A German Requiem by Johannes Brahms
Europe was very much a work in progress during the nineteenth century: France had put away the escapades of Bonaparte, but in mid-century was embracing Napoleon III; in Prussia, a new leader, von Bismarck, was rising; the Sardinian monarchy was expanding into other parts of Italy, as well as to the north; the Turks, who held a large part of southeastern Europe, were threatened by Britain in the Crimea; and czarist Russia was testing the boundaries of eastern Europe for its own aggrandizement. The division of Europe which emerged from the 1814-15 Congress of Vienna held no real logic, and for years the jockeying among nations and personalities continued, threatening from time to time, evoking minor readjustments, and culminating in a series of wars-not all confined to the European continent– lasting from about 1850 into the 1870’s. Germany, in particular, a diverse collection of states during this period, coalesced into its modern form in 1871.
Mid-nineteenth-century Europe was also, in many ways, a beehive of musical activity; but in other respects, it was a vacuum, waiting to be filled with a new purpose. Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin, and Mendelssohn were gone, as were their forebears, Bach, Telemann, Haydn, and Mozart. Wagner had written Rienzi, The Flying Dutchman, and Tannhauser, but was still hopscotching about Europe to avoid creditors; Rossini was in self-imposed musical exile, and his output was nearly complete. The enfant terrible, Liszt, was well known but had barely begun his real composing (Les Preludes belongs to an earlier period, but the Transcendental Etudes, for example, came later). Robert Schumann was still writing criticism and composing, but was stalked by mental illness. Verdi had reached the pinnacle of Nabucco and was churning out many operas, a surprising number of which would not be recognized today; his best came later. But there were, of course, many young composers who had not yet made their marks- such as Franck, Dvorak, Tschaikowsky, Faure-and, among them, Johannes Brahms. Born into poverty in 1833 in Hamburg, the second (of three) children of a journeyman double-bassist and a seamstress 17 years his senior, Johannes showed early talent, and his parents somehow managed to pay for piano lessons beginning at age eight; he was later taken as a pupil by the eminent Edward Marxsen. In 1853, during and following a musical tour of northern Germany, the 20-year-old Brahms made three important friendships: The violinist Josef Joachim, in Gottingen, and the composers Clara and Robert Schumann in Dusseldorf. He also met Liszt, who thereafter developed a strong dislike for Brahms and his works. Robert Schumann, however, wrote an extremely laudatory article in the Neue Zeitschrift fur Musik , which he had founded; Brahms found himself both pleased and embarrassed by Schumann’s public confidence. The Schumanns, in fact, made Brahms a virtual family member, but tragedy intervened: Robert Schumann attempted suicide in 1854, was institutionalized, and died in 1856. It was while Brahms was assisting Clara Schumann in going through her late husband’s papers that he came across a note regarding a “German Requiem”. There had been at least three earlier ‘German Requiems’-the first, in 1627, by Heinrich Schutz, and later efforts by Michael Haydn and by Franz Schubert, all based on the Protestant German Bible of Martin Luther. Certainly those inspired Schumann, who nonetheless never got to write music for such a piece.
Others have observed the outpouring of criticism and comment devoted to the text of the Requiem– its sources, its theology (or perhaps lack thereof), its odd interleaving of 15 passages from 12 different books-including Old Testament Apocrypha, Psalms, Revelation, and scattered verses in between- and critics’ many opinions regarding Brahms’ own religious outlook. From the very first performances, there has been argument whether this Requiem is best performed in a sacred setting, or in a concert hall: Those who have heard it in one place often point to the other as a more fitting venue. (The Chorus’ selection of a church in this instance has more to do with instrumentation than theology!) The first “complete” (six movements) performance in the cathedral at Bremen would not have been allowed to take place without something added to the program to provide a connection with Christ, whose name does not appear in the text. (In that performance, and most succeeding performances in that place, the usual addition was “I know that my Redeemer liveth” from Handel’s Messiah.) Of course none of these arguments are going to result in a firm conclusion; we simply do not, and will not, know for certain why Brahms chose these texts. But as others have pointed out, amid all this textual controversy there is also a dearth of musical analysis.
It is true there has been controversy regarding the musical genre. Early listeners found traditional sound, some comparing it to Bach; but others complained about the tempos, the “modern” transitions and harmonies, or other elements. Wagner and Liszt thought it reactionary, and said so. Yet there was much in it that was modern: As late as 1950, Arnold Schoenberg, who was anything but a traditionalist, published an essay hailing “Brahms the Progressive”. The Requiem in many respects defies labeling, not only in terms of style but even in its overall form: It is not a mass– not even a religious service– and certainly not a motet, but it is not a traditional oratorio either.
What is most clear, musically, about the Requiem is its exquisite symmetry: The seven movements balance each other in mood and style; for example, the first movement and the last movement share a peaceful, comforting flow, the first directed specifically to the mourners-“Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted”-from the Beatitudes, Matthew 5:4– and, for the last movement, “Blessed are the dead, which die in the Lord” (Rev. 14:13), which, although it speaks to those who die, can be read as a comfort for those who remain. The fourth, and central, movement, in some sense the high point of the entire work, pours out praise upon the dwelling place of the Most High, i.e., heaven (although that word is not used in either the English or the German text, taken from Psalm 84). Two movements- the second, “Behold, all flesh is as the grass” (I Peter 1:24, quoting Isaiah 40), and the sixth, “Grave, where is thy triumph? Death, o where is thy sting?” (I Corinthians 15:51ff), contain strongly declamatory passages, which, in the opening to the second movement, Brahms emphasizes with an almost grim monophonic insistence (yet some early listeners took its triple meter for a laendler!), and in the sixth movement with all the pomp of a victory march. And even the solos balance-the third movement baritone solo, “Lord, make me to know my frailty” (Psalm 39), and the fifth movement soprano solo, “Ye now are sorrowful; howbeit, ye shall again behold me, and your heart shall be joyful?” (John 16:22 ). This structuring of the music to match the text is perhaps nowhere else so masterfully done.
Brahms also used other devices to heighten the symmetry of the work. For example, the melody with which the orchestra begins the fourth movement is then inverted as the chorus begins; such inversions appear in several places. Moreover, in many of the movements Brahms continually changes key, occasionally shifting from major to minor and back, and yet does it so cleverly and smoothly that the listener feels, rather than notices, the transitions. In view of the skill demonstrated here, it is amazing that so little has been written about Brahms’ musical technique in this work.
Clearly, it was the posthumous discovery of Schumann’s rumination that started Brahms on the quest that became Ein deutsches Requiem. In the next two years, Brahms composed some sketches of short, Schumann-like melodies, possibly for use in such a work. It was work interrupted frequently, and then apparently laid down for several years. According to his first biographer, Max Kalbeck, Brahms took his well-thumbed Bible and spent a day in the woods – a favorite haunt– with the manuscript, selecting texts to be used; Kalbeck says this took place in Hamburg in 1861, but modern scholarship casts doubt on both the date and the place. In any event, Brahms apparently did not work on the Requiem intensively until after his mother’s death in 1865.
Scholars have argued for over a century about the personal connection of the Requiem. It was long thought that Brahms’ mother, Christiane, was the real inspiration, but, although her death appears to have been a stimulus to restart work, there is insufficient evidence to draw that conclusion. Some think perhaps the fifth movement, which was added in 1868, may have been the result of her death (in part because of a subtext, “… as one whom his own mother comforteth” (Isaiah 66:13)). Brahms’ parents in fact separated a year before his mother’s death; yet Brahms remained close to both of them, and later provided some support to his father’s second wife (who was 18 years younger than her husband!) Others have argued that the work was intended to honor Schumann-as we have seen, the idea probably came from Schumann’s scribblings, but the execution is certainly Brahms’ own, and twelve years had intervened since Schumann’s death. The Requiem was even suggested as homage to the victims of the Franco-Prussian War, which ended in 1866; Brahms did indeed honor that occasion, but not until after 1870, and in an entirely different work, Triumphlied. Brahms, however, on several occasions described his work as a “human” requiem: Responding to the conductor Carl Reinthaler before the Bremen performance of 1867 (Reinthaler having urged amending the text for a more overtly Christian tone), he says, “ I confess that I should have left out the ‘German’ and substituted ‘human’… I have …included much because I am a musician, because I required it, because I can neither argue away nor strike out a ‘henceforth’ from my venerable parts.”
There is no doubt that Brahms had intentionally avoided the structure of the requiem mass, which is a service for the dead, and had instead sought to create a work which espoused comfort for the living. Paul Minear, writing in Theology Today (July 1965) says, “[Brahms] told a friend that the Requiem takes for granted an unshakeable confidence, but … this confidence does not eradicate the sorrow, the uncertainty, the doubts, the losses, which beset believer and unbeliever alike.” Minear concludes that Brahms “was…inclined to interpret the biblical texts in terms that were genuinely humane and universal [italics added].” This, then, is the answer to our rhetorical question: This is a requiem for everyone, the message enunciated by the first movement: “Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall find comfort.” Certainly there can be no greater dedication than one which includes all of humanity. And in that universal outreach lies the attraction of this simple, yet complex, assurance to all of us.
The Chorus previously performed Brahms’ Requiem to conclude its fourth season, 26 years ago, in May, 1980, at Community United Methodist Church. That performance utilized organ accompaniment; it was conducted by Robert O. Jaynes and featured Mrs. Nell Hertzberg and Dale McCurdy as the soloists.
J. R. Fancher, Feb. 2006