Ein Deutsches Requiem op.45
Johannes Brahms found in the Lutheran Bible a lifelong source of wisdom and spiritual enlightenment. But as a defiant agnostic, he selected the texts for Ein Deutsches Requiem (A German Requiem) for their personal rather than Christian associations, interspersing the Lutheran Bible with selections from the Hebrew Bible and the Apochrypha. The conductor Carl Rheinthaler, who prepared the choir and orchestra for the Bremen premiere, was uncomfortable that the Requiem contained no reference to Christ’s redeeming sacrifice, and suggested that Brahms make amends in the sixth movement, after the passage ‘O death, where is thy sting?’ True to form, the composer remained unyielding. He replied that he had chosen certain Biblical passages and omitted others ‘because I am a musician, because I needed them’.
While Christ’s words are quoted in the first and fifth movements, there is not a single mention of his name throughout the work (though Victorian translations quickly put that right). Elsewhere Brahms wrote of the Requiem that ‘I could happily omit the "German" and simply say “human"'. This is the key to the work’s meaning. Whereas the Catholic Mass for the Dead focuses primarily on the Dies irae, Brahms’s Requiem is essentially humanist, less a prayer for the dead than a personal meditation for the consolation of the living: on the evanescence of life, the need for patience and forbearance in times of sorrow, the rewards of hard work, and the assurance of joyous renewal. The same could be said of the ageing Brahms’s Four Serious Songs.
The history of the German Requiem dates back to 1854, when the 21-year-old Brahms was grappling with a Two-Piano Sonata that he planned to orchestrate as a symphony. As so often with this most unforgivingly self-critical of composers, the project was abandoned. But he later refashioned the first movement as the opening movement of the D minor Piano Concerto, while a decade later he returned to the sonata’s ‘slow scherzo’ (as one of Brahms’s friends dubbed it) as the basis of the funeral-march second movement of the Requiem.
Brahms’s earliest reference to the work was in a letter to Clara Schumann of April 1865, when he enclosed the fourth movement, ‘Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen’, commenting with his usual ironic defensiveness: ‘it is probably the least offensive part of the said German Requiem’. By this time the first and second movements were already completed, and the third partly sketched. In the summer of 1866 four movements had become six. Performances were arranged in Vienna (of the first three movements only) and in Bremen, where Brahms conducted the first complete performance on Good Friday, 10 April, 1868. Where the reception in Catholic Vienna had been mixed (one commentator pronounced the music ‘too Protestant-Bachish’ for the city’s taste), the Bremen premiere was a triumph, and paved the way for the Requiem’s progress throughout northern Europe.
A month or so after the Bremen performance Brahms finished an additional movement, for soprano solo and chorus, No. 5 in the final order. Despite Brahms’s claim that he conceived the Requiem with ‘the whole of humanity in mind’, Clara Schumann and other close friends were convinced he wrote it in memory of his mother, who had died in February 1865. He made the maternal link explicit in this ethereal added movement, the most intimate in the work.
Brahms designed the Requiem as a broad arch. At its centre are the lyrical, luminous fourth and fifth movements, with their unalloyed message of hope, joy and comfort. No. 4 celebrates the blissful tabernacles of the Lord in a mellifluous, transfigured waltz, made more ‘ecclesiastical’ by a vigorous fugato at the words ‘Die loben dich immerdar’ - ‘they will still be praising thee’. (As Brahms may have secretly suspected, this became the most popular movement in the work, and is still often performed independently.) Scored with exquisite delicacy, No. 5 tenderly alternates and enlaces solo soprano (representing the mother, and, by implication, Brahms’s own mother) and chorus. After the mysterious remote modulations of the central section, the ideas of reunion and comfort are beautifully fused when the soloist sings the main theme against an augmented version of the melody in the chorus.
The most complex and dramatic movements are Nos. 2, 3 and 6, with their alternations of hope and anguish, and their searching musical response to the tragedy of mortality (Nos. 2 and 3), the Last Judgement and the triumph over death (No. 6). Each of these mighty structures moves from the minor to the major mode, from fear or awe to a mighty choral climax in fugal texture. Sarabande and funeral march might seem incompatible genres. Brahms proves otherwise at the ominous opening of No. 2, based on the traditional Lutheran chorale ‘Wer nur den lieben Gott lässt walten’. The march later erupts in a shattering fortissimo - a terrifying moment - before B flat minor brightens to a comforting B flat major. In the closing stages the chorus celebrates the prospect of ‘ewige Freude’ (‘eternal joy’) in music that proclaims Brahms’s love of Handel.
No. 3 begins with the baritone’s gravely imploring solo (‘Herr, lehre doch mich’ - ‘Lord, make me to know mine end’), somewhere between recitative and aria. Declaiming the text from Psalm 39), the soloist here is seconded by the chorus, like a cantor leading his congregation. The moment of catharsis (‘Ich hoffe auf dich’ - ‘My hope is in thee’) prompts a rolling choral cadenza. And in another oblique Handelian homage, the movement culminates in a tremendous fugal tour de force over a sustained bass pedal, with one fugue intoned by the chorus and another by the orchestra. The upshot is a mighty musical symbol of God’s steadfastness.
The sixth movement opens with restless shifting harmonies in response to the words ‘For here we have no continuing city’, then moves through a swift and thrilling evocation of the last trump (‘Posaune’ - ‘trombone’ - in German, duly illustrated by Brahms) to a turbulent, tonally unstable reworking of No. 2’s funeral march. Another, looser fugue then grounds the tension, developing in majestic, striding sequences and interspersed with episodes in Brahms’s tenderest lyrical vein.
The Requiem’s two pillars, both in F major, reiterate the work’s central idea: the promise of a state of blessedness, for the mourners in No. 1, and for ‘they that die in the Lord’ in No. 7. Both these intensely reflective movements share common musical themes and close in almost identical fashion. But No. 7 is more serenely confident in tone than No. 1, with broader, more sweeping phrases and (in the original orchestral version) brighter orchestral colouring; and where the central section of No. 1 dips to the dusky third-related key of D flat (at ‘Die mit Tränen säen’ - ‘They that sow in tears’), that in No. 7 (at ‘Dass sie ruhen von ihrer Arbeit’ - ‘that they may rest from their labours’) moves in the opposite direction, to a gleaming A major. F major is restored via a glimpse of the D flat from the first movement. And the Requiem ends with trance-like pianissimo repetitions of the key word ‘Selig’. As in Brahms’s Four Serious Songs - themselves a kind of Requiem - the final message is of the transcendence of grief and the permanence of human love.
To make the German Requiem more widely available, Brahms arranged it for piano duet shortly after the first complete performance. This was the version first heard in England, at the Wimpole Street home of the renowned surgeon Sir Henry Thompson in 1871. While there an inevitable loss of weight and colour, Brahms’s keyboard transcription does emphasise the Requiem’s roots in the music of his revered predecessors Schütz, Bach and Handel. More frivolously, the piano duet version also brings a delightful whiff of the Liebeslieder Waltzes, destined to be Brahms’s greatest popular hits.