Brahms’ “A German Requiem”—A Visionary Masterpiece

The Requiem.  The ancient Mass for the Dead.

Few texts have had a more enduring, more profound impact on Western Culture.  Originally sung as part of the funeral rites performed in the Roman Catholic Church, the Requiem is now fused into our collective memory… quietly with us whether we’re Catholic or not.

The impact of the Requiem is particularly clear in Western Music, where settings of the Requiem Mass have formed an important part of choral music from the Middle Ages to today.  A vast number of composers from Palestrina to Andrew Lloyd Webber have penned a Requiem, even if they weren’t Catholic—or particularly religious at all.  It’s easy to see why; the Requiem text, like the ritual it is drawn from, is so broadly recognized that it provides as a easily-understood starting point to explore universal questions of life, death, and life after death.

In composing a Requiem, there are several approaches that composers have taken.  On the one hand, there those that emphasize the dramatic nature of the words, focusing on anger at our loss, the fear of the unknown, or our terror of Final Judgment.  The Requiems of Hector Berlioz and Giuseppe Verdi are the best-known examples of this train of thought.  On the other hand, there are those that emphasize notions of comfort, solace, and a spiritual release as the deceased is gathered up by a merciful God—the Requiems of Gabriel Fauré and Maurice Duruflé represent this tradition.  Or, the composer could adopt an “interrupted” approach where outside texts are added in to provide additional reflections or to comment on the traditional liturgy. Benjamin Britten uses this approach in his War Requiem, inserting war poems by Wilfred Owens that provide deeper layers of meaning to the ritualized Latin text, and make a broader statement about the horrors of war.

Still, while these approaches seem very different, they still share a common base—they all focus attention on the deceased individual(s) and place them the center of the unfolding religious drama.  It is a ritual for and about the dead.

How different this is from Brahms’s approach in A German Requiem. Continue reading

Happy Easter!

Happy Easter to all who celebrate!

In honor of the holiday, let me share a favorite work by a favorite composer, sung by one of my vocal heroes. Without further ado, here is the first part of Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Five Mystical Songs: Easter, sung by Sir Thomas Allen.  The text is by George Herbert (1593–1633).



1. Easter – from Herbert’s Easter

Rise heart; thy Lord is risen.
Sing his praise without delayes,
Who takes thee by the hand,
that thou likewise with him may’st rise;
That, as his death calcined thee to dust,
His life may make thee gold, and much more, just.

Awake, my lute, and struggle for thy part with all thy art.
The crosse taught all wood to resound his name, who bore the same.
His stretched sinews taught all strings, what key
Is the best to celebrate this most high day.

Consort both heart and lute, and twist a song pleasant and long;
Or since all musick is but three parts vied and multiplied.
O let thy blessed Spirit bear a part,
And make up our defects with his sweet art.

2. I Got Me Flowers – from the second half of Easter

I got me flowers to strew thy way;
I got me boughs off many a tree:
But thou wast up by break of day,
And brought’st thy sweets along with thee.

The Sunne arising in the East.
Though he give light, and th’East perfume;
If they should offer to contest
With thy arising, they presume.

Can there be any day but this,
Though many sunnes to shine endeavour?
We count three hundred, but we misse:
There is but one, and that one ever.

Blessings to all my readers, and thanks for your support!




Music to Welcome Springtime

Happy Spring!

With this weekend’s equinox, spring is officially underway.  This is particularly good news for those of us in Minnesota—we are, as I write this, getting one of those March blizzards we’re famous for.  (Mercifully, Minneapolis proper is only supposed to get a few inches, but about an hour or so south… wowza.)

Anyway, I wanted to celebrate the new season with a classical playlist of spring-themed music. It’s a diverse collection that captures the many moods of spring… enjoy! Continue reading

Classical Music for St. Patrick’s Day

We’re fast approaching St. Patrick’s Day—a time when everyone celebrates their Irish heritage, whether they’re Irish or not.

Ireland is justly famous for its music, and in the spirit of this festive holiday I thought I’d share a playlist of classical works with a tie to the Emerald Isle.  So, grab a pint of green beer (or better yet, some fine Irish whiskey) and enjoy! Continue reading

The Minnesota Orchestra Conquers Carnegie Hall

This week, the Minnesota Orchestra, along with superstar violinist Hilary Hahn, played at Carnegie Hall under the direction of Osmo Vänskä… and days later it’s still difficult to get my head around all that happened and what it all means.  As a teaser, let me free-associate a few words: brilliant, shattering, thrill-ride, fire, partnership, joy, pride, triumph.

And now, for a slightly longer account.

Please note that this is not exactly a review (for real reviews, please see those in the New York Times and New York Classical Review), but rather a sense of the occasion and some thoughts for what it all means.  Enjoy! Continue reading


Ten years ago this May, I had the privilege of attending a remarkable concert at Orchestra Hall led by Osmo Vänskä. The “big” work of the program was Sibelius’s First Symphony—a work that has come to have many layers of meaning for us in Minnesota. Curiously enough, it will get a rousing performance in New York later this week, when the Minnesota Orchestra makes its triumphal return to Carnegie Hall.

But there was another item on that program that has remained lodged in the memories of both my wife and I: Kalevi Aho’s Flute Concerto. It was a relatively new work in 2006, having been premiered only a few years earlier; Osmo made a recording of the work with Finland’s Lahti Symphony Orchestra in 2005 for the Swedish label BIS.

One of the driving inspirations of the Concerto was the emotion Aho felt when it seemed that the death of his beloved dog, Emma, was imminent. The work was full of profound emotions, masked by a surface attempt to remain calm—an experience all of us who have dealt with grief can surely understand. It wasn’t maudlin, but filled with moments that were lyric, meditative, and delicate. A romantic work wrapped in layers of modernism, and one that took a deep look into the curious relationships we have with our families—pets included.

Aho’s Concerto is particularly in my mind today, as we have just had to put our 15 year-old cat Zeke to sleep.

And both my wife and I are astonished at how hard it is hitting us. Continue reading

Music for Valentine’s Day, 2016

St. Valentine’s Day is fast approaching.  I’m sure there are some purists who honor the martyrdom of St. Valentine with pious solemnity… but for most of us, this is a holiday about love, romance, and a box of decadent chocolates that we might quietly keep for ourselves.

In honor of the holiday, I want to share a playlist of 10 great classical works that focus on love.  For this particular playlist, I tried to limit my choices to works about love, rather than to simply list romantic-sounding pieces… although those are perfectly enjoyable, too.

If you have other suggestions, by all means let me know in the comments section.  Enjoy! Continue reading