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Brahms: “German Requiem”

Brahms’s notion of death is in the Protestant Christian mold: an occasion for comfort to the bereaved and for rejoicing in the certainty of Paradise.  There is no place for a Catholic Dies irae: rather the texts come from the Lutheran Bible, both Old and New Testaments (Psalms, Isaiah; Matthew, John, James, 1 Peter) and Apocrypha (Wisdom of Solomon).A German Requiem, which he composed and revised over a five-year period, may be a tribute to his beloved mentor Schumann.Certainly it is meant as a bow to his German heritage, so rich is it in severe fugal device and hints of continuo practice. Equally certain from the evidence of the title and text is Brahms’s consciousness of the Musikalische Exequien by the great mid-Baroque composer Heinrich Schutz.

In its mastery of instrumental and choral textures, clarity of declamation, pacing, and dense harmonic language, the German Requiem achieves a richness of sound and a tautness of organization without parallel in the literature for chorus and orchestra.  It is nevertheless a work of bold contrasts, prone to emerge from its generally assuring tranquility with solemn pronouncements. You are comforted in the harmonic language and splendid orchestration of late century, but the bitter truths of the human experience are established too, and with almost Gothic severity.

The matchless opening, with violas and cellos divided into four parts over throbbing Fs in bass and French horns, introduces one of the Beatitudes of Christ (“Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted”) sung at first by unaccompanied chorus.  The harps enter just before the end, and note well the very last words, getrostet werden, reiterated pianissimo by the chorus, as though nodding an affirmation of universal truth. This is a strategy Brahms will use several more times during the German Requiem.  The dead march which follows ranks with his most outstanding accomplishments: haunting of key, with violins and violas subdivided into three parts each, and over a relentless distant tattoo in the timpani.  The chorus has the theme in unison, “Behold all flesh is as the grass”: softly the first two times, the third as the culmination of a magnificent, thunderous crescendo.  The terror of the funeral march is offset at the center in major mode; then it recapitulates before Brahms turns to a stentorian reminder that the Lord’s voice endures forever and an affirmative concluding fugue.

The baritone solo, too, is taken with the brevity of our time on earth and is also a march in the minor key, this time in duple meter.  All is vanity; one’s hope is in the Lord, and, the great choral fugue at the end proclaims, the souls of the righteous are in the hand of the Lord.  Eighteen pages, at the end, are played over the single pitch D in the bass instruments, a musical symbol of steadfastness in the protection of God.

For most music lovers, the fourth movement, “How Lovely is Thy Dwelling Place,” is among the most perfect (and most familiar) miniatures in the repertoire. Despite the harp-like figurations, the harps remain silent; indeed Brahms seems to go out of his way to assure us that his evocation of the heavenly apartments is innocent, joyous, and above all dignified.  He is said to have composed the fifth movement on the occasion of the death of his mother in 1865, and this was added to the work between the Bremen performance of 1867 and the definitive first performance in Leipzig the following year.

The huge movement that follows almost outweighs the second movement, with which it is paired in the overall structure.  It is yet another cortege of minor key.  Here the baritone soloist recalls the mystery of resurrection (“all changed in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye”) and the trumpet of judgment, and a diabolical dance ensues.  The concluding fugue is in slow note values, reminiscent of the white-note fugues of Bach and Handel.

By now you should be aware of the careful balance and symmetry the composer has given his work. The added soprano aria balances the first baritone solo and puts “How Lovely is Thy Dwelling Place” at the center of a structural arch; the two biggest movements come just after the first and just before the last.  Now, to balance the first movement, Brahms leaves another beatitude: “Blessed are the dead: they rest from their labors, and their work follows after them.”  It brings the Requiem to close in F major, where more than an hour before it had begun.

A good performance of the Brahms Requiem uses two harps, following the composer’s indication for doubling, as well as organ and contrabassoon to reinforce the bass line.

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