existence.  Every time I hear it, I find myself wishing there was just something more under the surface.  I haven't found it, sadly.

  •  I saw an inspired performance... (5+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    techno, BachFan, Dumbo, lone1c, Nespolo the San Francisco Symphony in the early '90s. Loved it so much I went back again the next night, dragging a co-worker with me. She was unfamiliar with classical music, and by the end she was in tears.

    The recording they made that week went on to win the Grammy for best classical performance. I still have the CD. :-)

    There are, in every age, new errors to be rectified, and new prejudices to be opposed. ~Samuel Johnson (1709-1784)

    by slksfca on Thu Jul 26, 2012 at 08:16:49 AM PDT

  •  Thanks for this (6+ / 0-)

    The Brahms Requiem is one of my favorite pieces.  I have been fortunate enough to sing most of the major choral works but this was one of the more difficult (for me—only the Beethoven Missa Solemnus is even close to being as difficult).

    Some of this music is so transcendentally beautiful it is enough to make a grown man weep.  "Wie lieblich ist Deine Wohnungen" for example.

    I hope when I die my friends gather to listen to a great recording of this in my memory.  I have five versions on my computer for them to choose from.

  •  Love, love, love (5+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    techno, BachFan, Dumbo, lone1c, Nespolo

    this piece of music. Unfortunately there are floorlayers here banging on my floor, so I cannot listen to any of the links you thoughtfully provided.

    “The comfort of the rich depends upon an abundant supply of the poor.” ― Voltaire

    by Time Waits for no Woman on Thu Jul 26, 2012 at 08:57:51 AM PDT

  •  Slightly off topic.... (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    BachFan, Dumbo, lone1c

    A year or so ago, the only classical music station in San Jose left the air because of "change of format." Disappointing to say the least.  The replacement, a good rock and roll station already had a presence, and now the stations are exactly the same, and appear at 2 different spots. Seems overkill.

    Fortunately, KDFC, the classical station has re-appeared on 104.9, and it's quite clear both at home and in the car.  Happy Birthday, Al !!

    I think that Republicanism is revealing itself as a personality disorder, not so much an ideology." -- Naomi Klein

    by AllanTBG on Thu Jul 26, 2012 at 09:29:14 AM PDT

  •  I sang this in High School (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Dumbo, lone1c

    almost 50 years ago. Hard to imagine many of that age
    singing it today. Of course, we did it in English which was
    a bit easier and not too strange in translation.
    Great music.

  •  I LOVE singing this piece (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Dumbo, lone1c

    I first sang it in my college choir more years ago than I care to think -- and have sung it several times since with various community choirs wherever I happened to be living.  I put it on in all moments of grief and stress - and I sing the alto part always along with it, I cannot help myself.  Thanks SO MUCH for this WONDERFUL diary - I learned a lot and it deepens my love for this beautiful music.

    I can still remember my friend Lorna saying she always imagined a giant frog hopping down the center aisle of our college performance hall when we sang "Der Tod!"  lol

  •  My favorite requiem (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    lone1c, Dumbo

    When I've performed it,  I've always found the final movement anticlimatic, however; after the fugue in the  penultimate movement... Movement 6 just sounds like it should be the end... after the bombast of "Tod wo is dein stachel; Holle wo ist dein sieg" we go into the minimalist fugue "Herr, du bist wurdig zu nehmen Preis und Ehre und Kraft" that is reminiscent of the Credo in B minor mass that builds and builds to the end...

    Fear doesn't just breed incomprehension. It also breeds a spiteful, resentful hate of anyone and everyone who is in any way different from you.

    by awesumtenor on Thu Jul 26, 2012 at 11:59:03 AM PDT

    •  Oh I think the last movement is perfect. (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      lone1c, Dumbo, awesumtenor

      Ending with 6 would be, as you note, bombastic.  That wasn't what Brahms wanted at all.  Instead, we go out with peace and comfort.  And the female voices singing those soft "Selig sind die Lied tragen" phrases always gives me chills.  I wouldn't have it end any other way.

      But the 6th movement is indeed my favorite, just for the fugue.  That moment when all chorus and orchestra comes together over the IV-V-I chords (Zu nehmen boom Preis und Ehre boom boom Preis und Ehre boom boom)?  Brilliant.

      •  I love the last movement too (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Dumbo, lone1c

        but the exuberance of that fugue in the 6th movement is beyond exhilarating. It's like a mad sprint for the finish line only to realize you still have a last lap :)

        Brahms, like Mendelssohn and Bach had the ability to wring all of the emotion, the pathos, the joy or the pain out of the text and even if you don't understand the German the music itself carries all of the emotion of the text...

        Fear doesn't just breed incomprehension. It also breeds a spiteful, resentful hate of anyone and everyone who is in any way different from you.

        by awesumtenor on Thu Jul 26, 2012 at 05:28:44 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

  •  How are you asserting Brahms wasn't (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    lone1c, Dumbo

    an atheist?  Pretty much the ONLY clear statement we have on the issue is his close friend Dvorak's lamenting that he believed "nothing."  I find it rather troubling you'd assume he must have had some kind of spiritual/religious belief when there is in fact no evidence to support such, and Dvorak's testimonial refutes it.

    Otherwise, a fine diary.  The requiem was my introduction to Brahms as a classical vocalist in college, and I immediately fell in love with it.  It also catapulted Brahms into my top 3 composers list, as I came to adore his chamber works, the symphonies (#4 still blows me away) and piano pieces.  Too bad modern conductors insist on playing his music slow and boring, which it shouldn't be.  I blame von Karajan more than anyone for giving the public the impression Brahms is slow and stuffy.


    •  If he were an atheist (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      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-)
        Recommended by:
        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-)
          Recommended by:

          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-)
            Recommended by:
            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-)
        Recommended by:
        Dumbo, lone1c

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

  •  My Brahms Requiem anecdote. (2+ / 0-)
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    Dumbo, lone1c

    I was the choir director for my mormon congregation for about 7 years. One of the more challenging pieces we sang (in semi-defiance of the Salt Lake edict to stick with hymns out of the official hymnbook) was "How Lovely Is Thy Dwelling-Place." The choir did a creditable job.

    However, it was our accompanist who deserved the most praise. Robin was not terribly experienced, not well-trained at all — and in fact, when we first started rehearsing, she simply could not play the transcription at all. (Piano transcriptions of orchestral music is often daunting, and "How Lovely…" was the hardest piece of music she'd ever laid eyes on.)

    But she practiced her heart out. I can't begin to imagine how many hours she put in — before work, after work, and on weekends — but she was sounding better and better every week, and by the time we performed the piece, Robin had it note-perfect. It was a pleasure to hear her nail the little triplet — in short, it was a triumph all around.

    And of course Robin's having mastered this piece meant that her playing skills had improved "geometrically" — nothing else that I ever threw at her could faze her in the slightest. (This was, by the way, reminiscent of my own teenage triumph mastering Handel's "Rejoice Greatly" from the Messiah — I had to accompany my mom — but I digress.)

    Love the Brahms. Thanks so much for posting this.

  •  Fine diary, (2+ / 0-)
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    Dumbo, lone1c

    one quibble: the Otto Klemperer recording features the Philharmonia Orchestra and Chorus (not "Philharmonic").  And yes, it is a wonderful recording, featuring Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Elizabeth Swarzkopf as the vocal soloists.

    The Philharmonia had been founded as a recording orchestra for EMI about 1950 and quickly became regarded as the best orchestra in London--the orchestra's principal horn was the legendary Dennis Brain, for example.  Klemperer became the principal conductor of the Philharmonia in the mid-1950's and recorded with them until his death in the early 1970's. About 1964, EMI decided they couldn't afford their own orchestra anymore and disbanded the group.  A core of the players stayed together and kept the orchestra going as the "New Philharmonia".  After a few years, they dropped the "New" and continued to record and perform as the Philharmonia.  It is today still regarded as among the best British orchestras.  

    •  Thanks for the catch! (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      I knew it was the Philharmonia—unfortunately, my autocorrect offered to disagree with me on that point. Grumble.

      And I can safely recommend a number of recordings of the (New) Philharmonia, having a number of their recordings, including their Verdi Requiem with Giulini, and their Mahler's Fifth and Sixth with Barbirolli.  

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