“The world today is sick to its thin blood for lack of elemental things, for fire before the hands, for water welling from the earth, for air, for the dear earth itself underfoot.”
-Henry Beston, The Outermost House
I encountered this quote this fall, when a blogger I frequently read wrote about his decision to stay in his house on the Outer Banks during Hurricane Irene. Something about it has resonated in my mind in the intervening time, and when, in a recent rehearsal, Greg reflected on the innate depth of the Brahms Requiem, it came immediately to mind. Beston was speaking, of course, of his year in a small house on the beach of Cape Cod, and the life and death clarity of living at the edge of the ocean. To my thinking, the Brahms grants listeners and performers, alike, a similar kind of lucidity.
To be sure, our culture does seem to elevate a lot of thin-blooded entertainments, but one need not be a musical elitist or connoisseur to reap the rewards of Brahms’ masterpiece. Its topic is definitely the elemental: the human heartbeat, life, the inescapability of death, doubt, faith, hope, the love of a mother, the grief of the bereaved. Eschewing the traditional Roman Catholic texts for a Requiem mass, Brahms, instead, carefully selected scriptural passages he found particularly moving for his texts. Though the piece is entitled A German Requiem, the reference is to the language he set, not his intended audience. In fact, he suggested that the title, A Human Requiem, would’ve been just as appropriate.
In the selection of texts, Brahms is offering profound worship of God, but also, to an unprecedented degree, empathy for the bereaved. The work begins with a heartbeat-evoking pulse, in a somewhat low register, which presages the arrival of the choral writing. Immediately, Brahms quotes the Beatitudes, “Blessed are they that morn, for they shall be comforted.” To my ears, this is not the sort of pro-forma bromide that can understandably accompany bereavement (sometimes we simply don’t know what to say). Brahms is, in a sense, looking mourners in the eye, and offering an uncommon kind of healing empathy. In later movements, he acknowledges the full complexity of grief (I wonder if an enterprising scholar could apply Kübler-Ross to the Requiem), offered from the perspective of someone who spoke from experience. Scholars link Brahms’ conclusion of the piece to the death of his mother, with considerable conjecture about inspiration found in the struggles and untimely death of his dear friend, Robert Schumann. Whatever its provenance, the depth of understanding conveyed in this work definitely make the alternate title of “A Human Requiem” most apropos.
The Requiem‘s place in context with a Bach motet in this program is an appropriate link. Brahms deeply esteemed the music of Bach, and there are several choral fugues that hearken back to Bach’s contrapuntal style. I had the privilege to sing in the choir for a series of performances and a recording with Kurt Masur and the NY Philharmonic. During one of the fugues, Masur stopped, looked at the orchestra and said, “This is Bach. ” He paused. “Not Philadelphia Bach…Bach.” Heh. The opening movement also seems to have a similarity to the pulsing heartbeat that begins Cantata No. 106, the Actus Tragicus.
The second movement begins with a funeral dirge in 3, the choir quoting First Peter:
For all flesh is like grass, and all its glory like the flower of grass.
The grass withers, and the flower falls…
The music that accompanies this text grows from a plaintive softness, to almost a roar of inexorability. In the midst of this torpor are appeals for patience from James, followed by comforting words of assurance from Isaiah:
And the ransomed of the LORD shall return, and come to Zion with songs and everlasting joy upon their heads…
Brahms sets the words “everlasting joy,” “ewige freude” in the original German with the instruction tranquillo, or tranquil, in what may be one of the biggest musical understatements of the piece. The eternal joy that Brahms describes in music is unbelievably sublime.
In the third movement, Brahms crafts a kind of musical dialogue between baritone soloist and the choir, using the text of Psalm 39. Like many of the Psalms, the honesty of the psalmist about his experience of God is rather direct:
Lord, let me know my end,
and what is the measure of my days;
let me know how fleeting my life is.
You have made my days a few handbreaths,
and my lifetime is as nothing in your sight.
Surely everyone stands as a mere breath.
Surely everyone goes about like a shadow.
Surely for nothing they are in turmoil;
they heap up, and do not know
who will gather them.
The music for this text is somewhat unsettled, and that unsettledness reaches its apex with the next bit of text:
And now, 0 Lord, what do I wait for?
Suddenly Brahms spins the music into a kind of existential crisis, with the different sections of the choir crying out in perplexity. The question is repeated many times, with the accompaniment offering quietly dissonant diminished chords at the conclusion. There is a moment of striking irresolution. In Brahms mind, the answer comes in hope:
My hope is in Thee.
He sets this profound statement in the form of what musical theorists would call a dominant chord – all of the individual choral parts suggest an inexorable return to what we would call the root chord of this key signature. What’s striking about his use of this harmony is how long it lasts – roughly 25 seconds. The return to that root chord is then powerful – Brahms sets an elaborate choral fugue over a pedal point (the bass note of the root chord is held for the entire duration of this fugue), creating a powerful sense of groundedness and inexorability. Brahms uses the fugue to set this text from Wisdom:
But the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and there shall no torment touch them.
Programmatically, Brahms uses the next movement to offer musicians a slight (and only slight) rest from the musical and emotional demands of the previous movement, with a piece that is perhaps most-extracted from the Requiem. He offers a moving, compelling portrait of heavenly beauty with a text from Psalm 84.
The fifth movement has a hushed beauty as the soprano soloist sings texts that offer a distinctively maternal sense of comfort, offered in alternation with the choir, and seems, to most listeners, to be a striking portrait of Brahms’ love for his mother.
The sixth movement is another emotional and musical tour de force. Brahms beings the movement with a sort of invitation to the mysteries of the end-times depicted in Hebrews and Corinthians. This movement begins with hushed music, and another dialogue between baritone and choir:
Behold, I show you a mystery: we shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump:
At this moment, the baritone evokes the trumpets heralding the raising of the dead:
For the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.
The choir echoes this text with fierce battle music, interrupted by the baritone who intones, almost in a stage whisper that makes a huge crescendo:
Then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written.
And the choir returns, fairly taunting death, with a kind of triumphalist confidence:
Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?
This taunting builds up to a halting moment of the choir questioning “Wo,” or “Where?” followed by another beautiful, powerful fugue on the following text from Revelation:
Thou art worthy, o Lord, to receive glory and honour and power: for thou hast created all things, and for thy pleasure they are and were created.
One might expect, as after the third movement, that Brahms might give the singers and players a rest, but, alas, the seventh movement begins with some of the most emotionally and musically challenging lines of the piece. The text of the last movement, from Revelation:
Blessed are the dead, which die in the Lord, from henceforth. Yea, says the Spirit, that they may rest from their labours; and their works do follow them.
The line of music that the singers sing, in turn, is impossibly long, and quite high, and far too emotionally compelling to allow for any self-indulgent vocalisms. As such, it’s a huge challenge, and one that my colleagues are completely committed to singing properly. This moment is Brahms locking eyes with the bereaved (in a more intense echo of the first movement) and offering a kind of immutable truth as confidently as possible. The music that surrounds that melody is simply overwhelmingly beautiful, and quite difficult to describe. It’s at once comforting, wistful, full of hope, but also grounded deeply in the humanism that the Requiem so eloquently conveys. There are wisps of melancholia, that resolve, unexpectedly, into a kind of abiding hope. The last movement quotes the first, the terminus of an improbably amazing journey. I remember well the conclusion of the last time we performed this piece in Bethlehem. There was considerable silence, followed by an outpouring of appreciation from the audience. The critic from the Morning Call called it “the concert event of the decade.” I think that much of this music’s power is derived from its incomparable exploration of the sort of elemental things I described at the outset of these ruminations. Brahms digs very, very deep into the human experience, and the result is music of exceptional eloquence and beauty. The whole process of rehearsal has been deeply ennobling, and I know my colleagues in The Choir are very eager to perform this music for our beloved audience. Be sure to attend the pre-concert lecture by Greg Funfgeld, which begins at 3. His talks are always accessible and deeply engaging, and this lecture will prepare listeners for an absolutely wonderful experience.