Brahms: Ein deutsches Requiem, op. 45

performed the Philharmonia Orchestra and Chorus, Schwarzkopf and Fischer-Dieskau under Otto Klemperer

(cover image by Tom Barrett)

Formal composition on the requiem began in 1865, after a very important, very tragic event that same year, the death of the composer’s mother, to whom the work is dedicated. This, as anyone who’s had a mother should be able to understand, was impetus enough for a composition such as this, but there’s more to it than that. In reality, the seeds for this piece were planted more than a decade earlier.

In 1854, Brahms had been or began working on material that was later used in the second movement. Some sources, like John Henken at the L.A. Philharmonic, state that this material was originally to be for a symphony, but Wikipedia simply states that:

The second movement used some previously abandoned musical material written in 1854, the year of Schumann’s mental collapse and attempted suicide, and of Brahms’s move to Düsseldorf to assist Clara Schumann and her young children.

And there are our other key events, really all relating to Schumann, who anyone who knows anything about Brahms knows was a very important figure in the composer’s life, almost as much as Clara would later become.

In any case, this material was later abandoned, but not permanently. Brahms had decided on the title ‘A German Requiem’ at least by 1865, referenced in a letter to Clara, but learned many years later that Schumann himself had planned to use the same title for a piece. Brahms had also considered ‘A Human Requiem’ as a title, but we’ll get to that shortly.

It was a ‘German requiem’ because Brahms prepared the text himself from the German Luther Bible and not the Catholic Mass. There’s lots of semi-religious stuff to read about if you want, but suffice it to say Brahms himself wasn’t a terribly religious man (much of the stuff you might expect to hear in a work like this, like mention of Jesus, or death, show up very sporadically, very late, or not at all). His requiem, in contrast with so many (basically all) the others, focuses on the living, rather than the deceased, as we shall see.

Six of the movements (all but what is now the fifth) were finished by August of 1866. An early performance of the first three movements was not a success, apparently due to a misunderstanding of dynamic markings and a timpani drowning everyone out. The first performance of the original six-movement layout was on Good Friday, April 10, 1868 with Brahms himself conducting, and was a huge success, a “turning point” of the composer’s career, which is saying something, I think.

The (current) fifth movement was composed in May of 1868, right after the Good Friday performance, and was performed as a standalone movement on September 12, 1868. The final seven-movement version wasn’t performed until February 18, 1869 with the Leipzig Gewandhaus under the baton of Carl Reinecke.

The ‘humanness’ of the work is tied up in the work’s focus not on the dead and judgment and damnation, as do many a requiem, with the fiery Dies Irae and Latin liturgy. Instead, Brahms did something pretty genius. He took a standard form, much like Beethoven would, and managed to stay true to it while doing it in a way that no one else had before. (I could be wrong about nobody ever having written a non-Latin mass, and probably am, but certainly no one did it quite as well as Brahms did.)

Take a look at this chart on Wikipedia. It lists the seven movements and their subsequent sections very nicely. Boiled down to the titles only, they are as follows:

  1. Selig sind, die da Leid tragen (Blessed are they who bear suffering)
  2. Denn alles Fleisch, es ist wie Gras (For all flesh, it is as grass)
  3. Herr, lehre doch mich (Lord, teach me)
  4. Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen (How lovely are thy dwellings)
  5. Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit (You now have sadness)
  6. Denn wir haben hie keine bleibende Statt (For here we have no lasting place)
  7. Selig sind die Toten (Blessed are the dead)

From the first movement, we have a ‘blessed are those who mourn’ quote, one of the beatitudes, a focus on the living, those who remain, rather than the dead. Throughout this entire work, death is obviously the subject, whether stated or implied, but it’s actually not stated until the sixth movement, and even then, death is finally, in the end, accepted, and even then its use is more to underline the presence of hope.

The first movement has a sort of mellow, bittersweet warmth to it, partially the result of a complete lack of violins. One almost suspects that this first movement could settle rather quickly into something very dark, or devolve down in to a turbulent storm, but once the chorus enters, we hear the tone of the piece overall. There is not much that can be said about the magnificence of this opening movement.

The second movement, while not all storm and crunch, has breathtaking weight to it, especially when the title words are uttered. Even here, in some of the grandest, towering passages of the whole work, there is a very tender, even pastoral contrast. This movement is, at least in Klemperer’s recording, the longest of the entire piece, and despite the (at least relative) violence, the movement ends peacefully.

The third movement gives us the first appearance of one of the vocal soloists, with the baritone singing ‘Herr, lehre doch mich‘, affording a more intimate, personal characteristic to this message, backed by the chorus. The conclusion of this third movement gives me the impression of a climax, as if it makes up a first part, with the fourth movement serving as a sort of interlude. As Wiki tells us, the third movement climaxes with a rather grand fugue.

The fourth movement is, again in Klemperer’s recording, the shortest of the work, and is a change of tone. We are in E-flat major, and the chorus is front and center, the feature of this central movement.

On the other side now, we reach the fifth movement, featuring the soprano. It’s angelic, peaceful, all of those things, but instead of the overwrought desperation and gloom that we might have with a similar title from, say, Mahler or Wagner, this movement really is one of comfort, maybe the the first recognition, at least in the titles of the movements, of the obvious theme of death or sorrow. It’s the most positive sadness you’ll ever hear.

The baritone returns for the penultimate movement. This movement parallels the second as being marked with turbulent, fiery passages that one might expect from a requiem, although even here, we haven’t any Dies Irae. In this way, one might think it is in some sort of arch form, but that’s probably not the case. In any case, the second and sixth movements are probably those that come closest to the fire-and-brimstone power that a lover of Mahler may want, but this is still clearly not Mahler. It also reaches its highest point with divinely written fugue.

The final movement, Selig sind die Toten, or ‘Blessed are the Dead’ comes after what feels like a climactic, satisfactory end to this monumental work. In keeping with the movement’s title, the work is a peaceful one, no deathly roar here, and this finishing of an enormous, hefty work like this with something so uplifting and heavenly reminds me a bit of the effect of the final movement of Mahler’s third symphony, one of the most inspiring, hopeful, blissfully beautiful things he ever wrote, untainted by the tragedy and sorrow and darkness that appear elsewhere in the work (and his oeuvre). Even Brahms’s choice of key is a sunny, pastoral F major, something we’ll see used to excellent effect in a work next month.

There’s so much more to this work than the overall contour of the seven movements, but if you’re really keen on appreciating it, you’ll have to give it some dedicated time. It is after all, the composer’s largest work, and certainly one of his greatest. There’s an abundance of things to cherish about this work, despite my poor effort at communicating them.

As for recordings, I listened to a few, mostly Celibidache’s and Jansons’ more recent release with the Concertgebouw, but really all preferences or anything aside, I just don’t think anything can beat Klemperer. It’s certainly wonderful to hear some different recordings and treatments of this work, and that’s not to say that there aren’t other good, or even great, recordings, but Klemperer…. is where it’s at.

Our midweek posts for the next few weeks will deal pretty significantly with death and/or loss, but mostly, specifically, death. You’ll see, but this is without a doubt the most positive, peaceful death piece ever written, and one of the most brilliant. Stay tuned for a much bleaker work in a few weeks, and thank you so much for reading.


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