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Ein deutsches Requiem, Op. 45 (A German Requiem) — Johannes Brahms

This program will be performed without intermission.

  1. Selig sind, die da Leid tragen (Blessed are they that mourn)
  2. Denn alles Fleisch es ist wie Gras (For all flesh is as grass)
  3. Herr, lehre doch mich (Lord, teach me) – David Topping, baritone
  4. Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen (How lovely are thy dwelling places)
  5. Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit (You now have sorrow) – Nina Cole Garguilo, soprano
  6. Denn wir haben hie keine bleibende Statt (For here we have no abiding place) – David Topping, baritone
  7. Selig sind die Toten, die in dem Herrn sterben (Blessed are the dead, who die in the Lord)

German composer Johannes Brahms was an avid reader and a musician from an early age, performing as a pianist in a chamber concert at the age of 10 in 1843, and as a soloist at 15. He helped support his family by giving lessons, arranging music and accompanying theatrical productions. Befriended by virtuoso violinist Joseph Joachim in 1853 and introduced to other talented and influential artists, Brahms soon met the Schumanns, who championed his work.

One inspiration for the genesis of the German Requiem may have been the 1856 death of Brahms’s mentor Robert Schumann, who had accurately predicted the influence and success of his friend’s music. Most of Brahms’s efforts on the Requiem came after the death of his mother in 1865. He continued to revise and compose until all seven movements were completed in 1868, when he arranged them for piano four hands to allow performances on a smaller scale by professionals and amateurs alike. Brahms conducted the orchestral premiere at the Leipzig Gewandhaus the next year, and by 1876 the Requiem had been performed internationally at least 79 times, firmly cementing Brahms’s success and reputation as far afield as Russia and London.

Over its lengthy gestation the Requiem emerged as a deeply personal musical memorial. Brahms was innovative in his combination of styles and use of vernacular German, so different from the long-standing Latin mass for the dead. Baptized and raised Lutheran, Brahms wrote his own non-liturgical libretto based on passages from Martin Luther’s translation of the Bible. The composer chose Scripture offering consolation, reassurance and comfort to the living in a strong affirmation of personal hope, love, courage and anticipation of joy.

While rooted in words of devotion, the German Requiem employs contemplative, universal language to appeal across religious and denominational boundaries, coming from a background of faith rather than a specific church. As for the title, which refers more to the text than to any intended audience, Brahms wrote, “I would gladly give up the ‘German’ and simply put ‘human.’” He purposely omitted references to the redemptive resurrection of Jesus, taking verses from the Psalms and the book of Isaiah from the Old Testament; sections of the Apocrypha; and the letters of Paul, the Gospels of Matthew and John, and the book of Revelation in the New Testament.

Brahms sought reminders of life as a fragile, transient miracle in phrases like “all flesh is as grass… The grass withers, and the flower falls away.” His text embodies an untroubled acceptance of mortality – “Lord, make me to know my end, and the measure of my days…that I may know how frail I am” – yet remains filled with energy and a vivid understanding of the inevitable cycle of mortality, as in the fourth movement: “O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?”

Musically Brahms was influenced by his extensive experience with female choirs and his dedication to the study of early music, including the works of Giovanni Gabrieli and his contemporaries. The Requiem includes fugal sections ending the third and sixth movements along with canons and polyphony, all combined with contemporary modulations and rhythms (as in the fourth movement’s waltz pulse). As early as 1854 he began composing a two-piano piece which morphed into sketches of a symphony’s slow movement; ultimately, it became the steady funeral march opening the Requiem’s second movement. Other effects include an unusual sustained bass note under the chorus at the end of the third movement. Throughout, Brahms laid the groundwork for his later large-scale orchestral writing. The work is framed by a recurring three-note phrase, the repetition of “selig” (“blessed”), and text from the Beatitudes – opening with “Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted” and closing the meditation with “Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord…that they may rest from their labors.”

© Program notes by Katrina Becker