The Kennedy Center

Ein deutsches Requiem, Op. 45 [A German Requiem]

About the Work

National Symphony Orchesra Composer Portraits - Johannes Brahms Composer: Johannes Brahms
© Dr. Richard E. Rodda

Robert Schumann was the most influential person who ever came into the life of Johannes Brahms. It was Schumann who hailed Brahms in print as the "saviour of German music" when the young composer had only just begun his life's work. It was to Schumann that Brahms looked when he was searching to establish not only the technique of his compositions, but also the philosophical basis on which they were founded. And it was the Schumann family, first Robert and later his wife, Clara, who provided encouragement, constructive criticism and affection to Brahms throughout his life. It is no surprise, then, that Brahms was deeply moved by the premature death of his mentor in 1856, the first profound grief to fall upon his life.

Schumann encouraged Brahms to write in the grand forms of the great Classical composers in order to continue the revered traditions of Mozart and Beethoven that Schumann believed were being swept away by the flood of meretricious music created by the legion of third-rate composers, now long forgotten, of the mid-19th century. Brahms began a symphony the year after Schumann's death with a view toward fulfilling his charge, but that project did not result in its intended aim. Though Brahms abandoned the symphony, he used the music of the opening movement in his first orchestral work, the D minor Piano Concerto. The slow movement of the Symphony was resurrected as a choral work in 1861 and provided with the text, "Denn alles Fleisch es ist wie Gras"; it served as the germ from which A German Requiem grew. It is possible that Brahms may have been influenced in this transformation by an idea credited to Schumann, one that he did not live to realize — the writing of a work of the Requiem type based on a German text rather than on the traditional Latin liturgy of the ancient Roman Catholic Mass for the Dead. With a view towards erecting a musical monument to Schumann, Brahms assembled a text appropriate to such a composition from the Lutheran Bible in 1861, but that memorial then laid dormant for several years.

It was the death of another loved one that moved Brahms to resume activity on his Requiem. Brahms, a confirmed bachelor, was extraordinarily fond of his mother. When she passed away in February 1865, it marked the beginning of a period of sadness and mourning for him, one result of which was an unsettled wandering through many places in central Europe. Another product of this experience was that it spurred him to resume work on the unfinished Requiem, which, with the death of his mother, could become a memorial both to her and to Schumann. He completed the six sections of his original conception by August 1866, and added another portion eighteen months later for soprano soloist specifically occasioned by the death of his mother: "Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit." A line of its scripture, "I will see you again," tells of the touching personal message that this music carried for the composer.

Though Brahms was raised in the beliefs of German Protestantism, he was not a religious man. He did not bother with the church, and confessed in the last year of his life to his biographer Max Kalbeck that he had never believed in life after death. His knowledge of the Bible, however, was thorough, and he continued to enjoy the comfort that reading it provided him throughout his life. When he chose the texts for his Requiem, he took the greatest care to eschew dogmatism, avoiding passages mentioning the name of Christ. Rather than a specifically sectarian document, he saw the work as a universal response by a sensitive soul to the inevitability and sorrow of death, and he even noted that he would be happy if the word "Mankind" could replace the word "German" in the title. (The title as it stands does not denote any nationalistic intent but simply recognizes the fact that the text is in Brahms' vernacular tongue rather than in liturgical Latin.) Brahms' use of the language of the people rather than the ancient tongue of the Church is not just an incidental fact in the effect of this composition, but is part of its conceptual basis, as Karl Geiringer explained in his study of the composer: "The Latin Requiem is a prayer for the dead, threatened with the horrors of the Last Judgment; Brahms' Requiem, on the contrary, utters words of consolation, designed to reconcile the living with the idea of suffering and death. In the liturgical text whole sentences are filled with the darkest menace; in Brahms' Requiem, each of the seven sections closes in a mood of cheerful confidence or loving promise." This is a work meant for people rather than for God.

The moving nature of A German Requiem is attested by its continuing popularity. Following its premiere in Bremen in 1868, there were fully two-dozen performances of the work in European cities within the next year alone. It was the composition that won international fame and some economic security for Brahms, and its success enabled him to quit his labors as conductor and piano soloist to devote himself to composition. It launched a series of works for chorus and orchestra (the Alto Rhapsody, the Song of Destiny and Rinaldo) that not only stand among the great 19th-century music for voices, but that also served as harbingers of the instrumental compositions he was to write beginning in 1873 with the Haydn Variations and continue with the symphonies and concertos of his later years.

As with all of Brahms' works, this one shows meticulous construction in its overall structure and proportions. Walter Niemann offered this view: "The first half — the first through the third movements — is devoted almost entirely to earthly suffering, lamentation and mourning over the transitoriness and nothingness of human life, rather than to the consolation and the everlasting bliss of the redeemed. In the second half — the fourth through the seventh movements — mourning is gradually transformed, passing through the stages of pious faith, consolation, and joy in the living God, to celestial bliss and triumphant resurrection." Most of the movements exhibit a tripartite organization in which the text and music of the opening section reappear to round out the form. The overriding mood of the work is one of comforting resignation rather than of visions of supra-human worlds. Only in the sixth movement is any of the terror of the Dies Irae ("Day of Wrath") of the Latin Requiem present, and this is quickly supplanted by the quiet benediction of the closing movement. Brahms' A German Requiem, a work of grand scope and surpassing excellence, is rich in a substance that never wavers from its purpose of sharing a universal experience through the incandescent beauties that only music can provide.