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ClassicsOnline Home » BRAHMS, J.: Deutsches Requiem (Ein) (A.L. Richter, S. Genz, Leipzig MDR Radio Choir and Symphony, Alsop)
Brahms’s A German Requiem, almost certainly triggered by the death of his mother in 1865, is one of his greatest and most popular works, quite unlike any previous Requiem. With texts taken from Luther’s translation of the Bible and an emphasis on comforting the living for their loss and on hope of the Resurrection, the work is deeply rooted in the tradition of Bach and Schütz, but is vastly different in character from the Latin Requiem of Catholic tradition with its evocation of the Day of Judgement and prayers for mercy on the souls of the dead.
International Record Review
By David Denton
Johannes Brahms (1833–1897)
A German Requiem, Op 45
Johannes Brahms was born on 7 May 1833 in the Gangeviertel district of Hamburg, the son of a double-bass player and his wife, a seamstress seventeen years her husband’s senior. It was intended that the boy should follow his father’s trade and to this end he was taught the violin and cello, but his interest in the piano prevailed, enabling him to supplement the family income by playing in summer resorts, while taking valuable lessons from Eduard Marxsen. In 1853 Brahms embarked on a concert tour with the Hungarian violinist Eduard Reményi, during the course of which he visited Liszt in Weimar, to no effect, and struck up a friendship with the violinist Joseph Joachim, through whose agency he met the Schumanns, established now in Düsseldorf. The connection was an important one. Schumann was impressed enough by the compositions that Brahms played to him to hail him as the long-awaited successor to Beethoven. Schumann’s subsequent break-down in February 1854 and ensuing insanity brought Brahms back to Düsseldorf to help Clara Schumann and her young family. The relationship with Clara Schumann, one of the most distinguished pianists of the time, lasted until her death in 1896. It was not until 1862, after a happy period that had brought him a temporary position at the court of Detmold as a conductor and piano teacher, that Brahms visited Vienna, giving concerts there and meeting the important critic Eduard Hanslick, who was to prove a doughty champion, pitting Brahms against Wagner and Liszt as a composer of abstract music, as opposed to the music-drama of Wagner and the symphonic poems of Liszt, with their extra-musical associations. Brahms finally took up permanent residence in Vienna in 1869, greeted by many as the real successor to Beethoven, particularly after the first of his four symphonies, and winning a similar position in popular esteem and similar tolerance for his notorious lack of tact. He died in 1897.
There seems little doubt that the death of his mother in January 1865 was the immediate reason for the composition of A German Requiem, a large scale work that developed gradually over the years immediately following, but may well have been under consideration for some time. The second movement, at least, makes use of material from the slow Scherzo of the composer’s abortive symphony of 1854 and 1855, the period of Schumann’s final illness. Three of six completed movements were performed in Vienna in 1867 by the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde under the direction of Johann Herbeck, but were badly received. Brahms, as a North German Protestant, had chosen to make use of texts taken from the Lutheran Bible, drawing on the Old and New Testaments and on the Apocrypha, and such a work might well have seemed strange to Catholic Vienna, even had it been properly rehearsed for the occasion. Albert Dietrich, a young composer and conductor and a pupil of Schumann, whom Brahms had first met in Düsseldorf in 1853, sent a copy of the work to the organist and director of music of Bremen Cathedral, Karl Martin Reinthaler, who arranged the first performance of all six movements on Good Friday 1868, under the direction of the composer. On this occasion the Requiem was very successful and with the addition of a seventh movement, placed fifth in the whole work, became in the following years a valuable and esteemed element in choral repertoire both in Germany and abroad, establishing the wider reputation of Brahms. The texts chosen avoid overt Christian reference, and the composer himself suggested in private correspondence that he would have liked to substitute the word “human” for “German” in the title. The Requiem has its roots above all in Bach and it has been suggested that Brahms may have drawn some inspiration from the much earlier work of Schütz. It is clearly vastly different in character from the liturgical Latin Requiem of Catholic tradition with its evocation of the Day of Judgement and its prayers for mercy on the souls of the dead.
The first movement of A German Requiem, Selig sind, die da Leid tragen (Blessed are they that mourn) makes telling use of the lower strings in the orchestral accompaniment of the chorus, the absence of violins preserving a darker orchestral colouring as the movement slowly unfolds, with its sorrows and its consoling joys. The second movement, Denn alles Fleisch, es ist wie Gras (For all flesh is as grass), derived from the scherzo-sarabande initially intended for the early symphony that he had abandoned, is a tragic funeral march, introduced by muted divided violins and violas, with the wind and an ominous drum-beat. Again shafts of light appear and both text and music suggest hope for the future, stressed as the chorus announces that the word of the Lord endures for ever and the basses proclaim the promised return of the redeemed of the Lord.
Herr, lehre doch mich (Lord, make me to know mine end) starts with a baritone solo, echoed by the chorus, leading to a great fugue on the words Der Gerechten Seelen sind in Gottes Hand (The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God), anchored by a long-held organ-point from trombones, tuba and timpani. It was the enthusiasm of the player of the last of these instruments that had in part led to the failure of the first performance in Vienna, when the timpani drowned the sound of the chorus. The lyrical Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen (How amiable are thy tabernacles), the heart of the German Requiem, is followed by the added fifth movement, Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit (Ye now therefore have sorrow), with its moving soprano solo, more directly inspired by the death of the mother of Brahms.
Denn wir haben hie keine bleibende Statt (For here we have no continuing city), introduces the baritone solo with the words Siehe, ich sage euch ein Geheimnis (Behold, I shew you a mystery), the sound of the last trumpet (der letzten Posaune) accompanied by the brass choir of trombones and tuba in solemn chords and music that as it progresses brings fleeting suggestions of Mozart’s treatment of parts of the Dies irae. The movement ends with a massive fugue, introduced by the altos with the words Herr, du bist würdig zu nehmen Preis und Ehre und Kraft (Thou art worthy, O Lord, to receive glory and honour and power). The whole work, in which a musical and textual balance is maintained, ends with a movement that corresponds to the opening. Selig sind die Toten, die in dem Herrn sterben (Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord) balances the first Selig sind, die da Leid tragen (Blessed are they that mourn). As so often in the German Requiem, the mood if not the idiom of Bach is suggested in a movement at the heart of which the dead rest from their labour, finally to find peace in the Lord, as the work moves to its meditative close.
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