Johannes Brahms (1833 - 1897)
A German Requiem, Op. 45
Johannes Brahms was born in Hamburg in 1833, the son of adouble-bass player and his much older wife, a seamstress. His childhood wasspent in relative poverty and his early studies in music, for which he showed anatural aptitude, developed his talent to such an extent that there was talk oftouring as a prodigy at the age of eleven. It was Eduard Marxsen who gave him agrounding in the technical basis of composition, while the boy helped hisfamily by playing the piano in dockside taverns.
In 1853 Brahms set out with the Hungarian-born violinist Remenyion his first concert tour. Their journey took them, on the advice of the young Hungarianvirtuoso Joachim, to Weimar to visit Liszt. More importantly, however, Brahmswas able through Joachim to meet Schumann in Dusseldorf. The meeting was afruitful one, leading Schumann to hail him publicly as the successor toBeethoven. In the years of Schumann's illness and after his death in 1856, Brahmswas to establish a mutually supportive relationship with Schumann's wife Clara,one of the greatest pianists of the time.
Brahms had always hoped that sooner or later he would beable to return in triumph to a position of distinction in the musical life of Hamburg.
This ambition was never fulfilled. Instead he settled in Vienna, internlittentlyfrom 1863 and definitively in 1869. To many he seemed to fulfil Schumann'searly prophecy as the perceived champion of music untrammelled by extra-musicalassociations, as opposed to the Music of the Future promoted by Wagner andLiszt, to which Joachim and Brahms both later publicly expressed theiropposition.
Brahms had a varied connection with choral singing. Inshort autumn seasons at the court of Oetmold he had conducted a choir in 1857, 1858and 1859. In the last of these years he had established in Hamburg a women'schoir, the Hamburg Frauenchor, formed by enthusiastic members of the Akaderniechoir directed by his friend Karl Gradener In addition to the regular Mondaymorning meetings of the larger Frauenchor, Brahms also involved himself with a smallergroup, who held evening meetings, His first appointment in Vienna, in 1863, wasas conductor of the Singakademie, reviving the fortunes of the choir in a repertoirethat ranged from unfashionable music of the Renaissance to that of Beethovenand Schumann and compositions by Brahms himself. He was offered a three-yearextension of his agreement with the Singakademie, but resigned in 1864.
Nevertheless, in 1872 he took up the position of director of the Gesellschaft derMusikfreunde, working with the most distinguished of the large choirs in Vienna.
For three seasons he was able to offer a varied and innovative choral andorchestral repertoire, including some of his own major choral compositions,most notably his masterpiece, A German Requiem.
The immediate cause of the composition of the Requiem
was the death in January 1865 of Brahms's mother at the age of 76. By April hehad written two movements for chorus and orchestra that were to be the firstand fourth of the completed work. These he sent to Clara Schumann, asking hernot to show them yet to Joachim. He also asked for her approval of the texts hechose for the rest of the work. In this choice Brahms carefully avoidedanything overtly Christian, suggesting that even the word 'German' in the titlewould be better replaced by 'Human'. The work has nothing in common with theLatin Requiem Mass. It draws, instead, on that essential cultural document, Luther'sBible, following a tradition stemming from Schutz and continuing with Bach inhis so-called Actus tragicus, the funeral cantata Gottes Zeit ist dieallerbeste Zeit (God's time is the best time), Three movements of thecompleted work were heard in Vienna in 1867, to be greeted, after a poorperformance, by some hostility. A full first performance, however, was arrangedfor Bremen Cathedral the following year, to take place on Good Friday. Here itwon immediate success before an audience that included many of the composer'sfriends, including Clara Schumann and the Joachims, with a choir that includedmembers of Braluns's old choir in Hamburg. In preparing the work forpublication Braluns added another movement, the soprano solo Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit,now fifth of the seven movements. There was soon a further performance in Bremenand other performances elsewhere in Europe over the following years, with the first London performance in 1869 replacing the orchestra with an accompaniment forpiano duet.
The four-hand piano version of the Requiem deservesattention in itself and serves as much more than a mere reminder of the work inits choral and orchestral form, revealing the structure and grandeur of a workthat is central to Brahms's achievement. The first choral movement sets wordsfrom the Beatitudes, taken from the Gospel of St Matthew and its parallel textin the Psalms, bringing comfort to those that mourn. The thematic material suggestsWer nur den lieben Gott lasst walten (Who resigns his will to God), achorale that Brahms is reported to have claimed underlay the whole work, inwhich serene resignation to God's will and the resulting spirit of consolationis pervasive. The opening chorus leads to the march-like second movement,modulating from B flat minor to major and setting texts from the Epistles of StPeter and St James, both quoting the Prophet Isaiah on the frailty of humanity.
The principal theme is said to have been conceived for the slow scherzo of anearly symphony, the source of the later Piano Cancerto in D minor. The funeralmarch is followed by the baritone solo of the third movement, setting wordsfrom the Psalms and the Wisdom of Solomon, in a mood of submission to the divinewill. The movement ends with a fugue over a tonic pedal, to the words Der GerechtenSeelen sind in Gottes Hand (The souls of the righteous are in the hands ofGod). Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen (How lovely are thy dwellings),an E flat major choral setting of a Psalm text, breathes consolation, while thesoprano solo of the G major Ihr habt nun traurigkeit (And ye nowtherefore have sorrow), from the Gospel of St John,
Ecclesiasticus and Isaiah, continues this gentle mood. Modulatingfrom C minor to major, the Pauline Denn wie haben hie keine bleibende Stall(For here we have no continuing city), with its baritone solo, reaches a dramaticclimax at the words Denn es wird die Posaune schallen (Then the trumpetshall sound), heralding not the day of judgement but the day of resurrection.
The movement ends with a fugue. The original key of F major is restored in thefinal choral Selig sind die Todten (Blessed are the dead), with itsreference to the first movement, in an apotheosis of the chorale.