David Hill, conductor
Natasha Schnur, soprano
Matt Sullivan, bass-baritone
Brahms: Ein deutsches Requiem
Arranged for chamber orchestra by Iain Farrington
Johannes Brahms likely had several influences that spurred him to create A German Requiem, which he completed in 1868. After the death of his friend and mentor Robert Schumann in 1856, Brahms considered creating a musical memorial. Yet perhaps a more direct impetus was the death of Brahms’s own mother in 1865. Indeed, the text excerpts that he selected from the Lutheran bible prominently feature the idea of motherly comfort for those who mourn.
Brahms was both rooted in tradition and progressive in his musical vision. His decision to use German texts rather than the standard Latin Requiem Mass places his work closer to the lineage of Protestant Masses by Bach and Schütz than to the Requiem tradition represented by Mozart and Berlioz. Brahms intentionally avoided texts referring specifically to Christ or redemption after death, instead choosing to focus on the experience of grief, the transience of life, blessings for the dead, and the human desire for comfort and consolation. In this sense, rather than a Requiem for the dead, Brahms’s composition is a work for the living who mourn the dead.
Iain Farrington’s arrangement of Ein deutsches Requiem for chorus and chamber ensemble highlights the intimacy and the sense of personal communication inherent in the work. Inspired by Brahms’s own arrangement for piano four-hands, the chamber version retains the piano at the core of the texture, with strings and winds adding color and variety. The smaller instrumental ensemble spotlights the chorus while drawing on the rich instrumental sounds of Brahms’s original orchestration. Farrington remarks that the “three wind players bring the soaring, expressive solos to life, while the string soloists fill the sound with intensity and depth. From the very opening of the piece, the aching long lines are sustained with ease and warmth … . Above all, it is hoped that that the arrangement allows the wide-ranging emotional essence of the piece to be fulfilled, creating a rich and satisfying experience for the performer and the listener.”
While the text of a traditional liturgical Requiem offers rest and peace for the souls of the deceased, Brahms often focuses on the living. For example, the first line of text in the work, from the Gospel according to Matthew, offers comfort to mourners:
Selig sind, die da Leid tragen denn sie sollen getröstet werden.
Blessed are they that mourn for they shall be comforted.
To support this text, the opening of Farrington’s chamber version creates a consoling atmosphere, with individual instrumental lines trading off with the voices of the chorus. The music pleads and gently cries out, expressing the sadness of those who mourn. However, at the same time, that sadness progresses to joy—and with the words “mit Freuden” (with joy), a faster tempo and crisper articulation create a sense of animation.
Through the chamber arrangement, both sadness and joy retain an intimate quality, while showing two poles of emotion through the multitude of textures in the ensemble.
The second movement, “Denn alles Fleisch, es ist wie Gras” (For all flesh is as grass), plunges into the sorrow of the Requiem. Solo strings articulate the marchlike melody, occasionally releasing into repose and relief. The instrumental ensemble takes on a reflective inwardness, contemplating the temporality of life on earth. But according to the text, such temporality is redeemed through the everlasting and eternal quality of the Lord. The chorus declares the joy of this realization, exchanging lines between sections in an excited dialogue.
The baritone soloist makes his first entrance in the third movement, “Herr, lehre doch mich” (Lord, teach me), as the text turns to the individual’s experience of the fragility and uncertainty of life. The chorus both accompanies and responds to the soloist’s pleas as the music wavers ambiguously between D major and D minor. The piano is prominent in the texture, drawing heavily on Brahms’s arrangement for piano four-hands. The movement concludes with a famous “pedal-point fugue” with a low D sustained to the end of the movement. Vocal entrances heighten the tension through various key tonicizations before resolving to a clear and triumphant D major.
The fourth movement, “Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen” (How lovely are thy dwelling places), serves as the centerpiece of the Requiem. In this pastorale that recalls images of promise and comfort, Brahms omits the darkness and sorrow normally associated with the liturgical Requiem. Instead, the earth serves as a metaphor for the sacred dwelling place, where comfort and repose are found. The chamber arrangement emphasizes the closeness and intimacy of the soul’s permanent restoration.
The vocal solos take on a quality of directness and clarity in Farrington’s chamber arrangement, which permits a nuanced interaction between soloist and instruments. The soprano solo in the fifth movement, “Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit” (You now have sorrow), benefits from the transparency of the chamber ensemble, speaking with the delicacy and vulnerability of one of Brahms’s songs for voice and piano. This fifth movement was added to the Requiem six months after its initial premiere; the Requiem had originally been conceived of as a six-movement work. As the soprano soloist sings “Sehet mich an” (Behold me), asking the Lord to comfort her, the solo line soars high above the chorus, calling out for sacred consolation.
Movement six, “Denn wir haben hie keine bleibende Statt” (For here have we no continuing city), serves as a structural balance to movement three. It is similarly in a ternary form with a baritone solo, and similarly concludes with a fugue. The soloist enters with text from 1 Corinthians 15:51, “Siehe, ich sage euch ein Geheimnis” (Behold, I show you a mystery), text also famously set by Handel for the bass soloist in Messiah. Brahms artfully modulates from C minor to F-sharp minor as the soloist sings “Geheimnis” (mystery), and the second section of the movement contains one of the most striking choral entrances of the piece—a fast triple meter with full instrumental forces and the chorus declaiming “Denn es wird die Posaune schallen, und die Toten werden auferstehen unverweslich” (For the trombone shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible).
The final movement, “Selig sind die Toten” (Blessed are the dead), provides both a musical and a textual counterpart to movement one, bringing the Requiem to completion in F major, the key of the opening movement. Here, the blessings previously offered to the living are instead bestowed upon the dead:
Selig sind die Toten,
die in dem Herrn sterben, von nun an.
Blessed are the dead that die in the Lord from henceforth.
The movement is in ternary form with a coda derived entirely from the end of the first movement. The chorus completes the movement with repetitions of the word “Selig” (blessed)—the same word which began the Requiem—lending the entire work a beautiful symmetry and sense of resolution.
The German Requiem was not instantly recognized as a masterpiece by all audiences— several early critics described it as overly academic and monotonous in nature. Yet the work’s continued popularity, especially throughout the latter half of the twentieth century, demonstrates that its universal themes of loss, mourning, comfort, and peace are still resonant with modern audiences. Brahms composed his German Requiem to convey the spiritual essence of the biblical text in a way that could serve all of humanity. Perhaps this is best understood in Brahms’s own words to his friend and fellow musician Karl Reinthaler. Concerning the title “A German Requiem,” he wrote, “I would very gladly omit the “German” … and simply put “of Mankind.”
Notes by Kevin Sherwin and Nola Richardson