Johannes Brahms | Ein Deutsches Requiem

Once he waves his magic wand over hosts of massed choirs and orchestras who lend him their forces, we will experience wondrous insights into the world of spirits.(1)

In 1862, Otto von Bismarck became Chief Minister of Prussia and began his successful campaign to unify the German states into one nation under the aegis of Prussia. This effort of several years was deliberately Protestant-based and anti-Catholic. With harsh but effective diplomacy, Bismarck created rifts and friendships with other European countries, maneuvering the southern German states into the unified nation and diluting the “state within a state” power of the Catholic Church. His method of dealing in force and power established him as the European bully.

Also in 1862, Brahms moved to Vienna, Austria, while keeping close ties to his family in Hamburg, Germany. He had already begun work on Ein deutsches Requiem (A German Requiem), which had its first performance in Vienna 1867. Because of its text from Martin Luther’s German Bible, Requiem performances were to win favor in German Protestant northern towns and scorn in Catholic southern towns — no surprise in the climate of Bismarck’s reign. Yet would Brahms have seen it that way? It was he who, in idolization of Bismarck, would write Trimphlied (Song of Triumph) a “neo-Handalian paean”(2) to mark both the end of the Franco-Prussian War in 1871 and the ascendancy of the German Empire. Brahms insisted that the word German in the title referred to the language in which the work is written, not the nation. “As far as the text is concerned, I confess that I would gladly omit even the word German and instead use Human …”(3) Confronted with ongoing criticism for omitting reference to Christ(4) in the Requiem, Brahms, by then a confirmed agnostic, said he composed it for the sake of all those whose hearts suffer loss. His selection of Biblical texts that offer encouragement and hope, not fear, reflects just such a purpose, very different from the resignation portrayed in traditional masses for the dead.

With the German Requiem premiere, Brahms’ fame rose from that of a writer of Baroque choral works to that of a great composer. Wagner tried to quell public enthusiasm for the 20-years-younger Brahms in vitriolic print attacks with such remarks as “Compose, compose, even if you don’t have the slightest ideas!”(5) Wagner was outraged over what he saw as Protestant, bourgeois musical ethics implicit in the Requiem‘s text. Brahms took a higher road, openly praising Wagner as a composer of genius but cautioning that his example was dangerous to the tenets of music built up through the centuries. What each represented — Wagner, who believed the artist was the high priest of a new religion, and Brahms, who believed the artist’s duty was to meet the public halfway — would divide critics into two camps for decades to come.

The Requiem was incomplete for its 1867 Viennese introduction. The fifth movement, with its transcendent soprano solo, was added some months later, after the death of Brahms’ mother. At the 1868 full premiere in Bremen, Germany, an audience of 2,500 deemed the Requiem an astounding success. Critics praised the composer’s great achievement of incorporating traditional counterpoint with modern harmonic modulations and rhythmic structure. Performances across Germany followed rapidly. Occasional quibbles about the mystical tone, as opposed to the “straightforward Protestantism of Bach, Schütz, and other composers of religious music,”(6) were brushed aside, and the work became part of the regular repertoire in Cologne, Leipzig, Hamburg, and other major German cities. By the time of its 1873 premiere in London, Brahms had been elevated to the level of Bach and Beethoven:

“The German Requiem is a work of unusual significance and great mastery . . . one of the ripest fruits to have emerged from the style of the late Beethoven in the field of sacred music. Since the masses for the dead and mourning cantatas of our classical composers, the shadow of death and the seriousness of loss have scarcely been presented in music with such power. The harmonic and contrapuntal art which Brahms learnt in the school of Bach is inspired by him with the living breath of the present …”(7)

The harmonic ambivalence of the Requiem prompted some critics to temper their own glowing praise with adjectives like “contemplative,” “ascetic,” “academic,” and even “unemotional” and certainly “difficult.” More has been written about Brahms’ choices of religious text and the influences of folk songs, older choral music, and German liturgical masses than about the work’s masterful structure. Yet it is Brahms’ unique synthesis of existing forms and his own harmonic innovations that make his portrayal of life as precious and transient resonate throughout the Requiem.

The seven movements use text from both the Old and New Testaments to frame ageless ideas. With the choral entrance in the first movement, three notes form a musical unit that recurs in various guises to link the opening, Selig sint die da Leid tragen (Blessed are they that mourn) with the ending, Selig sint die Toten (Blessed are the dead). The loving mourner and the beloved deceased are linked in an embrace of eternal blessing.

The second movement, Denn alles Fleish es ist wie Gras (All flesh is as the grass) presents “the main melodic idea, which seems to arise from fragments accumulating and dissolving … the Brahmsian equivalent of the old Gregorian funeral chant.”(8) The solemn music swells, underpinned by a steadfast beat, inviting images of both inescapable fate and soaring beauty. We could be standing with Brahms at the crest of a panoramic view of the summer mountain scenery he loved, inspired and humbled at once as nature spends herself in bloom.

The third movement, Herr, lehre doch mich (Lord, teach me), is a rich blend of solo baritone recitative in dialog with the chorus, with shades of Beethoven in the triplets of the woodwinds, and a double-fugue climax between orchestra and chorus. Brahms’ deep love for his deceased friend and mentor, Robert Schumann, radiates in his setting of Old Testament words by two others who had a deep friendship, young David and wise Solomon.

The fourth movement, Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen (How lovely are thy dwelling places), harkens back to human longings as old as time, again in the words of David. The setting first introduces a world of gentleness and tranquility and then bursts into a Bachian fugue of rejoicing. An angelic soprano voice introduces the next movement, Ihr hapt nun Traurigkeit (Ye now are sorrowful), and then, joined by the chorus, promises comfort.

The baritone returns in the sixth movement, Denn wir haben keine bleibende Statt (For here we have no abiding place), to lead the chorus in mocking death. “There is not a trace of theatrical effect here. [Brahms] does it on sheer harmonic energy which reaches overwhelming dimensions in the hugely swinging sequences.”(9)

In the end, what can the bereaved one do but accept the loss? Yet Brahms does not make doing so an exercise in resignation. In the final movement, with text based on the word selig (blessed), he subtly reworks the musical material of the first movement to crisscross soprano and harp lines, portraying eternal cycles of heavenward ascent from the foundation of heartfelt affirmation.

— Carol Talbeck

  1. Robert Schumann’s prophetic introduction of the young Brahms in the journal Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, quoted in Johannes Brahms: His Work and Personality, by Hans Gal (tr. Joseph Stein), Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1963.
  2. Johannes Brahms: a Biography, by Jan Swafford, Vintage Books, New York, 1997.
  3. From a letter Brahms wrote to the Bremen music director, quoted in Swafford.
  4. English translations of the German sometimes use the word “Christ” for “Herrn” incorrectly.
  5. Richard Wagner, quoted by Gal, op. cit.
  6. Ein deutsches Requiem: (Mis)conceptions of the Mass, online article by Nancy Thuleen, written for Music 415 at the University of Wisconsin, 1998.
  7. Eduard Hanslick, Viennese critic and contemporary of Brahms, quoted in Thuleen.
  8. Swafford, op.cit.
  9. Michael Steinberg, in liner notes for 1995 recording, “Brahms: Ein deutsches Requiem.