Brahms’ German Requiem
April 8, 2017
The promise of a great musical career for Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) was foretold by the composer Robert Schumann, in 1853, when Brahms was barely 20 years old. The early disappointment he experienced with his first major orchestral work, the D minor Piano Concerto (1859), left Schumann’s prophesy unfulfilled. It was not until the completion of the German Requiem, op. 45—the composition of which occupied Brahms for more than a decade—that the world would finally have solid confirmation of Schumann’s prediction. Although a long gestational period was not unusual for many of Brahms’s greatest works, none was longer, nor the result more significant, than that of the German Requiem. The origins of the Requiem stem from as early as 1854, in an early sonata for two pianos that he never completed but later reworked into two movements of the First Piano Concerto and the second movement of the Requiem. By 1861 the texts of four movements had been selected but it was not until 1865 that composition had begun in earnest. A complete performance of six movements was given in April 1868 and a seventh movement, the soprano solo, was added the following month. Despite this extended period of rumination, the German Requiem is a consistent, unified, and organic whole.
In his German Requiem, Brahms brilliantly and eloquently synthesizes the history of religious choral music, particularly that of his Germanic predecessors, and leads the way for a new type of personal devotional musical expression. Brahms was a particularly literate student of music history and had the opportunity to perform a good deal of choral music in his positions as director of the choir at the court of Detmold and the Hamburg Women’s Choir. He draws upon his knowledge of the works of Palestrina, Bach, Handel, Beethoven and Schumann to inspire some of the underlying formal organization and expressive tone of the work. The Lutheran cantatas of J. S. Bach, which were first being published during Brahms’s lifetime, likely played an important role in the composition of the German Requiem. Despite this wide variety of traditional musical influence, the Requiem is decidedly original, demonstrating significant aspects of Brahms’s mature compositional style as well as expressing his personally held religious beliefs. Regardless of the specific musical sources of inspiration for the Requiem, the hope-filled expression of a universalist religious message of solace and salvation is at its core.
The Requiem, as a musical form, is derived from the setting of a number of texts from the Roman Catholic Mass for the Dead. Its history can be traced to early in the development of the Roman liturgy, but the first polyphonic (choral) setting comes from the 15th-century. Since that time many of the greatest composers wrote musical settings of the Requiem including Palestrina, Mozart and Verdi. Brahms’s Requiem is unlike virtually all of its predecessors in that the words he set are not those of the Mass for the Dead but rather personally selected sections from the Old and New Testaments as well as from the “unofficial” writings known as the Apocrypha. In addition, Brahms composed his music for German texts (hence the name German Requiem) rather than the liturgical Latin of the Catholic Requiem. Further, the texts selected by Brahms are different from the Catholic Requiem in their overall tone and in the message that they convey. Here there is no mention of a horrific Last Judgement, the Wrath of God (Dies irae), or Lamentation (Lacrimosa); these are supplanted by texts conveying consolation, acceptance and humility. These differences, in addition to the words of the texts themselves and their symbolic musical context, convey to us that, rather than a prayer for the dead, this Requiem is intended as a comfort to the living. It addresses the fragility and transience of life in its physical dimension, embraced by a wondrous eternal spirit.
This sense of embracement is conveyed through the structural symmetry of the Requiem. The first and last movements share similar moods and texts, the second, third and sixth movements are likewise parallel in the use of baritone solo (III and VI) and their focus on death and salvation. The heart of the Requiem lies in the central fourth and fifth movements. Here Brahms conjures images of a heavenly vision and maternal comfort, sentiments perhaps inspired by the death of his own mother in 1865.
The Requiem begins with a prayer for the bereaved, “Selig sind, die da Leid tragen” (Blessed are they that mourn), sung by the restrained choir and accompanied by a truncated orchestra, without violins, high winds and trumpets. The quiet mood established here is carried into the second movement, but the dark tone and distant drumming now draw us into an approaching funeral procession that accompanies the text “Denn alles fleisch es ist wie Gras” (For all flesh is as grass). A brighter, more lyrical section interrupts the dirge at the words “So seid nun geduldig” (Be patient therefore). The dirge music returns with its original text but is soon followed by the exuberant exclamation “Aber des Herrn Wort bleibet in Ewigkeit” (But the word of the Lord endureth forever).
The somber third movement introduces the solo baritone in alternation with the chorus restlessly pondering human mortality and humility before God. The mood turns jubilant at the words “Ich hoffe auf Dich” (My hope is in Thee) and the movement concludes with a glorious and triumphant fugue over a long, sustained bass note, to the text “Der Gerechten Seelen sind in Gottes Hand” (But the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God).
The central fourth and fifth movements balance the drama and pathos of the preceding sections with grace and tenderness. The mellifluously arching chorus (How lovely are Thy tabernacles) and angelic solo soprano (And ye now therefore have sorrow) are among the most sensitive pieces in all of Brahms’s music.
The dramatic high point of the Requiem occurs in the sixth movement. The opening section, led by the baritone solo, is unsettled and meandering, reflecting the text, “Denn wir haben hie keine bleibende Statt” (For here have we no continuing city). This uncertainty is contrasted by the choral proclamation “Denn es wird die Posaune schallen” (for the trumpet shall sound) heralding a victorious image of the Last Judgement. (The use of trombones rather than trumpets here is because, in a musical context, the German word Posaune means trombone.) A final section, constructed in the form of a magnificent fugue, begins at the text “Herr, Du bist würdig” (Thou art worthy, o Lord).
The seventh and final movement ultimately returns to the peaceful opening of the Requiem. The use of parallel texts, “Selig sind die Toten” (Blessed are the dead) of the conclusion and “Selig sind, die da Leid tragen” (Blessed are they that mourn) of the first movement, and the virtually identical musical setting of the closing sections of the first and last movements creates a reassuring sense of calm and unity – the essence of the transcendentally spiritual message of this great work.
©2017 Robert S. Katz, Ph. D.