Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Some Notes on the Brahms Requiem

I generally delay writing program notes for late in the week, and I usually use another blog. I 'm giving
pre-concert talks on the Brahms Requiem this year, and with the bombing in Boston can't wait any longer in expressing my devotion to this work.
Trinity Church, Boston

I first heard Ein deutsches Requiem by Johannes Brahms at Boston's Trinity Church, about thirty-five years ago. Trinity is one of those magnificent stone structures built by the Brahmins.It's house of worship as awe inspiring as the grandiose banks of the day were meant to be. Trinity Church is also quite close to the bomb site at the Boston Marathon of two days ago. I heard the performance back in the day with friends who were much smarter, more serious and better informed about life than I ever was. My post adolescent cynicism was mightily challenged by the beauty, both simple and grand of this music in such impressive surroundings. There was organ, and oh, mighty it was, no orchestra and a large choir. I was hooked.
Johannes Brahms

Brahms was a German Protestant. There's no earth shaking rabble rousing call to punishment and death favored by the Latin liturgy. No Dies irae here: "The day of wrath will dissolve the earth into ashes".

Brahms assembled the texts himself, from Luther's bible. He uses the psalms, the apocrypha, Revelations, Ecclesiastes and parts of the Gospels and Letters of Paul. There is no mention of God, Jesus or any reference to the deity anywhere. If the opening music is dark, it is a darkness of reverence rather than of fear. The first words come from Matthew:

Seling sind, die da Leid tragen, denn sie sollen getrostet werden
Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted

It goes on: Die mit Tranen saen, werden mit Freude enten
                 They that sow in tears shall reap in joy

To say that nothing in the Brahms Requiem hit s you over the head unexpectedly is a compliment. There are unpredictable harmonies if you want to dig enough (I don't) The fifth movement, a soprano solo was added by Brahms after the premiere. This may be a nod to Christiane Brahms, the composer's mother, who died as work on the Requiem began. Brahms denied for years any association with his mother's memory. Yet here he sets,

Ich will euch trosten, wie einen seine Mutter trostet
I will comfort you as one whom his mother comforteth  (Isaiah 66:13)

Robert and Clara Schumann
There's another specter at work.. Robert Schumann died in 1856. A few years earlier, as sketches for the Requiem began, Schumann threw himself into the river in an attempted suicide. Tertiary syphilis destroyed his mind. He was eventually hospitalized and starved himself to death. Schumann, renowned as a great composer in his lifetime, was an astute music critic, and knew a winner when he found one. He was young Brahms's mentor and father figure. Things go all the more complicated when the young Brahms became infatuated by Clara Schumann. Yes, she assumed a maternal role-she had six children of her own-and she it was to whom Brahms showed many a sketch that eventually became  great symphony or concerto. It is evident that Brahms's feelings for his paternal friend's life were complicated and uncomfortable. Cara Schumann lived to a great age dying in 1896 a year before Brahms and some years older than the composer who both idolized and needed her.

Shall we decide that the third movement is about Robert Schumann? If I could sing at all, I would want to sing this:

Herr, lehre doch mich, dass ein Ende mit mir haben muss
Lord, make me to know there must be and end to me 

The entire work opens with Blessed are they that mourn for they shall be comforted. The German Requiem ends over an hour later with

Selig sind die Toten, die in dem Herrn sterben
Blessed are the dead, that die in the Lord form henceforth

And only at the end of this great work are the dead comforted, the previous hour taken up with comforting the living.  

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