Johannes Brahms (183397):

Ein deutsches Requiem, opus 45


Brief program note by D. Kern Holoman, for a performance of the UCD Symphony and Chorus on 2-3 June 1990.

    For soloists (S., Bar.), chorus (SATB); piccolo, flutes III, oboes III, clarinets III, bassoons III; horns IIV, trumpets III, trombones IIII, tuba; timpani; harps III; organ and contrabassoon ad libitum; strings.
    Text (in German) from the Lutheran Bible.
    Composed 186267 in Zurich and Vienna; revised 1868 by the addition of movt. V.
    First performed 18 February 1889 by the Leipzig Gewandhaus orchestra, Karl Reinecke conducting. The first three movements had been given 1 December 1867 by the Vienna Gesellechaft der Musikfreunde in the Große Redoutensaal, Johann Herbeck conducting; a version of the work lacking movt. V had been given on Good Friday, 10 April 1868, at the Bremen Cathedral, Brahms conducting.
    Published by J. Rieter-Biedermann (Leipzig, 1868). Inexpensive score: Johannes Brahms: German Requiem in Full Score, Dover 0-486-25486-0 (New York, 1987).
    Duration: about 1 hour and 15 minutes.

Brahms's notion of death is in the Protestant Christian mold: an occasion for comfort to the bereaved and for rejoicing in the certainty of Paradise. There is no place for a Catholic Dies irae: rather the texts come from the Lutheran Bible, both Old and New Testaments and Apocrypha (Wisdom of Solomon, Ecclesiasticus). The German Requiem, which he composed and revised over a five-year period, may be a tribute to his beloved mentor Schumann. Certainly it is meant as a bow to his German heritage, so rich is it in severe fugal device and hints of continuo practice. Equally certain from the evidence of the title and text, is Brahms's consciousness of the precedent German Requiem, the Musikalische Exequien of the great mid-Baroque composer Heinrich Schütz.

In its mastery of instrumental and choral textures, clarity of declamation, pacing, and dense harmonic language, the German Requiem achieves a richness of sound and a tautness of organization without parallel in the literature for chorus and orchestra. It is nevertheless a work of bold contrasts, prone to erupt from its generally assuring tranquility in solemn, sometimes even stern pronouncements. You are comforted in the harmonic language and splendid orchestration of late century, but the bitter truths of the human experience are established too, and with almost Gothic severity.

The matchless opening, with violas and cellos divided into four parts over throbbing Fs in bass and French horns, introduces one of the Beatitudes of Christ ("Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted") sung at first unaccompanied in the chorus. The harps enter just before the end, and note well the very last words, getrostet werden, reiterated pianissimo by the chorus, as though nodding an affirmation of universal truth. This is a device Brahms will use several more times during the work.

The dead march which follows, at one point considered by the composer for use in his First Symphony, ranks with his most outstanding accomplishments: haunting of key (B-flat minor, five flats), with violins and violas subdivided into three parts each, and over a relentless distant tattoo in the timpani. The chorus has the theme in unison, "Behold all flesh is as the grass": softly at first, then as the culmination of a magnificent, thunderous crescendo. The terror of the funeral march is offset at the center (in G-flat major, six flats); then it recapitulates before Brahms turns to a stentorian reminder that the Lord's voice endures forevera jubilant concluding fugue.

The baritone solo, too, is taken with the brevity of our time on earth and is also a march in the minor key, this time in duple meter. All is vanity; one's hope is in the Lord, and, the great choral fugue at the end proclaims, the souls of the righteous are in the hand of the Lord. Eighteen pages, at the end, are played over the single pitch D in the bass instruments, a musical symbol of steadfastness in the protection of God.

For most music lovers the fourth movement, "How Lovely is Thy Dwelling Place," is among the most perfect (and most familiar) Brahms in the repertoire. Despite the harp-like figurations, the harps remain silent; indeed the composer seems to go out of his way to assure that his evocation of the heavenly apartments is innocent, joyous, and above all dignified. He is said to have composed the fifth movement on the occasion of the death of his mother in 1865, and this was added to the work, for reasons of overall shape and pacing, between the Bremen performance of 1867 and the definitive first performance in Leipzig the following year. It is certainly maternal of both vocal line and text, with the soprano lingering again and again over the word Traurigkeit.

The huge movement that follows almost outweighs the second movement, with which it is paired in the overall structure. It is yet another cortège of minor key. Here the baritone soloist recalls the mystery of resurrection ("all changed in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye") and the trumpet of judgment, and a diabolical dance ensues. The concluding fugue is in slow note values, reminiscent of the white-note fugues of Bach and Handel.

By now you should be aware of the careful balance and symmetry the composer has given his work. The added soprano aria balances the first baritone solo and puts "How Lovely is Thy Dwelling Place" at the center of a structural arch; the two biggest movements come just after the first and just before the last. Now, to balance the first movement, Brahms leaves another reassuring beatitude: "Blessed are the dead: they rest from their labors, and their work follows after them." It brings the Requiem to close in F major, where more than an hour before it had begun.

Our performance uses two harps, following the composer's indication for doubling, as well as organ and a contrabassoon to reinforce the bass line.