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Behold Brahms


Brahms in 1853

Brahms hardly springs to mind when one thinks of the Handel and Haydn Society, but this distinguished Boston institution first presented Brahms’s Requiem in 1945 in a concert dedicated to the memory Franklin Delano Roosevelt, recorded it in 1963, and performed it six other times.

The past year, for this listener, has been one of sorrow and anguish. I hoped hearing choral masterpiece live would provide some solace, which, in fact, it was designed to do. It is uncertain whether his mother’s death in 1865, or his beloved mentor Robert Schumann’s madness and death catalyzed this work. What matters are its timeless beauty and message, which add up to a desire to provide comfort—somehow―to those left behind.

We experienced two surprises on Sunday afternoon. First we learned of conductor Bernard Labadie’s indisposition and that James Burton, director of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, would be taking his place. Then we experienced a gorgeous seven-minute introduction to the Requiem, Brahms’s juvenile masterpiece, Burial Song (Begräbnisgesang, Op. 13) from 1858. An unusually orchestrated instrumental ensemble consisting of brass, winds. and tympani, accompanies the five-part choir. I was deeply touched by this performance and thrilled to have heard it with such excellent singers and players.

George Bernard Shaw famously wrote that Brahms’s Requiem caused him to suffer “intolerable tedium. … “Mind, I do not deny that the Requiem is a solid piece of musical manufacture. You feel at once that it could only have come from the establishment of a first-class undertaker,” he wrote in 1890. Snarkiness aside, this seven-movement German Requiem is a far cry from standard Roman Catholic examples. Instead of the traditional Latin Mass, Brahms the Lutheran Bible as his source (thus the word “German” in the title) and pieced together the text with selections from the Bible, the New Testament, and the Apocrypha. This Requiem contrasts the transience of human existence with the eternal nature of God. “Blessed are they that mourn,” is the title of the somber opening movement, while “Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord” ends the piece, in great tranquility. Mourning, hope and despair thus transfigure into blessing and comfort.

The H + H Chorus reached its customary exalted levels throughout the afternoon. The somber second movement, “Behold, all flesh is as grass,” has the heavy rhythms of a funeral march. In a recurring happening here, the darkness of mourning becomes the light of consolation. It works every time. 

Baritone James Atkinson carried his third- and sixth- movement solos (“Man passeth away like a shadow”) with dramatic intensity as the music shifts from asking the Lord, “And now, Lord, what do I wait for?” to “my hope is in Thee.

The fourth movement, a well-loved, peaceful pastoral with chorus and orchestra, is followed by a message of healing, “Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit” which featured the excellent soprano Lucy Crowe spreading a blanket of angelically high soprano calm and solace which soared over the winds. Her tones and affect perfectly suited this. What beauty!  The sixth movement, featuring James Atkinson, is for this listener, the heart and soul of this Requiem. It begins rather quickly (although it sounded sluggish on Sunday), with just chorus and orchestra like most of this Requiem/s movements. The baritone enters with the message that “When He comes, we will all be changed in a twinkling of an eye. (The dead shall be raised… and we shall all be changed. … for death shall be swallowed up in victory!” After a flurry of timpani and a dramatic crescendo and change in tempo in the orchestra, the baritone enters with the famous “Death, where is they sting? Grave, where is thy victory?” The chorus, in its big moment, alternates with impassioned baritone, whose hard “CK” in Augenblick (an instant) sent chills as death itself. The Requiem hits its high passion point, and surely this listener was not the only one with tears in her eyes.

Finally, after the emotional tumult of the sixth movement, a peaceful but full-voiced ending transpires, “Blessed are the dead, which die in the Lord… They will rest in their labors” at which point the two harps finally emerged (in the other 2 moments, they were often covered). We are comforted by one of the most reassuring of Requiem endings, although some of us had not yet recovered from the deeply affecting drama of the previous movement.

Susan Miron is a book critic, essayist, and harpist. She writes about classical music and books for The Arts Fuse. Her last two CDs featured her transcriptions of keyboard music of Domenico Scarlatti.


3 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. “We are comforted”. I love that this review probes the phenomenological impact of Brahms’s music on us. Would that music give us all a “heart of flesh” and foster new forms of kindness, forgiveness and grace in us!

    Comment by Ashley — April 24, 2024 at 6:39 am

  2. Lovely appreciations of Brahms’s works here, both review and comment. I find the photographic portrait of the composer below, taken around the time of his mother’s death, to be quite moving as well, with a sadness in his eyes I’ve not seen elsewhere:–1897%29_ca_1865.jpg

    Comment by nimitta — April 24, 2024 at 10:13 am

  3. Some thoughts on the word “German” in the title of Brahms’ Requiem:

    Johannes Brahms was born in the Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg on May 7, 1833 and died in Vienna after a long and successful career on April 3, 1897. During his youth, German nationalism and liberalism were on the rise as a reaction to Napoleon’s northern campaigns. In Brahms’ birth year, German-speaking Europe included more than 300 separate political entities: the formal unification of Germany into an integrated modern nation would not occur until 1871, two years after the premiere of his ‘German’ Requiem.

    Brought up Lutheran in Hamburg, Brahms was familiar with both Martin Luther’s 1526 Deutsche Messe (one of the first plainchant settings of the mass to use German text) as well as Luther’s translation of the Bible. Luther’s achievement (especially the Old Testament) was remarkable for two reasons: he did not have direct access to a variety of primary sources in Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic (held mainly in the Vatican), and he created a workable form of what became Hochdeutsch from a variety of northeastern Germanic dialects, facilitating the emergence of the modern German language as we know it today.
    Luther’s New Testament was based on Erasmus’ second critical edition of the Greek New Testament (1519), known as the Textus Receptus. Both Luther and Erasmus had learned Greek in Latin Schools led by the Brethren of the Common Life, who emphasized scholarly work and philology; the two scholars never met, but their correspondence was published. Luther made his translation while sequestered in the Wartburg Castle in Eisenach, Thuringia, the very town where J. S. Bach was born fifteen decades later.
    Luther’s Old Testament was the result of many years of discussions with scholars and religious professionals (including rabbis) who owned biblical texts in Greek, Latin, Hebrew, and earlier German dialects. He printed the Apocrypha (found in the Greek Septuagint, but not in the Hebrew Masoretic text) between the Old and New Testaments, using a translation by his friends Philipp Melanchthon and Justus Jonas (professors of Greek and of Law at Wittenberg).
    For A German Requiem, Brahms did not simply translate the familiar Latin of the standard Requiem Mass; he created his own compilation of texts in order to emphasize comfort for living. The complete title of op. 45, Ein deutsches Requiem nach Worten der heiligen Schrift, celebrates the work’s biblical lineage and makes clear the importance of the text’s German-Protestant origin, without striking an overtly nationalistic pose (for a more thorough discussion, conslut Daniel Beller-McKenna’s excellent Brahms and the German Spirit, Harvard, 2004).

    While preparing for the first performance, Brahms remarked to Carl Reinthaler, the organist of Bremen Cathedral, “I will admit that I could happily omit the ‘German’ and say simply ‘Human.’” Reinthaler pleaded with him to include more passages about “the redeeming death of Jesus,” or at least to include the names “Jesus” or “Christ” a single time, but Brahms replied that he had knowingly passed over such verses as “for God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son” (John 3:16) and the famous vision of apocalypse (“Dies irae, dies illa”) from Revelation. Brahms did
    mention the name of Jesus in his many settings of Marian texts, and his large choral collection included dozens of hand-copied folksongs dealing with Christ’s birth and infancy.

    When creating Ein deutsches Requiem (“ein” meaning “a”, rather than “der” meaning “the”), he was not trying to supplant the Lutheran Church with a new national German religion. His final choices were adapted (but not always copied) from the Apocrypha (Wisdom 3:1 and Ecclesiastus 51:27), from the Old Testament (ten verses from Psalms 39, 84, and 126 and two from Isaiah 35:10 and 66:13), and from the New Testament (twelve verses from Matthew 5:4; John 16:22; Peter 1:24-25; James 5:7; Hebrews 13:14; I Corinthians 15: 51-55; and Revelation 4:11 and 14:13).

    Comment by Laura Stanfield Prichard — April 26, 2024 at 3:40 pm

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