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Program Notes - December 7, 1996 Concert

Max Derrickson

Ein Deutsches Requiem (A German Requiem), Op. 45

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)

It is unclear where Johannes Brahms (b. Hamburg 1833; d. Vienna 1897) got the extraordinary idea of composing a non-liturgical requiem. Precedence for the piece had long been established in the Roman Catholic Church as a Mass for the Dead. Many composers had composed requiems outside of the church's confines, but had kept the sacred structure and liturgy mostly intact. Brahms, however, conceived a requiem which was intentionally not connected to any church influence. He chose the text from scripture taken from the Luthur translation of the Bible (i.e. not Latin ), and selected excerpts which avoided references to "Jesus" and "Christ". To avoid still any further connection with the church, he entitled it Ein Deutsches Requiem  (A German Requiem). It is a piece dedicated to the suffering of the bereaved, a consolation for Humanity as much as a prayer for the dead.

The Requiem in its final form was finished in 1868 and premiered in Leipzig under the baton of Carl Reinecke in 1869. Typical of Brahms' works, he had begun composition on the piece in 1857, eleven years before its completion. But even before that, he had composed the second movement of the Requiem in 1854, originally intended to be in his first symphony (which actually became his first piano concerto). The fifth movement (soprano solo) was the last portion to be completed and it is here that one might gain an inclination for a possible dedication of the work to his mother who died in 1865. Six movements of the piece were premiered in 1868, and the success of that performance was the first great triumph in his career. The following year, the Requiem was performed 20 times, and has since become part of the standard repertoire.

I. Chorus

Brahms set the text of this first movement, "Blessed are they that mourn..." in a darkly somber tone, omitting the violins, clarinets, and piccolo. As the violas, cellos, and basses solemnly play a sighing opening melody, we hear a three note cell that will be used throughout the entire work as a unifying motif. Interesting to note, and very rare for Brahms, is the use of the harp in the first and several additional movements of the work. Though solemn, the music expresses a sweetness veiled by mourning, as the text will show.

Blessed are they that mourn
for they shall be comforted.
Matthew 5:4

They that sow in tears
shall reap in joy.
They go forth and weep,
and bear precious seed,
and come again with rejoicing,
and bring their sheaves with them.
Psalms 126:5-6

II. Chorus

The longest movement of the work, "Denn alles Fleisch es ist wie Gras..." (For all flesh is as grass) beckons to the grim march of death, with the low registers introducing the theme and the funeral drums, and because it is in triple meter, it also implies a dance of death. The chorus enters in a dim but moving chant, expressing some fot he most sobering and poetic verse in the Bible. The progression of this sweeping set-up -- the darkness, text, funeral drums, and implied dance -- moves into amazingly powerful moments. But the text moves onward to the prophecy of everlasting hope and redemption from Man's grim situation, quoting early rain and precious fruit of the earth, and an ending to the pain and sighing. The text painting is exquisite. Even with all of its powerful surges and its harkening to death and dark anguish, the movement's ending is miraculous serenity.

For all flesh is as grass,
and all the glory of man
as the flowers of grass.
The grass is withered,
and the flower fallen away.
1. Peter 1:24

Be patient, therefore,
unto the coming of the Lord.
Behold the husbandman waiteth
for the precious fruit of the earth,
and hath long patience for it,
until he receive the early and
the latter rain. So be patient.
James 5:7

For all flesh is as grass,
and all the glory of man
as the flowers of grass.
The grass is withered,
and the flower fallen away.
1. Peter 1:24

And the ransomed of the Lord
shall return, and come to Zion
with songs; everlasting joy shall
be upon their heads; they shall
obtain joy and gladness, and pain
and sighing shall be made to flee.
Isaiah 35:10

III. Baritone solo and chorus

Previously, the text has been in parable, but now the baritone entes in a recitative dialogue with the chorus. Crying out a sobering, dark message, not concerning those that have passed, he sings directly to us. The dialogue involves Man's humble stature and the inevitable death that awaits us, but recalling that our "hope is in the Lord". The urgency builds into a remarkable double fugue, one for the chorus and another in the orchestra, held together with a D-pedal point, a low note that remains fixed underneath harmony changes. It is a striking example of musical symbolism, as though the chorus is secure in the steady, unmovable hand of God.

Lord make me to know that there
must be an end of me, and that my
life has a term, and that I must hence.
Behold, Thou has made my life as a
handbreadth; and mine age is as
nothing before Thee;
verily, every man at his best state
is altogether vanity. Surely every
man walketh in a vain shew; surely
they are disquieted in vain; he
heapeth up riches, and knoweth not
not who shall gather them. And
now Lord, what is my hope?
My hope is in Thee.
Psalm 39:4-7

The souls of the righteous are
in the hands of God, and there
shall no torment touch them.
Wisdom of Solomon 3:1

IV. Chorus

Winds and strings open a simple and consoling descending figure, which, inverted in the second part of the phrase by the chorus, becomes yearning and confident. It is one of the clearest examples of Brahms' genius for inverting melodies, but by no means the only one of this piece. And thus we have a tender sweet movement of tranquility, both relieving the urgency, death, and the mourning set in the previous movements, and giving furst full glimpse of what lies in store for the humble. Early in the movement, Brahms offers another lovely example of his ear for texture and tone - in the the second theme, the tenors imitate the violins in a florid line which is imitated then by the double basses, at the same pitch. A truly rare blending of tone colors.

How lovely are thy dwelling places,
Lord of Hosts!
My soul longs and yearns for the
forecourts of the Lord;
my body and soul delight themselves
in the living God.
Blessed are they that live in your
house, they praise you ever more.
Psalm 84:1,2,4

V. Soprano solo and chorus

Even after hearing a triumphant performance of the work in six movements, Brahms recognized the need to add this one last movement, and in this particular place, and of this particular subject; a testimony to his sense of form and balance. It is the setting of maternal comfort and profound compassion. It is undoubtedly in memory of his mother, who after suffering a stroke in 1865, died before Brahms could see her one last time.

Ye now have sorrow;
but I will see you again,
and your heart shall rejoice, and
your joy no man taketh from you.
John 16:22

I will comfort you as one whom
his mother comforteth.
Behold me with your eyes;
a little while I have had
tribulation and labor,
and have found great comfort.
Ecclesiastes 51:35

VI. Baritone solo and chorus

The text and music speak of gigantic mysteries and salvation to come that permeate the New Testament. Indeed, the opening of the movement is almost without a tonal center, shifting from the first C minor center to a remote F-sharp minor, and covering a magical and foggy musical landscape in between. the movement then progresses toward a fugue, but cleverly not a fugue per se. Each theme is represented as a fugal subject, all of which meet in the stretto (or compressed part of the fugue). The effect is more of a compounding one, as the themes topple over one another to one of the great climaxes of the piece.

For here we have no continuing city,
but we seek one to come.
Hebrews 13:14

Behold I shew you a mystery: We
shall not all sleep, but we shall
all be changed, in a moment, in the
twinkling of an eye, at the last trump:
for the trumpet shall sound, and the
dead shall be raised incorruptible,
and we shall be changed.
Then shall be brought to
pass saying that is written:
Death is swallowed up in victory.
O death, where is thy sting?
O grave, where is thy victory?
1. Corinthians 15:31-51, 54-55

Thou art worthy, Lord, to receive
golory and honor and power: for Thou
hast created all things, and for Thy
pleasure they are and were created.
Revelations 4:11

VII. Chorus

This final movement recalls the proceedings of the first, but bathed in a new light. The basses and cellos utter a similar motif to that of the opening in the first movement, but here the music is more fluid, and the violins reinstated. Here also, the work of consolation for the bereaved is also done, and Brahms chooses text meant to comfort those who have died and look to their eternal rest ("Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord"). The closing section, set to new text, is very reminiscent of the themes of the first. The vocal and musical setting proclaims the final redemption, but one of comfort and quiet glory, ina way that recalls the bereaving of the living at a distance, as a dream remembered. The harp plucks teardrops into the hushed and beautiful eternity. The dead are remembered forever.

Blessed are the dead which die in
the Lord from henceforth:
Yea, saith the Spirit, that they
may rest from their labors;
and their works do follow them.
Revelations 14:13