German Requiem Program Notes

German Requiem Program Notes

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Full program notes:

Johannes Brahms
Born: May 7, 1833, Hamburg, Germany

Died: April 3, 1897, Vienna, Austria

Ein deutsches Requiem (A German Requiem), Opus 45

In 1896, a year before his death, Brahms spent an evening with Antonín Dvořák, and in the course of a long night of talk, the men discussed religion. As the devout Dvořák walked home, a friend reported that he was silent for a long time, then finally burst out: “Such a man, such a fine soul—and he believes in nothing! He believes in nothing!”

By all accounts, Dvořák was right. Brahms was an agnostic, yet he had a profound knowledge of the Bible: he owned five copies of the Lutherbibel, as Luther’s translation of the Bible into German was called, and he read from them daily. If Brahms did not accept Christian dogma, he had enormous respect for its teachings, and it was this man—an agnostic with an essentially religious temperament—who composed A German Requiem.

a deeply personal source
This is very personal music, and it appears to have sprung from very personal sources, starting with the death of Robert Schumann in 1856. Schumann had been the first major figure to believe in Brahms and support his career, and in the aftermath of Schumann’s mental collapse and death in an asylum, Brahms had set out to write music that registered his grief. But Brahms was unsure what form that music should take. He began a symphony, sketching it as a sonata for two pianos, but abandoned that project. He did, however, save the music: part of it went into his First Piano Concerto, and the symphony’s slow scherzo eventually became the second movement of the German Requiem. Evidence suggests that Brahms sketched this movement and three others in the form of a cantata and then set the project aside.

It was the death of his mother in February 1865, when Brahms was 31, that brought him back to this music. Though his par- ents were divorced, Brahms remained extremely close to both of them throughout their lives. For his mother he felt a particu- lar bond: she had been a source of love and support and had taken great pride in his accomplishments. At the news of her stroke, he had rushed back to Hamburg, but he arrived too late to see her. A friend in Vienna reported that he found Brahms sitting at the piano, playing Bach and sobbing as he announced his mother’s death—and he would not stop playing. In the following months Brahms returned to his earlier sketches for a cantata and revised and expanded them.

The first three movements were performed in December 1867 in Vienna, and the occasion turned into a disaster. At the close of the third movement the timpanist either got lost or played much too loudly—accounts vary—and the music was actually hissed. Brahms revised the score, and a six-movement version for baritone, chorus and orchestra was successfully premiered on Good Friday 1868 in the Bremen Cathedral. At this point Brahms’ old piano teacher Eduard Marxsen advised him to add one more movement, one that spoke of a mother’s love. Brahms recognized that Marxsen was right, and he composed the additional movement, the fifth, in which a soprano sings a message of maternal consolation. This is the soprano’s only appearance in the Requiem, and her silvery sound cuts through the generally dark colors of the work with a message emotionally crucial to the grieving composer.

acceptance and consolation
This is one of the great Requiems, but it is not a setting of the Catholic Mass for the dead. Instead, Brahms chose his own texts from Luther’s Bible—16 separate passages from the Old and New Testaments and the Apocrypha—and set them in German. His choices of texts, and his exclusions, give the German Requiem a very particular character. There is no Dies Irae section of the Catholic Mass here, no day of judgment on which souls are separated into the saved and damned. In fact, there is not one mention of Christ in Brahms’ setting, and he fiercely resisted suggestions that he include such a reference. Instead, his emphasis is on the living as they face the fact of death and loss. The first words of A German Requiem are “Blessed are they who mourn,” and this message of consolation continues throughout: the closing text is “Blessed are the dead,” and the progress is toward an acceptance of life and death and consolation for both those who die and those who mourn.

Brahms chose the title A German Requiem to indicate that it was different—that it was not a Catholic mass and was in German rather than Latin—but he was uncomfortable with that title. He wanted to call it “Requiem for Humankind” but in the end settled for the title we know today. The premiere of the complete version on February 18, 1869, was a triumph, and performances quickly followed throughout Germany and abroad. More than any other work, it was A German Requiem that established Brahms’ reputation at this early stage of his career.

the music
The two opening movements, both somber in color, introduce central ideas, bringing consolation to the living and reminding them of the transitory nature of human existence. The opening movement is made even more somber by Brahms’ decision to do without violins, clarinets and trumpets. He mutes the strings in the second movement, a slow march (despite the 3/4 meter) that rises to a great climax on “But the word of the Lord endureth forever,” then falls away to the quiet close. The solo baritone enters in the third movement, troubled and searching for direction within the confusion of existence. The music grows to a climax that breaks into a double fugue in D major on the words “The souls of the righteous are in the hands of the Lord” and drives to a triumphant conclusion. (This is the part that was ruined by the timpanist in the December 1867 performance.)

After this thunder comes a peaceful interlude. “How lovely are thy dwelling places,” which celebrates the beauties of life on earth, is one of Brahms’ loveliest choral settings, so beautiful that it is often performed by itself. The soprano soloist sings a message of maternal love and eventual reunion in “And ye now therefore have sorrow”; her heartfelt line floats over some luminous string writing—clearly this movement was important to Brahms.

The mood changes sharply at the beginning of the sixth movement: “For here have we no continuing city” brings the dramatic climax of the Requiem. The dark opening repeats the message of the transitoriness of human life, but the motion of this movement is toward resurrection and triumph over the grave. Brahms builds this up to a magnificent climax and another double fugue, this time on a text from Revelation, “Thou art worthy, O Lord,” and the movement drives to a ringing close. Brahms concludes by returning to the message and manner of the opening movement—in fact, the Requiem ends with the same music that brought the first movement to its close. Humanity may eventually triumph over the grave, but now Brahms’ concern is with the living and the dead, and A German Requiem fades into silence with one final benediction of the dead and of those who mourn for them.

Instrumentation: solo soprano, solo baritone and mixed choir with orchestra comprising 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, harp, timpani and strings

Eric Bromberger

About the Author

After earning a Ph.D. in American Literature from UCLA, Eric Bromberger was teaching at San Diego State University when, taking up another of his passions, the violin, he joined the La Jolla Symphony Orchestra. Soon he was also writing its program notes, which drew enough attention from presenters and performers that he quit his day job to devote himself to music. Now, in addition to writing for the Minnesota Orchestra and giving pre-concert lectures for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, he is annotator for such organizations as the Kennedy Center’s Washington Performing Arts, Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival, University of Chicago Presents, San Francisco Performances and the San Diego Symphony. He and his wife Pat love chamber music, and this summer they’re playing in an orchestra that will tour Spain.