Brahms Requiem Program Notes

Rest in Peace

The word “requiem” comes from the opening words of the Roman Catholic Mass for the Dead: “Requiem eternam dona eis” (Grant them eternal rest). Most requiems follow the basic structure and order of the Mass, though certain changes reflect its special purpose of coming to terms with death. The most striking feature of nearly all of them is the Dies Irae, which vividly depicts the end of the world. Then the last trumpet will awaken all the dead from the beginning of time, who will rise from their graves to face the Day of Judgment. Amid fire, terror and tears, every human soul will be either saved or damned, and the very earth will vanish like a bubble.

The words of the Dies Irae have inspired composers to write some of their most forceful and poignant music. The keening and weeping in Mozart’s Lachrymosa embody the last stages of hopeless grief. The Berlioz requiem calls for four brass ensembles; not a single trumpet but three dozen brass instruments surround the chorus, sometimes making singers feel that they are literally lifted into the air by sound waves. Verdi’s Dies Irae begins with powerful blows on a bass drum, followed by chromatic lines in the voices and strings spinning downward, depicting humanity’s terrified wailing in the firestorm that ends the world.

But while most requiems dramatically present the Dies Irae to emphasize life and death in cosmic perspective, Brahms’ Requiem rejects all of that. What makes his German Requiem unique is that it maintains a human perspective from beginning to end. Ignoring the form of the Mass altogether, his Requiem draws on the Old and New Testaments of the German Bible. In fact, when the work’s first conductor complained that the Requiem did not even mention Christ as Savior, Brahms answered that it was a personal statement, not a liturgical one, and that he considered it a “human” requiem.

The arrangement that we present tonight brings the human focus even closer, for Brahms’ own piano setting (rather than his larger orchestration) keeps the focus on our human voices. So, in the language of his original listeners and in a more transparent setting, his Requiem addresses human grief and healing, experiences that we all must face. In the process, Brahms achieved what he desired: music of comfort “für alle Menschen” – for all people.

Johannes Brahms and His Requiem

Born in a seedy neighborhood in Hamburg, Germany, Johannes Brahms (1833-1897), the son of a double-bass player and his older wife, learned to play the piano as a child. He gave his first public recital at age fourteen and was soon contributing to his family’s income by playing in taverns. In 1853, he met Robert and Clara Schumann. This famous couple became the young man’s closest friends in the musical world and helped establish his career by praising and performing his work and by finding him a publisher.

Sadly, Robert Schumann’s mental health began deteriorating rapidly in 1854. Clara resumed her performing career on tour to support the family while her husband was in a mental hospital, and Brahms moved in with the seven Schumann children, caring for them and regularly visiting his mentor Robert in the hospital. While at their home, Brahms also began a serious study of Robert’s collection of the works of Bach–a study that influenced Brahms’ motets on Biblical texts.

Robert’s death in 1856 probably planted the seeds that eventually bore fruit in the German Requiem. Brahms greatly admired Robert’s Requiem for Mignon, a work that used words from Goethe’s novel The Apprenticeship of Wilhelm Meister rather than the text of the Mass. In addition, Brahms and Clara discovered notes among Robert’s papers suggesting that he had planned to compose a longer requiem. Brahms may have felt a responsibility to carry on his friend’s work. Certainly, Brahms wanted to honor the man who had meant so much to him professionally and personally.

But Brahms did not begin work on his Requiem until 1865 when his mother died. Rushing back from Vienna to be near her in her final illness, he arrived too late to tell her goodbye. The trauma of her death led him to seek texts in the German Bible that provided words of comfort. He had never been much of a churchgoer and did not associate with any denomination, but he read the Bible regularly and was deeply moved by religious music. Perhaps for him the deepest communion was achieved by people making music together or in creating music for voices to share, especially when facing the death of those we love.

So, in coming to terms with his loss, he started with his own grief and the reassurance that it had meaning. Unlike the traditional opening of a requiem mass, he began with words from the Gospel of Matthew, focusing on those left behind: “Blest are they who are sorrowful; blest are they that mourn, for they shall have comfort.” The first movement concludes with words from Psalm 126, promising that tears will at last turn to joy.

In the second movement, with its somber, inexorable accompaniment, Brahms places death solidly in the context of the natural world, where human life must fade and die like the grass (Isaiah 40). Yet, as in the natural world, death is only part of a larger reality that will live again in its proper season. In a new dancelike rhythm, the music counsels patience and faith. Again, Brahms promises “the redeemed of the Lord” a time when pain will cease and joy return.

The baritone soloist in the third movement, speaking words from Psalm 39, unflinchingly confronts his own individual mortality–not the fires of hell, but the fact that human life is so brief and seems so meaningless. In anguish, the chorus cries out for comfort, which comes, like a deep cleansing breath, in the realization that human hope lies in God. The closing fugue vigorously proclaims that no ultimate harm can come to God’s own.

Movements four and five have an entirely different feel from the first three, as though Brahms had reached a place of safety, beyond the fear of death or pain of loss. In the fourth movement (probably the most familiar, with words based on Psalm 84), Brahms gratefully contemplates the beauty of God’s creation, in this world and the next; life and death, earth and heaven all embody God’s goodness. Movement five continues this theme, with the soprano soloist reassuring that the separation of death is only “for a little time.” Interestingly, Brahms added this movement a few weeks after the first performance of the German Requiem on Good Friday 1867. He took the text, “You now are sorrowful; grieve not: I will again behold you, and then your heart shall be joyful,” from the words of Jesus at the Last Supper (John 16: 22). Yet he set it for a woman’s voice. This choice, and the closing words from Isaiah 66:13 (“I will give you comfort, as one whom his own mother comforts”), strongly imply how deeply personal this work was for Brahms and how closely tied it was to his feelings for his mother.

The sixth movement comes closest to recreating the Dies Irae so characteristic of most requiems, only with a completely new focus. Here too a trumpet shall sound and the dead shall rise, but instead of wrath and terror, “we shall all be changed” and Death will be conquered forever. A triumphant fugue concludes the movement, praising and thanking God for having created all things.

In the last movement, Brahms at last set the painful words that had hurt too much at the beginning: “Blessed are the dead.” Now the words float on soprano voices in complete serenity. They do not ask for eternal rest or perpetual light but rather reflect a hard-won confidence that the dead ARE blessed. In the same notes that comforted mourners at the end of the first movement, Brahms’ Requiem at last lets the dead rest in peace, safe in God’s love.

Susan Wladaver-Morgan