Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Brahms' Most Personal Requiem

Johannes Brahms (in his beardless 30s)
While I was checking out videos of Brahms “German Requiem” on YouTube, several of them were prefaced by ads more annoying than usual, not all of which you could skip after 5 seconds. Several of them were for rock star Ariana Grande's current “Honeymoon” Tour and, while I know nothing of her, her status in today's pop culture or her singing, my primary objection was to the loudness and nature of the ad and the complete disconnect it had with the music I was searching for – the gentle final movement of the Brahms Requiem.

It would be snide to mention the first thing that came to my mind was the opening of Brahms' second movement: For all flesh is as grass, and all the glory of man as the flowers of grass.

The second thing was that in April of 1865, Brahms had already sketched three movements of his Requiem-in-progress – 150 years ago this month.

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This weekend, Stuart Malina conducts the Harrisburg Symphony in a performance of one of the great choral works of the repertoire, joined by the Susquehanna Chorale and the choirs of Messiah College (prepared by their conductor, Linda Tedford). The soloists are soprano Jane Redding and baritone Grant Youngblood. The performance will be sung in English.

The concerts at the Forum are Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 3pm with pre-concert talks by Dr. Timothy Dixon an hour before each performance.

The program opens with the first symphony by Kevin Puts who won the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2012 for his opera, Silent Night. Just this past month, he had another opera premiered, based on a play that, when I saw it as a film in the '60s, I thought would make a great opera, The Manchurian Candidate.

From his website, the composer (whose name, btw, is pronounced with the "u" like the “oo” in book) writes this about his 1st Symphony:

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My first symphony was composed in 1998-99 for the California Symphony and premiered on February 28, 1999 by the California Symphony conducted by Barry Jekowsky. I was a doctoral student at the Eastman School of Music when I wrote it. One night I was driving from Rochester, NY to Bowling Green, OH for a performance and I heard a woman call in to a radio station and request the song Still Standing by Elton John. She wanted to dedicate it to a friend who was just getting over the pain of a divorce, and I started thinking about the resiliency of human beings. I had the idea to write a piece which drew its inspiration from the states of an emotional crisis—listlessness, turmoil, shock, denial, the memory of a kind of naive bliss and sense of invulnerability, and finally, the elation of overcoming and the regaining of stability and confidence.

Musically, the symphony marks the beginning of my interest in “panoramic” one-movement forms, conceived in the romantic tradition in the sense that they are reactions to certain things I am thinking about or experiencing in my life. This is a break from the style of previous works in which I was concerned simply with musical elements and their development—in other words, “absolute music”. The harmonies and compositional devices of these earlier works are still alive and well in this newer, freer, and more varied style, but the approach is different and, I think, truer to who I am as a person and a musician.
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You can hear a two-minute sample from the symphony by following this link.

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A Requiem is a “Mass for the Dead” in the Catholic liturgy, though similar services exist in other religions but are not called by the Latin term which derives from the text, Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine – the word requiem comes from the word meaning “rest” or “repose.”

In addition to praying for the soul of the dead, the original liturgy includes the famous Dies irae or “Day of Wrath” which lets the living know all the torments of Hell that await those who do not go to Heaven. It is this movement that provides the most intense drama in those musical settings of the Requiem we're most familiar with, like the ones by Mozart or Berlioz, but particularly the one Verdi completed in 1874 which most critics complained was more operatic than suitable for the church.

Even Beethoven contemplated writing one, telling friends he thought Mozart's was “too wild and awesome” (in the old sense of the word) and wanted to compose one that was, by comparison, “more subdued.”

So after his mother died in February of 1865, Johannes Brahms planned a work in six movements that would not be a standard Requiem, using the liturgical text as it was traditionally set in Latin. He would write it “in the vernacular” (in his case, German) and set texts from various books of the Bible (the work's subtitle is “To Words of the Holy Scriptures”) using Martin Luther's translation (the 1534 German-equivalent of the English-speaker's 1611 King James version) including some lines from the Apocrypha as well. Shortly after the first performance, he decided to add another movement, this one with a soprano solo to balance the two with a baritone solo. Unlike traditional Requiems, the choir sings almost throughout. Even from the earliest sketches of the piece, he called it his "so-called German Requiem," meaning "A Requiem in German" as opposed to what you'd normally expect.

Brahms' Requiem is nothing like what you'd normally expect.

(In this manuscript copy of the text, Brahms has written out the texts for all seven movements but even though they're written in order, he marks the movements by Roman numerals in such a way that, at this point, he had changed the new soprano solo movement to IV and crossed out the "I" to make the original 4th Movement, "V"... eventually switching them back again.)

It had been on his mind for a while – certainly, since the death of his mentor, Robert Schumann in 1856 – but no doubt the death of his mother made the 31-year-old composer think a little more seriously about the meaning of death. Rather than just translating the Requiem text into German, his choice of texts reflected his agnostic approach to humanism. It was, he said, a “Human” Requiem rather than one based on divine Christian dogma.

Where the Latin text begins and ends with a prayer to grant the dead peace from their earthly life, Brahms begins his, “Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted,” before eventually concluding with comforting lines from Revelation, “Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord,” as if to let those of us left behind know, “everything will be alright.”

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There were initially to be six movements.

While some people assume the Requiem was inspired by his mother's death, this doesn't seem to be necessarily the case. The fact the soprano solo text has been described as “specifically
occasioned by the death of his mother” as one so often reads, it was composed three years after her death and three years after he had begun work on the Requiem in the first place. Up to that point, he had felt it was complete.

But then, following the premiere of this six-movement version in April, 1868, Brahms' first composition teacher, Eduard Marxsen, suggested he should add the soprano solo movement by way of contrast to the baritone solos. The now familiar complete version was then premiered later that year, in September, in Zurich.

Even if this movement were not an immediate response to the death of his mother, the composer was certainly aware of the final line of the text he chose to set: As one whom his mother comforteth, so will I comfort you.

Not long after Brahms had returned to Vienna following his mother's funeral in his hometown of Hamburg (he arrived two days too late to say good-bye to her), he wrote to Clara Schumann, “When this sad year is over, I shall begin to miss my dear good mother ever more and more.” Beyond that, it seems, he said little about her in his letters, then or afterward.

In fact, Brahms never spoke about the relationship of the Requiem to his mother and “growled” (as Jan Swafford puts it in his biography of Brahms) “whenever anyone asked him about it.”

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Here is a complete performance of Brahms “A German Requiem” recorded in concert at the Vienna Musikverein in 1997 with Claudio Abbado conducting the Berlin Philharmonic, the Swedish Radio Choir & Eric Ericson Chamber Choir, with soprano Barbara Bonney and baritone Bryn Terfel.

The yellow marks in the time line indicate the starting point for the different movements. If you don't have time to listen to it all in one sitting, you can come back to the yellow marks to resume viewing the video.

(Be prepared: there might be ads within the video, between some of the movements – I'd gotten ones that were of the “skip-in-5-seconds” variety so hopefully, annoying as they are, they won't too destructively intrusive, however insensitive. I was tempted to use another video but this really is such an incredible performance.)

The choral entrance in the opening of Brahms' Requiem
The translations of Brahms' German text is adapted from the King James Bible and may differ from other translations you could find or might hear this weekend.

1st Movement: Blessed are they that mourn; for they shall be comforted. They that sow in tears shall reap in joy. He that goeth forth and weepeth, bearing precious seed, shall doubtless come again with rejoicing, bringing his sheaves with him.

A gently contemplative opening that unfolds from almost nothing, its “immense subtlety wrapped in noble simplicity.” You might notice that Brahms emphasizes the darker sounds of the orchestra in terms of register by not using the violins, relying on the rich sounds of violas, cellos and basses.

2nd Movement: For all flesh is as grass, and all the glory of man as the flower of grass. The grass withereth, and the flower thereof falleth away. Be patient therefore, brethren, unto the coming of the Lord. Behold, the husbandmen waiteth for the precious fruit of the earth, and hath long patience for it, until he receive the early and latter rain. But the word of the Lord endureth for ever. And the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with songs and everlasting joy upon their heads: they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.  

This movement isn't so much a funeral march as a funeral sarabande, a slow dance in triple time, that was originally intended for Brahms' first attempt at writing a symphony, sketching material shortly after his mentor Robert Schumann's failed suicide attempt in 1854 (much of this became part of his D Minor Piano Concerto). Clearly there is an obvious connection in this music which the audience at that Good Friday premiere would have been unaware of, except for one person sitting in the front row – Clara Schumann, Robert Schumann's widow and a close friend and continuing inspiration to Brahms. Between her concert tours and frequent health issues (not to mention being mother to seven children), she almost didn't make it for the premiere, arriving right before the dress rehearsal, much to Brahms' relief.

3rd Movement: Lord, make me to know mine end, and the measure of my days, what it is: that I may know how frail I am. Behold, thou hast made my days as an handbreadth; and mine age is as nothing before thee. Surely every man walketh in a vain shew: surely they are disquieted in vain: he heapeth up riches, and knoweth not who shall gather them. And now, Lord, what wait I for? my hope is in thee. But the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and there shall no torment touch them.

This movement begins with a despairing tone, the first appearance of the baritone soloist, but it ends ultimately in joy, with a choral fugue on a “pedal tone” (a repeated, sustained D in the bass).

Technically this was something several friends (including Clara Schumann) had advised Brahms against but he stubbornly stuck to his guns. Unfortunately, at a performance of the first three movements in Vienna – a kind of concert try-out – the timpanist got carried away and played his part fortissimo, drowning everybody out so that at the end, the audience was so confused, many people hissed, giving rise to the idea their reaction to the whole piece was unfavorable. One critic, though, after mentioning the first two movements were “met with unanimous applause” (which means, yes, they were applauding between movements), described the ending as experiencing “the sensations of a passenger rattling through a tunnel in an express train.” Consequently, before the completed work was premiered in Bremen, Brahms made substantial changes in the orchestral texture, paying specific attention to the timpani's printed dynamics!

Clara Schumann
4th Movement: How beautiful are they dwelling places, O Lord of hosts! My soul longeth, yea, even fainteth for the courts of the Lord: my heart and my flesh crieth out for the living God. Blessed are they that dwell in thy house: they will be still praising thee.

This is undoubtedly the best known section of the Requiem. Shortly after he had sketched this movement, Brahms sent a copy to Clara who was concertizing in London at the time, saying “it is probably the least offensive part”!!!

Given the years of difficulties following her husband's suicide attempt and his being hidden from her in an asylum miles from her and their children until his death over two years later, with the challenges of touring to earn money to support her family, not to mention her own health problems – this was also a difficult time in her friendship with Brahms – Clara sat their, the audience behind her, able to see only the musicians with Brahms on the podium, wondering what kind of magic he had managed to create. She wrote in her journal the next day, “It was such a joy as I have not felt for a long time.”

Brahms' Mother
5th Movement: And ye now therefore have sorrow; but I will see you again, and your heart shall rejoice, and your joy no man taketh from you. Ye see how for a little while I labor and toil, yet have I found much rest. As one whom his mother comforteth, so will I comfort you.

This is the soprano solo that was added after the Bremen premiere. It is difficult not to imagine, though, given that last line, that Brahms was not thinking of his mother when he chose this text. But if you read it right, it is not his mother comforting him, but him the composer comforting the listener – or perhaps Clara – as his mother had comforted him (if you can follow that). It doesn't get more personal than that.

At the time he completed this piece, Brahms was not known as a composer of orchestral music, having produced only the two early Serenades and his 1st Piano Concerto. His 1st Symphony would only be finished in 1876 even though he'd been working on a first symphony since 1854. Primarily, aside from a few pieces of chamber music, the world knew him as a composer of piano music (championed by Clara) but mostly of songs and short choral works. He was, also, in his mid-30s, so one would expect a future for him, already acclaimed as he was. But who knew that when they first heard this music?

6th Movement: For here have we no continuing city, but we seek one to come. Behold, I show you a mystery: We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed. In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. ...then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is they sting? O grave, where is they victory? Thou art worthy, O Lord, to receive glory and honour and power: for thou hast created all things, and for thy pleasure they are and were created.

This is the dramatic high-point of the work, just as the 4th Movement (“How beautiful are they dwelling places”) could be the understated emotional high-point. But the sound is almost archaic (to one barely familiar with the music written before Bach); even the look of the score reminds one of Palestrina, though to us it sounds nothing like anything but Brahms.

Unlike the traditional Baroque oratorios and masses of the Classical period, this is not a work with arias for soloists interspersed between choral movements. Only the soprano solo takes on the sense of an aria (despite the supporting role of the chorus). But in this next-to-last movement, the baritone solo is once again woven into the whole. And again, it ends with a large-scale fugue in the manner of George Frederic Handel, joyful and triumphant.

Today, we might think nothing of this, but in Brahms' day, writing a fugue was an exercise in academicism. Most composers learned the skill required to do so but few could make it sound like a natural expression of themselves. To his listeners, fugues in which composers showed off what they'd learned probably sounded archaic primarily because it sounded unnatural in its musical context – don't get me started on Tchaikovsky's fugues in the 2nd String Quartet or the “Manfred” Symphony. But Wagner once paid Brahms the compliment that, after hearing him play his “Handel” Variations which ends with a massive and virtuosic fugue, no one could write a fugue like that these days – before adding something to the effect “if one would want to do such a thing.”

7th Movement:Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord from henceforth: Yea, saith the Spirit, that they may rest from their labours; and their works do follow them.

Instead of a finale in the usual sense, this final movement returns to the comforting simplicity of the opening; the spiritual highlight of the piece, perhaps – not the Paradise of the Catholic Requiem Mass (Brahms himself stated he did not believe in life-after-death), but the peace of a deep and eternal rest.

While many, at the first performance, wept during this movement including Clara Schumann, someone leaving the cathedral ran into Brahms' father, Johann Jakob, a slight old man though only in his early-60s who was proud of his son even if he didn't understand his music. Asked what he thought of his son's work, he responded, having just taken a pinch of snuff, “It didn't sound bad.”

Brahms' humanist “German Requiem” earned an unparalleled success, rare for a composer only in his early middle-age and helped establish his career as more performances were scheduled across German-speaking Central Europe. Some were confused by its lack of Christian content (references specifically to Christ) leading one conductor to insert the aria “I know that my redeemer liveth” from Handel's Messiah between the last two movements.

George Bernard Shaw, himself an avid Wagnerite, would later say, “it could only have come from the establishment of a first-class undertaker.”

And while the musical world still awaited proof that Brahms was, as Schumann had predicted, the heir to Beethoven, the Requiem cemented his career as nothing he'd so far composed had managed to do. Schumann's often maligned enthusiasm, however, would be proven true – at least to his fans – eight years later when the world finally heard his Symphony No. 1.

But I wonder if he would have had the confidence to complete that work if he had not won some kind of recognition for what he was doing, had it not been for this most personal and heartfelt, gentle masterpiece.

- Dick Strawser