The Kennedy Center

Ein deutches Requiem [A German Requiem], Op. 45 & Reading the Scripts (Das Lesen der Schrift)

About the Work

National Symphony Orchesra Composer Portraits - Johannes Brahms Composer: Johannes Brahms
© Richard Freed

Brahms composed his grandest choral work, Ein deutsches Requiem ?A German Requiem?), between 1857 and 1868, taking his texts from Martin Luther's translation of the Bible; he conducted the public premiere of the six-movement version in the Bremen Cathedral on April 10, 1868, and the premiere of the work in its final version was given in Leipzig on February 18 of the following year. The National Symphony Orchestra first performed this work on October 29, 1952, under the direction of Howard Mitchell, with Phyllis Curtin (soprano), James Pease (baritone), the Washington Choral Society and Cathedral Choral Society (Paul Callaway, director), and presented it most recently on September 12 and 13, 2002, under Eri Klas, with Heidi Grant Murphy (soprano), Brett Polegato (baritone) and the Washington Chorus (Robert Shafer, director).

The score calls for solo soprano and baritone, four-part mixed chorus and an orchestra of piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, 2 harps, organ and strings. Duration, 68 minutes.

Wolfgang Rihm composed his orchestral work Das Lesen der Schrift (?The Reading of the Scriptures?) in 2001 for Kent Nagano and the Deutsche Symphonie-Orchestra (DSO), Berlin, under a commission from that orchestra, an ensemble of the Rundfunk-Orchester und -Chöre GmbH Berlin (ROC), the organization that administers Berlin's various radio orchestras and choruses. The work, in four parts, was commissioned and composed specifically to provide orchestral interludes at various points within performances of the Brahms Requiem, and in that frame it was given its premiere by Mr. Nagano and his Berlin orchestra on March 16, 2002, three days after the composer?and much of Europe's musical community?celebrated his 50th birthday. This week's performances by the National Symphony Orchestra, again under Mr. Nagano, represent the work's American premiere.

The score calls for 2 flutes, oboe, 2 clarinets in A, bassoon, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, 2 harps, organ, and strings. Duration, 17 minutes.

(Total timing for this program, performed without an intermission, 85 minutes.)

As Brahms is one of the most revered composers in all of Western music, and his German Requiem is his most ambitious and greatest work in the realm of choral music, there are certain to be more than a few veteran concertgoers who would question the wisdom?and several who may be ?scandalized? by the very idea?of inserting new orchestral music, composed 135 years after the fact, at four points among this masterwork's seven sections. This sort of interpolation, however, by no means as radical a gesture as it might seem, has a long and honorable history; there are in fact numerous quite respectable precedents, from at least as early as the time of Bach and Telemann to as recently as the last century. Brahms himself, in fact, interpolated existing chorales between sections in his own early performances of A German Requiem. The present conflation of Brahms and Rihm came about as the culmination of a thoughtful project devoted to the idea of interpolation in various different forms and purposes.

Dieter Rexroth, formerly the Intendant , or chief executive officer, of the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester in Berlin, now holds the title of Dramaturg with that organization, and one of his responsibilities is the devising of exploratory and innovative projects. This one comprised three concert programs, the first of which focused on Bruckner's Ninth Symphony. As we know, Bruckner died without giving his final symphony a finale, and from time to time there have been discussions of the ?proper way? to regard the work. Is it an unfinished symphony? If so, how might it be ?finished?? In the years following Bruckner's death it became customary to perform his Te Deum as the final movement of the Ninth, though there was no indication that Bruckner himself ever intended to have voices in the work. More recently, there have been scholarly ?completions? of the finale he did start to write, based on the sketches he left. A third option, of course, and the generally accepted one, is to regard Bruckner's Ninth Symphony as a complete work in three substantial movements. The Berlin experiment, though, inserted Schoenberg's ?monodrama? Erwartung? not as the symphony's finale but between its scherzo (the second movement in this instance, whose energy is picked up and sustained by the interpolation) and the exalted Adagio.

The second such experiment centered upon Vivaldi's set of four little violin concertos called The Four Seasons. This has become one of the most frequently heard works of music in any form, thrice familiar in the last 55 years or so, both in its original form and in arrangements and transcriptions for every sort of ensemble from tearoom trio to marimba band. How to refresh such a work without altering its character? What the Berliners did was team it up with Charles Ives's Three Places in New England, performing one section of that work after each of the first three of Vivaldi's four concertos.

What is different about the third and final part of that project is that the work inserted into the Brahms Requiem was not an existing one, but was commissioned and composed specifically for this purpose. There were both esthetic and purely practical considerations in choosing this familiar and beloved work for this kind of attention. Kent Nagano advises that he felt that the seven sections of the Requiem go by so swiftly when they simply succeed one another that some of their impact, both musical and emotional, may be somewhat attenuated, while Rihm's ?deeply reflective and poetic? orchestral interludes allow Brahms's own material to register more deeply?or, as Mr. Nagano puts it, provide ?greater resonance? for both the music and the texts.

On the practical side, these contemplative intermezzi also provide the hard-worked chorus opportunities to rest and refresh at crucial points in the work. Mr. Nagano refers in particular to the effectiveness of the last of the four interludes, which occurs at the point at which the performers and the audience have felt the cumulative might of six of Brahms's seven sections, and allows the sopranos to return refreshed for the concluding one. Overall, he feels, the effect is not one of strangeness or conflict, but of reinforcing the substance and character of the Brahms work.

One point that cannot be registered strongly enough is that Rihm has not altered or retouched a single bar of the Requiem itself as Brahms left it. He has honored Brahms, too, by not attempting to imitate him in the slightest degree, but retaining his own personal style and character. In the course of interview he was asked by Jörg Königsdorf, ?Doesn't the intercession of a contemporary composer have the effect of pushing Brahms's musical language into the distant, historical past?? He replied, No. It's as if there were four monochrome panels hanging in a Gothic chapel or, somewhat more colorfully, four large canvases by Anselm Kiefer. It was in fact Kiefer's Basel exhibition at the Fondation Beyeler that provided me with some very important ideas and inspiration for the work at hand. The original idea, however, goes back a long way. Das Lesen der Schrift refers to the process of decoding, gradually becoming aware of textual relationships encapsulated in symbold. It can also be a metaphor of decoding a musical text.

Out of the murmurings of doubt I began molding pieces of silence, baking bits out of introversion and concealment, and came upon paths leading into the inaccessible?touching upon, if not actually depicting, the inner movement of a mourning process step by step. And in doing so, I altered its form. The four pieces add up to a self-standing composition, of course. They don't necessarily have to remain bound to this rather daring one-off attempt to respond to?and simultaneously question?the great Brahms Requiem from the inside.

So far no performance of Das Lesen der Schrift on its own has taken place, and none has been scheduled, but Mr. Nagano has demonstrated his enthusiasm for the Brahms/Rihm combination by performing it with his Berlin forces in Hamburg and more recently in Japan before presenting it this week in his debut appearance with the National Symphony Orchestra, and he advises that he intends to continue performing it for some time.

Brahms was involved in choral music as a performer as well as a composer. He organized a women's chorus in Hamburg in 1859, and in Vienna four years later he became the conductor of the Singakademie. He began work on his most ambitious choral work, Ein deutsches Requiem, as early as 1857. The title he chose does not refer to any national feeling, but simply to his choosing texts in his own vernacular rather than the liturgical Latin. A precedent in this respect was provided by Heinrich Schütz in his own ?German Requiem,? the Musikalische Exequien of 1636, though Schütz did not use the same texts. (In another work, however, one of the Psalms of David he composed in 1619, Schütz set the same text Brahms used for the fourth section of his Requiem; this Schütz piece opened the Berlin concert in which the premiere of the Brahms/Rihm combination was given its premiere.) Brahms drew his texts from Martin Luther's translation of the Bible, and the work occupied him until 1868.

What he produced in those years is not a liturgical work, but a personal one; it is concerned neither with lamentation nor glorification, but is pre-eminently a consolatory gesture. Other composers managed to write requiems that are no less personal while conforming to liturgical outlines?one thinks of Mozart, Verdi and Berlioz most immediately?but that sort of concept would have been out of character for Brahms, a declared agnostic who made not the slightest nod in the direction of religious convention, despite his settings of sacred texts. Like more than a few other non-believers, he did find much that is noble and exalted in the verses of both the Old and New Testaments, but it is significant that none of the texts he selected for this work mentions Christ; nor is there anything resembling a prayer for the dead.

In the latter respect, A German Requiem evokes a certain parallel with the Jewish Kaddish , a ritual for mourners: the Kaddish makes no reference at all to death, but praises God as the Author of life. Closer parallels with this work were to emerge in other requiems composed well after Brahms's death. Frederick Delius, in his World War I Requiem , followed Brahms's example directly by selecting his own Biblical sources and yet pointedly avoiding any religious gestures. After the Second World War, in 1946, Paul Hindemith (who became a U.S. citizen that year) completed his Requiem for Those We Love, whose text is not from the Bible, but from the poetry of Walt Whitman. Indeed, the Hindemith work (better known by Whitman's title, When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd ) so successfully reflects an American character that it might well be called ?An American Requiem,? and the Delius may be said to be similarly colored in specificially English hues..) What is more to the point is that each of these non-liturgical requiems is designed strictly for the living: each is primarily consolatory in nature. The distinguished British critic William Mann wrote that nowhere in the Brahms Requiem is there a suggestion of abject entreaty, nor any prayer for the souls of the dead. On the contrary, this is an act of consolation for the living, a hope that all may be well with us when we pass hence. The focal point of the Catholic Requiem Mass is the Dies irae , the vision of Divine judgment [a section conspicuously omitted in the radiant and otherwise conventionally liturgical Requiem of Gabriel Fauré]. It does not fall with the purview of Ein deutsches Requiem ; the Last Trump . . . is invoked, but the separation of sheep and goats, the weeping and gnashing of teeth, formed no part of Brahms's message. The fact of bodily death was sufficiently real and sad to merit Brahms's whole attention?and, while we listen to his Requiem, ours.

?The fact of bodily death? was something that occupied Brahms's thoughts a great deal in his twenties and early thirties. His beloved friend and mentor Robert Schumann died in July 1856, and his mother died nine years later; while both of those events no doubt affected him deeply, he advised that A German Requiem was not intended as a memorial to any individual, but that in composing this work he had ?the whole of humanity in mind.? Indeed, by the time of his mother's death the Requiem had been virtually completed, but it may be noted that the work's eleven-year gestation period did begin with Schumann's death.

The slow movement of Brahms's First Piano Concerto is regarded, at least in part, as a sort of requiem for Schumann. Brahms had originally tried out a different slow movement for the Concerto, and when that work was completed, in 1857, he drew upon the rejected slow movement to construct a choral setting of that part of the First Epistle of St. Peter that begins, ?For all flesh is as grass.? Four years later this chorus had become the core of a four-movement cantata on the theme of death and consolation; four years after that (the year of his mother's death) Brahms decided to add two more sections, and in this format the score was completed during a holiday in Switzerland in the summer of 1866.

The public premiere of this six-part work, under the direction of Brahms himself, was given in the Bremen Cathedral on Good Friday of 1868, having been preceded by a Viennese performance of three of its movements, under the famous choral conductor Johann Herbeck, some four months earlier. The Bremen audience received the work enthusiastically, with many listeners actually moved to tears?but not the composer's father, who only admired and approved. A month later Brahms, feeling the work was a bit too stern, added one more section, which he did identify as a memorial to his mother; this is the lovely Andante now stands fifth in the revised sequence of seven sections ( ?Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit? ) and which contains the lines, ?As one whom his mother comforteth,/So will I comfort you.? In this expanded form the work was first performed in Leipzig on February 18, 1869.

In keeping with the straightforward nature of the work, the scoring avoids any suggestion of grandiosity in either the vocal writing of the orchestral. The seven movements are as follows, indicated by number; Rihm's orchestral pieces are indicated by letter.

•  SELIG SIND, DIE DA LEID TRAGEN (?Blessed are they that mourn?). Poco andante, e con espressione, F major. This brief section serves as both prelude to and summation of the entire work?beginning in the darker regions of the orchestra for the setting of the two lines from Matthew, gradually building to a gesture of affirmation in the lines from Psalm CXXVI which follow.

•  DENN ALLES FLEISCH ES IST WIE GRAS (?For all flesh is as grass?). Moderato, in modo di marcia, B-flat minor; Poco sostenuto?Allegro non troppo, B-flat major. While the first part of this section is headed ?in the manner of a march,? it is written in ¾ and is more in the nature of a Valse triste . In this movement, more elaborately and dramatically than in the preceding one, lamentation gives way to affirmation?in this case, a conclusion not only affirmative but jubilant, celebrating the return of ?the ransomed of the Lord. . . with songs and everlasting joy upon their heads.?

A. Orchestral piece No. 1 (marked ?very slow?)

•  HERR, LEHRE DOCH MICH, DASS EIN ENDE (?Lord, make me to know mine end?). Andante moderato, D minor?D major. In the words of Psalm XXXIX the solo baritone pleads for a sign; confidence builds through the piece, and after the words ?My hope is in Thee? brass and drums usher in an ecstatic double fugue on lines from Proverbs : ?But the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and there shall be no torment touch them.?

B. Orchestral piece No. 2 (?very slow?)

4. WIE LIEBLICH SIND DEINE WOHNUNGEN (?How lovely are Thy dwellings?). Con moto moderato, E-flat major. A choral intermezzo, a song of praise from Psalm LXXXIV.

5. ICH HABT NUN TRAURIGKEIT (?And ye now therefore have sorrows?). Andante, C major, The movement added after the Bremen premiere, for solo soprano and chorus, begins with four lines from John 16:22, which are followed by the lines from Isaiah 66:13 already quoted and by then a serene message from Ecclesiastes 51:27 : ?Behold with your eyes, how that I labored but a little, and found for myself much rest.?

C. Orchestral piece No. 3 (?calmly?)

6. DENN WIR HABEN HIER KEINE BLEIBENDE STADT (?For here have we no continuing city?). Andante?Vivace, C minor; Allegro, C major. An expansive and dramatic movement, similar to No. 3, and again calling on the solo baritone. Following the prefatory lines from Hebrews 13:14, the mystery of the Last Day is described in the same lines from I Corinthians set by Handel in his Messiah (?Behold, I tell you a mystery?), following which is another majestic and jubilant double fugue, this time on lines from Revelations 4:11 (?Thou art worthy, O Lord, to receive glory and honor and power . . . ?)

D. Orchestral piece No. 4 (?very calmly,? with the heading ?Consolation?)

7. SELIG SIND DIE T OTEN (?Blessed are the dead?). Maestoso, F major?A major?F major. Completing the circle begun with one benediction, Brahms ends the Requiem with another, quoting the theme of ?They shall be comforted? from No. 1. Here affirmation, expressed in vigorous and jubilant terms in earlier parts of the work, takes the form of an all but weightless serenity.