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.