Brahms Ein deutsches Requiem

A requiem for the living

How and when Johannes Brahms’s Ein deutsches Requiem began to take shape cannot be determined with certainty, but the first sketches date from as early as 1856. Brahms completed the first three movements in 1861. Perhaps as a result of his mother’s death, he set to work again in 1865 on what would ultimately be his most awe-inspiring composition. That same year, he sent a piano score of a choral work to Clara Schumann, which he said was the fourth movement of a ‘kind of German requiem’. Clara was very impressed.

Brahms’s Requiem is not a German-language equivalent of the Roman Catholic requiem mass. Its musical predecessors include Heinrich Schütz’s Lutheran Musicalische Exequien, Op. 7 and Franz Schubert’s songs for a funeral service, entitled Deutsches Requiem, D 621.

Brahms’s Ein deutsches Requiem contains sixteen short texts from the Old Testament, the New Testament and the Apocrypha, all taken from the German Luther Bible. Brahms’s choice of text bears witness to his thorough knowledge of the Bible and to the conscientiousness with which he composed the material making up his Requiem. It is a humane work for the bereaved, for the living. The spirit of consolation that characterises the Requiem manifests itself straight away in the word ‘Selig’ which begins both the first movement (Selig sind, die da Leid tragen) and the final vocal section of the work (Selig sind die Toten).

The Requiem is scored for the largest orchestra Brahms had written for thus far, and, in addition to a core of strings and woodwinds, calls for four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, a tuba and at least two harps, with organ ad libitum. In the Requiem – more than in any other composition – Brahms makes use of mutes and subdivides the various groups of instruments into smaller sections.

Although Brahms himself claimed to have little interest in the use of specific keys to suggest certain moods, those he chose for his Requiem do reflect the symbolism commonly associated with the use of particular tonalities. F major, for instance, in which the work starts and ends, often suggests pastoral tranquillity. Throughout the first movement, Selig sind, die da Leid tragen (marked ‘Ziemlich langsam und mit Ausdruck’, rather slow and with expression), the violins are silent, with the violas supplying the highest register in the strings. The voices in the chorus rise up out of a plodding, darkly timbred introduction, as if solace and joy blossom out of the darkness painted by the orchestra. The setting of the beautiful melodic line is splendid, a single choral voice supported by horns and bassoons, with counter-voices in the woodwinds, in which the words ‘Selig sind, die da Leid tragen’ are repeated shortly before the end.

The melody in the second movement Denn alles Fleisch, es ist wie Gras is derived from that of Johann Sebastian Bach’s cantata Wer weiss, wie nahe mir mein Ende, BWV 27, which is itself a reworking of the chorale Wer nur den lieben Gott lässt walten, BWV 642 – a fitting choice, considering the purport of both texts. Indeed, the latter constantly underpins the composition, resulting in an overall melodic interconnectedness of the movements of Ein deutsches Requiem. Both Bach and Brahms set this melody in three-quarter time. Nevertheless, Brahms gives the marking ‘marschmässig’ (march-like), and it is fascinating that this section does, in fact, feel like a funeral march. The muted strings, which are subdivided here into many smaller sections, add greatly to this effect, as do the low timbre of the chorus and, most importantly, the constant, distinctive presence of the timpani. In the optimistic section ‘So seid nun geduldig’, normal timbre and the major mode are both restored, as in the final passage ‘Aber des Herrn Wort’, where trombones and timpani add to the jubilant sentiment.

The emotional third movement Herr, lehre doch mich stands in sharp contrast to the second. The key is D minor, which is often employed in connection with the concept of fate. Here, too, Brahms uses orchestral colour to great expressive advantage. For the texts promising salvation, ‘Ich hoffe auf dich’, the mood shifts to D major (representing triumph, as well as peace restored and repose), and the chorus is given virtuoso parts.

The middle movements of the Requiem are imbued with a sense of peace and comfort. Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen, Herr Zebaoth, is also in three-quarter time, but its effect is one of a soothing siciliano, a bucolic, slow Italian shepherd’s dance popular in the Baroque era.

The fifth movement, Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit, is a soprano aria and, as such, is unique in Brahms’s œuvre. The soprano solo, scored in a very high register, evokes an angel’s voice from heaven, but may well be a reference by Brahms to his mother.

By contrast, the dramatic Denn wir haben hie keine bleibende Statt takes the place of the Dies irae in the traditional mass in terms of both text and mood, yet is about neither wrath nor retribution. The initial text is accompanied by muted violins and violas, and continual pizzicatos in the basses, as if to convey that earthly life knows no rest.

The last trump, announcing Judgement Day and the resurrection, is fiercely celebrated, above all as the defeat of death and hell.

Marked ‘feierlich’ (solemn), Selig sind die Toten, die in dem Herren sterben is a celebration characterised by typically Brahmsian opulence in the chorus, woodwinds, horns and strings. Here, too, shortly before the closing, the opening words ‘Selig sind’ are repeated in the exceptionally beautiful setting of a single choral line accompanied by horns and embellished by the woodwinds.

Public response to the first three movements of Ein deutsches Requiem, performed in Vienna in 1867, was tepid. The performances given in Bremen on Good Friday in 1868 (six movements) and at the Leipzig Gewandhaus in 1869 (the complete work, following the addition of the fifth movement) were enthusiastically received and secured Brahms’s reputation as a composer. The texts chosen for Ein deutsches Requiem and their deeply moving musical interpretation in particular certainly justify Brahms’s statement that the work should actually have been called 'Ein menschliches Requiem' (a human requiem).

Henriëtte Sanders
Translation: Peter Lockwood