Program Notes for July 11th, 2009

Program Notes By Ed Rutschman

 

Johann Strauss II with Johannes Brahms

Johann Strauss II with Johannes Brahms

Ein deutsches Requiem (A German Requiem), Op. 45 (1857-68)

Johannes Brahms
(b. Hamburg, 1833; d. Vienna, 1897)
Johannes Brahms lived most of his life haunted by a single question: “What do you do after Beethoven?” His answer to the question is certified in a recent edition of The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, which begins the article on Brahms by calling him “the successor to Beethoven.” Brahms won that title during his lifetime, but the accolade did not always sit well with him. Driven by his doubts, Brahms found his own compositional voice only slowly and by stages; he traveled a long road before publishing a symphony. In his early twenties he made plans for several important works that would require a decade or more to complete, among these the Symphony #1 and Ein deutsches Requiem. All the while there was the persistent shadow of Beethoven, who had died six years before Brahms was born.

When Brahms finally did complete a symphony, he was in his early forties, and a critic hailed the work as “Beethoven’s Tenth.” In an earlier Grove edition, the article on Brahms got immediately to the heart of the matter in a single sentence: “In spite of powerful Romantic characteristics in his music, he imposed a traditional sense of order on his music; he thus ranks as a figure of constructively Classical inclinations in a Romantic age, and as such was widely acclaimed in his own day as the true upholder of a central German tradition.” In the composer’s own day there was also, however, a strong opposing view, summarized by Tchaikovsky in a diary entry in which he mentioned “that scoundrel Brahms,” railed against “self-inflated mediocrity… hailed as genius” and, in a real pique, gave Brahms yet another sobriquet, in which “giftless” is by far the most polite component.

Brahms found early support in his friends and mentors Clara and Robert Schumann. Clara’s insightful musical advice came with the sort of frank delivery that perhaps only a close friend can afford to give. Johannes considered her advice carefully and usually, though not always, heeded it. The Schumann-Brahms association began in 1853, when Brahms was twenty years old. Robert Schumann, for his part, published an important article, titled Neue Bahnen (“New Paths”), in which he heralded the appearance of the “young eagle” Brahms. Among the artistic difficulties for which Brahms sought advice was the not-so-simple question of finding the proper medium to express his musical ideas. The Variations on a Theme of Haydn, for instance, exist in two complete versions, one for orchestra and one for two pianos, the latter version by no means merely an arrangement of the former. Movements originally intended for a two-piano sonata eventually found permanent homes in the Piano Concerto #1 and the German Requiem.

Brahms began work on his German Requiem in 1857, although at that time he thought that his sketches would result in a piano concerto. About the same time he apparently declared his love for the recently widowed Clara Schumann and was turned down. Much else happened between the time of the initial sketches and the final appearance of the German Requiem eleven years later. Brahms left his native Hamburg in 1862, toured extensively throughout Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Hungary and Denmark, settled in Vienna, fell in and out of love, and, in 1865, was devastated by the death of his mother. After attending her funeral in January, he set about earnestly to complete the German Requiem.

By the summer of 1866 he had finished six movements, and a seventh (#5 in the eventual order) appeared in the spring of 1868. Brahms chose not to use the Latin text of the Catholic Requiem, with its venerable tradition dating to the Middle Ages and beyond. Rather, he compiled his own text from the New Testament and the Psalms, using Luther’s German translation. It has been suggested that the titles Lutheran Requiem or Protestant Requiem would also be apt. The texts and the music emphasize the idea of comfort rather than judgment. There is no equivalent of the Latin Dies irae (“Day of wrath”) in Brahms’ work.

An aura of gentle benediction appears at the outset of the work, painting the mood of the text, “blessed are those who mourn.” The mourning must forego the blessing of the violins, however, since they do not enter until the second movement of the work. The resulting lowvoice string sounds, though unusual, are not unprecedented. Brahms himself had composed his Serenade #2 several years earlier for an orchestra without violins.

Though he never wrote an opera, Brahms exercised his dramatic instincts in the second movement of the German Requiem. A funeral dirge announces, “Behold, all flesh is as the grass that withers,” set to a tune with a strong resemblance to the Lutheran chorale known in English as “If thou but suffer God to guide thee.” A soft initial presentation of the tune leads to an orchestral crescendo of shattering proportions and a repetition of the message at full voice and with full orchestra. After a respite (“Now therefore be patient…”) reminiscent of a favorite Austrian dance, the Ländler, the opening music returns, only to be swept away by the announcement that “the Lord’s word triumphs forever.”

The third movement, like the second, ranges in its moods, this time from the somber D minor music of “Lord, make me to know…that I must perish” to the D major brilliance of a fugue on “but the righteous souls are in the hand of God.” The following movement is the beloved Psalm text “How lovely is thy dwelling place,” perhaps Brahms’ best-known choral movement. Words of comfort pervade the fifth and sixth movements, the latter making a fascinating comparison with Handel’s setting of the same Biblical passage in his Messiah: “Behold, I tell you a mystery… The trumpet shall sound.” The final movement, “Blessed are the dead,” concludes with music that recalls the opening of the work, “Blessed are they who mourn.”

The German Requiem Brahms is clearly the work of a great symphonist, who extends his orchestral techniques into the world of the voice and creates a musical setting that is both immediately compelling and an invitation to the riches of repeated hearings. Although the idea of creating a German-language response to the concept of the Latin Requiem was not a new one in Brahms’ day, the composer put his unique stamp on the genre in his German Requiem.


Ed Rutschman’s musicological articles have been published in the U.S. and Europe, and his compositions have been performed on four continents. A member of the Music Department faculty at Western Washington University, he is a recipient of the Bellingham Mayor’s Arts Award and of WWU’s Excellence in Teaching Award. He holds academic degrees in musicology, composition and piano performance.