I will admit that I could happily omit the ‘German’ and simply say ‘Human.’
Composed between 1865 and 1866, Brahms’s Ein Deutsches Requiem is one of the composer’s best-known works. It was first performed in Bremen Cathedral on Good Friday in 1868 as part of a Sacred Concert, which was attended by upwards of 2,500 people. The Requiem was well received, and close friend Clara Schumann remarked that Brahms’s conducting baton was a ‘magic wand and its spell was upon all present’.
Although Brahms chose Biblical texts for his Requiem he did so carefully, selecting passages from a variety of sources in order to convey his ‘Human’ message. The Requiem’sopening line, ‘Blessed are they that have sorrow, for they shall be comforted’, sets the tone for all that follows. At its core, Brahms’s Requiem is concerned with providing comfort for the living and this idea prevails throughout the work. Movement two, ‘Behold, all flesh is as grass’, is transcendent, beginning with a dark funereal march and concluding with the idea of redemption and Ewige Freude (eternal joy). In the third movement, ‘Lord, make me to know the measure of my days’, the baritone soloist questions his existence and wonders how he shall find comfort. As before, hope prevails and refuge is found in the Lord.
After the turbulence of the first three movements, the fourth is more contemplative. ‘How lovely is Thy dwelling place’ features much rejoicing. At this point in the 1868 Bremen concert there would have been a break, during which movements of other works would have been performed, as was common during the nineteenth century. When the concert recommenced the Requiem would have moved straight into what we now know as the sixth movement, for the current fifth movement was added a month after the première. ‘Ye now are sorrowful’, composed for soprano solo and chorus, focuses on the comfort provided by a mother. The sixth movement, ‘For we have no abiding city’, is arguably the most dramatic. The intensity ebbs and flows, building to a powerful climax praising the Lord. And to bring the Requiem full circle, the seventh movement returns to blessings. ‘Blessed are the dead, which die in the Lord … and their works follow after them.’ Brahms’s Requiem conveys a message of hope for those left behind: let us celebrate the lives of the lost, and remember that comfort shall be provided for those who seek it.
© Hannah Millington
These programme notes were produced for Opus 48, who performed Brahms’s Requiem on 16 March 2019 in Oxford’s Sheldonian Theatre.