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.

In this, one of Brahms’ earliest masterpieces, Brahms throws all the conventional rules aside to create a profound, deeply personal statement about sorrow and hope.  It is a Requiem unlike any other.

Brahms reveals his intentions at the very beginning of the work.  As the choir comes in for the first time, they gently intone:

Selig sind, die da Leid tragen,
denn sie sollen getröstet werden.

Blessed are they that mourn,
for they shall be comforted.

This simple statement is revolutionary, and points to a radically different approach.  For one, the text he uses is German rather than Latin.  This is key to the conception—Brahms was concerned that Latin was no longer a living language, meaning that the words no longer had a personal, living meaning for the audience.  He didn’t want to present a ritual, but rather to speak directly to his listeners on issues of loss, grief, and hope.

But there is another level of meaning here.  The singers aren’t even singing a German translation of the text… it is a new text that Brahms personally selected, taken directly from the Old and New Testaments of the Bible.  By abandoning the traditional words of the Requiem, he broadens his frame of reference to move away as much as possible from questions of doctrine or denomination.  His goal is to speak to humanity on a larger level.  Famously, he suggested that a better title for his work would be A Human Requiem, to make clear that this was to be a universal work.

The most remarkable part of this opening, however, is how Brahms shifts the perspective.  While traditional Requiems dealt with issues of the departed’s soul, Brahms turn things around to focus on those left behind—the mourners coping with their loss.  This is the recurring theme of the German Requiem, to attend the needs of the living.  He focuses on providing them with solace, or allowing the bereaved to cry out if they need to.  It is only after the mourners are ready that Brahms has them release the departed and send their loved one on to his or her Final Rest.  This release is a glorious moment, made all the more powerful because in this conception it is not God alone that gathers up the soul… we send it to Him.  This level of human agency gives the work a spiritual power unlike the comparable moments of similar works (as in, say, the In Paradisum movement in Fauré’s Requiem).

* * *

But Brahms’ A German Requiem isn’t simply an interesting spiritual exercise—it is a breathtaking masterpiece filled with some of the most gorgeous music ever composed.

The First Movement sets the mood for the work, encompassing themes of sorrow and consolation.  It begins with a gentle whisper of sound that leads to a stunning choral entrance that emphasizes the word “selig”—blessed—taken from the beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount.  The quietness suggests that this is a personal message, whispered in a loved one’s ear.

A few moments later, the tone shifts slightly with words taken from Psalm 126:

They who sow in tears,
shall reap in joy.
Go forth and cry,
bearing precious seed,
and come with joy
bearing their sheaves.

Immediately the music becomes more animated, more spritely… there is a hint of dance to the repeated word “joy.” This isn’t done garishly or inappropriately, but done as a gentle affirmation… as if to tell the mourner that although the grief feels heavy now, it will one day lighten.  Musically, it is like the gesture of a loved one gently rubbing your shoulder or hand.  The opening comes again with compassionate resolve, affirming that the sorrowful will be comforted.  Comforted.

The Second Movement sets a different tone, a stately funeral march that grows and grows with intensity.  Finally the mourners snap out in anguish, “For all flesh is as grass, and the glory of man like grass’s flowers.”

The thought is quickly interrupted, though, by a new thought, as the mourner is called back to hope and solace.  Brahms spins a folk-like waltz that enfolds the bereaved with words of comfort:

Therefore be patient, dear brothers,
for the coming of the Lord.
Behold, the husbandman waits
for the delicious fruits of the earth
and is patient for it, until he receives
the morning rain and evening rain.

The mourners, and the music, return to the funeral march of the movement’s opening, but once again they are pulled back from despair—not just with soothing words, but a powerful statement of faith and life that bursts from the page: “But the word of the Lord endures for eternity!”  It is a dramatic shift that harkens to that glorious moment in Haydn’s The Creation, when the choir bursts forth with “And there was…LIGHT!” Propelled by this joyous affirmation, the choir breaks forth in a hymn of praise, calling out that eternal joy shall come to Zion.  Darkness will become light.

In the Third Movement, a solo baritone comes forth and asks one of those fundamental questions of the human experience: what should I put my faith in?  What should I believe in?  With the chorus answers in a most intriguing way.  Speaking the words literally, the answer is “My hope is in you, God,” and in having faith in God’s Divine Plan.  But to make this point, Brahms has the choir sing an elaborate fugue—an inspired choice for a musical form.  In its broadest definition, a fugue is a musical form where a singer or instrumentalist sings a specific melody, which is picked up by each other part sequentially to create an interwoven whole… a tightly integrated tapestry of sound. Thus, a fugue is a powerful statement that each individual is seamlessly integrated into a God’s overarching, master plan.  It is a sign of unity… and through unity, strength.

The Fourth Movement serves as a moment of contemplation and reflection.  It is a pastorale so gorgeous that it has become famous as the standalone song, “How Lovely Is Thy Dwelling Place.” It forms the spiritual and emotional core of the work, the center point upon which all else is balanced.

In the Fifth Movement, Brahms speaks of comfort in the most personal way possible.  A year before the German Requiem’s premiere, Brahms lost his mother—a woman who had played a profound role in his life.  There is no indication that he wrote the German Requiem for her or about her, but this movement suggests she was very much on his mind as he worked on it.  The text he assembled comes from three sections of the Bible, with the final words coming from Isaiah:

You now have sorrow;
but I shall see you again
and your heart shall rejoice
and your joy no one shall take from you.

Behold me:
I have had for a little time toil and torment,
and now have found great consolation.

I will console you,
as one is consoled by his mother.

The text is sung by a solo soprano, gently supported by the chorus, and contains some of the most serene, lyrical music the composer ever wrote.  A particularly haunting moment comes at the very end; the soprano finishes her soothing words of comfort, and turns again to words from the start of the movement:  “I shall see you again, I shall see you again.”  It is hard not to understand that moment as the spirit of Brahms’ mother giving her grief-stricken son one last, loving good-bye.  Then as the flute holds a soft chord, the voice fades and is gone.

And the soloist does not sing again.

In contrast to the luminous Fifth Movement, the Sixth Movement contains some of the most dramatic music of the entire work.  The baritone soloist appears again, and while his music begins with a degree of introspection, it quickly becomes more agitated.

We shall not all sleep,
but we all shall be changed
and suddenly, in a moment,
at the sound of the last trumpet.

It is a moment of doubt and despair—as close as Brahms brings himself to the traditional Requiem’s terror-filled Dies Irae.  Then the chorus busts in with music that is angular and biting, and ultimately defiant:  “Death is swallowed up in victory. O Death, where is thy sting? O Hell, where is thy victory?”

I’m always struck by this moment in performance.  At this moment of snarling defiance, the music suddenly takes on a surprising dance-like quality, almost a grotesque version of a waltz.  It may seem strange at first, but I totally get it. Based on my experience of losing loved ones, there is always a moment where you snap—when the crush of dark emotions becomes too heavy and you have a cathartic release.  Someone says an inappropriate quip, someone throws out an out-of-place statement… and bam! You and your loved ones burst out into uncontrollable laughter, or do something completely childish.

For comparison, it’s like the memorable scene in the movie Amadeus, where Mozart, consumed to the point of exhaustion with writing his dark Requiem, looks up at a portrait of his deceased, dour father.  In a flash, he sticks out his tongue and starts dancing around the room mocking the painting, as the background music shifts from his Requiem to the Overture of The Magic Flute.  A similar scene comes in Steel Magnolias where Olympia Dukakis tells Sally Field to punch Shirley McLaine in the face.

For me, that’s the kind of release going on here.  Death, whose presence is so keenly felt up to this point, is mocked to its face.  The tension breaks.  The emotional weight is lifted. And now, centered, we’re able to sing an honest, joyous hymn of praise to God.

This leads directly to the final Seventh Movement, which begins in sheer radiance.  Taking the final chord of the Sixth movement as their starting point and inspiration, the high sopranos break loose with one of the most sweeping phrases of the work:  “Blessed are the dead that die in the Lord.”

It is a pivotal moment—the focus finally shifts to the departed.  Strengthened by all that has gone before, we the bereaved are now ready to call down blessings on the departed, and prepare to send the soul to God’s arms.  Although still saddened, we let go. It never fails to send shivers down my back.

From there, the mood shifts to quiet, yet shimmering intensity, as the singers whisper: “Verily, as the Spirit has spoken….” And suddenly the key shifts… the key becomes A-Major—a key signature written with three sharps (referred to as “crosses” in German), giving it direct reference to the Resurrection.  The singers continue, and the words are a final blessing of comfort: “They shall rest from their labors, and their works shall follow them.” Brahms slowly returns to music to mimic that of the opening, and the work closes by repeating the word “selig.”


* * *

The Minnesota Orchestra and Minnesota Chorale perform this masterpiece April 22-24, under the direction of the legendary Helmuth Rilling.  Soloists for the evening are Letizia Scherrer, soprano, and  Mathias Hausmann, baritone.  This concert begins with Rilling’s special lecture-demonstration with the Orchestra and Chorale, drawing from his own long history with the work and illuminating the subtleties and life-affirming messages within it. Visit the online box office today—this is a performance you do not want to miss.






2 thoughts on “Brahms’ “A German Requiem”—A Visionary Masterpiece

  1. Excellent post, MotFP; there is absolutely nothing as glorious as singing the Brahms. We in Atlanta are singing it this week at our hall, as well as on April 30th at Carnegie Hall in celebration of Maestro Robert Shaw’s 100th birthday. It’s an awesome responsibility to deliver this monumental piece, and I am thrilled that your audiences in MN will have that opportunity.

    Liked by 1 person

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