"Such a great man, such a great soul, but he believes in nothing."[Antonín Dvorák, on Johannes Brahms]
Johannes Brahms, in his life as in his art, gained strength from looking both backward toward the security of established forms and forward toward an uncertain, but always inviting, future. In life he craved regularity and the solitude necessary for work (at least he did after rejection by Clara Schumann, the love of his life and his mentor's widow, marked the end of his youth) in contrast to his rather chaotic childhood in Hamburg. An independent thinker, he was a fervent admirer of Bismarck and German nationalism, yet he hated parochialism. While living in an increasingly anti-Semitic environment he decried such attitudes and enjoyed many, if not most, of his closest friendships with Jews (above all with the violinist Joseph Joachim). And as a composer Brahms sought new directions in the organization of musical material - methods that eventually were to lead to the 20th-century innovations of Schoenberg and his school - even while striving to conserve the past and mistrusting the tonal adventurousness of Liszt and Wagner.
None of Brahms' works illustrates his Janus-like posture toward music and life better than the German Requiem. The Roman Catholic Mass for the Dead, as a subject for composition, was itself a historical artifact for musicians by Brahms' day. It had become a standard structure for musical ideas - much as a Madonna and Child or a Pietà were for painters of the Renaissance and later eras - and was bound by accepted formalities such as the expectation that fugues would occur at particular moments in the text. Like many creators, Brahms preferred to use traditional forms as templates for the imagination. In other words, like Haydn and Stravinsky he liked to place compositional restrictions on himself, believing that by accepting them his creativity would be set free. Even though he compiled the text of the German Requiem from Martin Luther's translation of the Bible rather than from any liturgy, Brahms structured several movements of his work as if they were parts of a Catholic Requiem, building them to climaxes relieved by the playing-out of fugues, and in this way creating parallels to various sections of the traditional Missa pro defunctis.
Ein deutsches Requiem is an example of a work that is religious without being liturgical. Although entitled "Requiem", it has no function other than to be performed in concert, and bears no particular relationship to the Catholic Requiem. In it there is no reference to Christ (nor, indeed, to any explicit sectarian symbol). There is no vision of the Day of Judgment. The traditional Requiem is a prayer for the soul of the departed, but Brahms' German Requiem is addressed to those who need consolation on earth: to him they are the ones who need help.
Brahms was not a practicing religious man; he was a humanist and an agnostic. He nevertheless read the Bible regularly throughout his life, and chose his texts from deep familiarity with them. Rather than making a theological statement, Brahms' selections reflect a personal expression, using words with which he felt at home. He was writing a universal work; his use of the word "German" in the title should be understood more as vernacular than as nationalist. He referred to the work, in a letter to his muse Clara Schumann, as "a kind of German Requiem":
I will confess that I would very gladly omit the 'German' as well, and simply put 'of Mankind', also quite deliberately and consciously do without passages such as John Ch. 3 Verse 16." ['For God so loved the world, he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.'] "On the other hand, however, I did accept many a thing because I am a musician, because I was making use of it, because I cannot challenge or strike out the text of my revered bards, not even a 'from henceforth.'" [The last comment refers to the words 'von nun an' in the final movement, which imply that salvation is only destined for Christian believers.]
In his eagerness to emphasize the work's universality Brahms was willing to make concessions, as is evident from his letters. "What seems most practical in this work, I suppose, is that each movement can definitely be performed individually... A Latin text is thoroughly out of place in this work... That leaves only England and an English text, which would do quite well, certainly, and in any case already fits of its own." Some concessions, however, merely facilitated performances: "Of course I don't ever expect to hear more than one harp! But then I also write for Waldhorns and the most beautiful D flat trumpets without hope of hearing their sound. In fact, I'll also write for contrabassoon, indeed two of them, simply because I find that we should have them or else be deprived of a lovely bass - not merely for my D [at the end of the third movement].
Brahms' first ideas for the work dated back to the institutionalization and death of Robert Schumann in the mid-1850s. The idea turned into action with the death in 1865 of Brahms' beloved mother, who, seventeen years older than his ne'er-do-well, band-musician-turned-double-bassist father, had been divorced the previous year. He completed it quickly, but at that time the work had only six movements. A few years later, in 1868, Brahms inserted what is now the fifth movement (the only moment in the work in which a woman's voice is heard alone) dedicated to his mother's memory. When, in 1873, Joachim proposed to perform the Requiem at a festival dedicated to Schumann, the idea came full circle: "If you were to consider the situation and how it relates particularly to me, you would know how much and how profoundly a piece like the Requiem is altogether Schumann's. And how, in the secret recesses of my mind, it therefore had to seem quite self-evident to me that it would indeed be sung to him."
Ein deutsches Requiem ever since then has often been performed in a memorial context, in much the same way as Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings is - though Barber never planned his piece for such a purpose. For example, the conductor Kurt Masur replaced an originally-scheduled New York Philharmonic program with Brahms' Requiem following the September 11th attacks in 2001. In tonight's audience, everyone may have a person, a group, an idea to mourn. What Brahms realized was the commonality of loss and grief, and of consolation.
The première of Ein deutsches Requiem was given on Good Friday, 1868, in the cathedral of Bremen. The ecclesiastical authorities would only permit the performance if an introductory work was added that would explicitly refer to redemption through Christ. On that occasion the choice was "I know that my redeemer liveth" from Handel's Messiah. Brahms, though, was an ardent lover and student of the music of Bach more than of Handel; he advised and subscribed to the first complete edition of Bach's works, and as a conductor gave the first modern performances of several cantatas. In commemoration, we precede this evening's performance of the Requiem with Bach's cantata Also hat Gott die Welt geliebt, which, though not one that Brahms performed, was early enough in order of publication for him to have known it. This enables us to approximate the atmosphere of the Bremen première by providing the sentiments that the authorities there demanded, and offers further opportunities to our soprano and bass soloists to shine. And, as it happens, the day for which it was written in 1725 - Whit Monday, or the second day of the Feast of Pentecost - this year fell just three days ago.
- Jerome Hoberman -