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