Ein deutsches Requiem – Program Notes
Ein deutsches Requiem – Program Notes by Dr. Michael Todd Krueger
The term "requiem" usually refers to the ritual mass for the dead in the Roman Catholic faith. The various sections of the requiem warned non-believers of the perils of "judgment day" and offered prayers for the souls of the deceased. For hundreds of years the texts of the requiem were sung to plainchant melodies in Latin. The first polyphonic musical settings appear in the late 15th century by Gillaume Dufay and Johannes Ockeghem. Since that time, and to this day, many composers from a variety of nationalities and faith traditions have set the ancient Latin texts of the requiem to music, incorporating the compositional language of their respective lineages and eras.
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) was born in Hamburg, Germany. His father was a musician and gave his son his first musical training. Brahms studied piano and cello and began composing as early as age eleven. At the age of 19, his prodigious talent created opportunities for concertizing and travel and the opportunity to meet the prominent members of Germany's musical elite: pianist/composer Franz Liszt, violinist Joseph Joachim and pianist/composer Robert Schumann. In 1853 Schumann published an article in the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik heralding Brahms' talent and that he would surely become a voice of the times. Nearly two centuries later, we herald the compositions of Brahms as some of the greatest the world has known.
Brahms was no different than most boys who grew up in Hamburg during the nineteenth century. He was raised in the Lutheran faith and was very familiar with Martin Luther's German translation of the Bible. As an adult, Brahms was an avowed humanist and a notoriously "free thinker" who spoke deceptively about his beliefs. As a free thinking humanist with a Lutheran upbringing, Brahms somehow conceived the idea of assembling his own requiem text with Biblical passages that did not correspond to the funeral liturgy of any church, but represented a deeply felt response to the central question of human existence. To distinguish his work from a Catholic Mass for the Dead, he called it Ein deutsches Requiem (A German Requiem.) Brahms selected texts from the Old and New Testaments and the Apocrypha. His intent, as indicated by a letter to the music director at Bremen Cathedral, was to capture a universal human experience rather than one of narrow doctrine and to address and assuage the sorrow of the living, rather than the souls of the dead. The music director asked him to include some reference to "the redeeming death of Jesus Christ" but Brahms respectfully declined. Brahms also explained that "German" only referred to the language in which the composition was to be sung; he would have gladly called it "A Human Requiem."
The development and composition of Ein deutsches Requiem, Op. 45 evolved over a period of multiple years. As early as 1854, at the age of 21, Brahms began composing a large-scale work (a symphony in D minor), two movements of which became part of his Piano Concerto No. 1. A third movement evolved into the second movement of his requiem, "Denn alles Fleisch es ist wie gras." In the fall of 1861 he assembled the text of a four-movement composition, but failed to develop it. The death of his mother in 1865 brought about the completion of three of the requiem movements. His popularity as a concert pianist took him away from composing until the summer of 1866, when, in Zurich Switzerland, he was able to complete two more movements and gave the piece its official title for the first time. A perfectionist, Brahms continued to refine and improve the composition for several years. During the summer of 1868 he added the fifth movement and considered the work complete.
The premiere of the original six movements of Ein deutsches Requiem took place at Bremen Cathedral in April 1868. The premiere of the completed seven-movement composition took place in Zurich in September of the same year. The music, choral writing and orchestration achieve a breadth and strength that marks an important turning point in Brahms' compositional career and established him as a mature composer in the eyes of his contemporaries. More importantly, for performers and audiences in the twenty-first century, Brahms' requiem is an expressive and timeless masterpiece that addresses the needs and fears of humankind at its most vulnerable and provides hope and power and strength to those who find themselves in need of care.