Brahms — A German Requiem
The premiere of Johannes Brahms’ A German Requiem took place in 1869, almost exactly five years before that of Giuseppe Verdi’s own Requiem. In a way, the two works defined the German-Italian split that had festered in the music world for decades, if not centuries. In Verdi’s work, one could hear (indeed, couldn’t avoid) the influence of opera — at the time, the center of Italian cultural life. Brahms’ work, by contrast, sprung from the tradition of German symphonic music. Verdi’s Requiem is grand and dramatic; Brahms’ is subdued and tautly structured. Verdi’s is extroverted, while Brahms’ is intensely introspective.
Another difference: whereas Verdi’s Requiem came to stand as one of that composer’s last great works, the German Requiem was Brahms’ first fully successful foray into large-scale composition. Ironically, it is music that sprung, in some part, from a prior failure at harnessing large forces in music.
Back in 1854, Brahms (who was 31 at the time) had attempted to write his first symphony. However, the composer suffered from fears that he couldn’t handle the symphonic form, and after much struggle, he eventually shelved the work. Parts of that music instead evolved into his First Piano Concerto, completed in 1858.
But when the Concerto was premiered early the following year, it was so detested by audiences that the sensitive composer foreswore large-scale orchestral composing altogether for some time.
It took the death of Brahms’ long-time friend (and fellow composer) Robert Schumann and, later, of his own mother, to shake Brahms out of his self-doubt. He began devoting himself more and more single-mindedly toward the task of writing a Requiem for chorus and orchestra.
From the outset, it was to be a work on a grand scale, and of unprecedented originality. Conceptually, Brahms approached the German Requiem as a consolation for the living, rather than the traditional conception of a Requiem as a prayer for the departed. Brahms eschewed the traditional Catholic Requiem Mass texts (and, for that matter, the Latin language) in favor of a more personal work structured out of select texts from the Bible, sung in German. The texts are organized such that Brahms’ concept is clear from the first line (an excerpt from the Book of Matthew): “Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted.”
For musical material, Brahms early on turned to abandoned fragments from the aborted first symphony. That music became the core of the German Requiem’s brilliant second movement, “Denn alles Fleisch es ist wie Gras” (“For all flesh is as grass”).
From there, the work blossomed, even though Brahms was waylaid from the project at times by other work. He completed a six-movement version of the piece in 1866, and the first three movements were premiered at a concert in Vienna on December 1 of the following year.
Astonishingly, that performance was met with yet more booing and hissing from the audience. Blame this time, though, was laid at the feet of the timpanist at the first performance, who reportedly played so loudly during the fugal section of the third movement that he drowned out the entire orchestra and chorus.
At the first performance of the six-movement version of the German Requiem, the composer was finally redeemed: Both the public and the critics lauded the work as a groundbreaking achievement in German music. Brahms himself was not fully satisfied, however, and he soon inserted the glorious fifth movement out of concern that his creation was too dour. The movement, which features a luminescent solo for soprano, was a memorial to his mother, and it quickly became one of the piece’s most beloved sections. In this seven-movement version, the German Requiem was heard no fewer than 20 times in Germany in its first year of existence.
Despite the fact that Brahms held his own Requiem fundamentally apart from that of the traditional Catholic mass, there are some surface similarities of structure that bear notice. For example, one can hear in his ominous and at times thunderous second movement, “Denn alles Fleisch es ist wie Gras” (“For all flesh is as grass”), echoes of the “Dies irae” movements (which also traditionally occur in second position) of Requiems by Mozart or Verdi.
But overall, the message of Brahms’ Requiem is fundamentally different from that of more traditional works; and so is the musical language. As in so much of Brahms’ music, this is densely harmonized music, in which the linear melody is often appointed in such rich harmonies that it can, on first listen, occasionally be obscured. In those moments, it’s worth savoring the richness of Brahms’ harmonies, his sense of balance and appropriate heft. And then, like a razor slicing through velvet, the melody will re-emerge, pointing the way toward the next idea — which, in this case, is ever toward comfort and redemption: “Yea, saith the Spirit, that they may rest from their labours,” the chorus sings in the last movement, quoting Revelation xiv. 13: “And their works do follow them.”
Program notes provided by Joe Nickell © 2013