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Andrews University Symphony Orchestra
A German Requiem
April 28, 2007

Ein Deutsches Requiem, Op. 45 by Johannes Brahms is one of the great choral-orchestral works of the 19th century. It was with this, his largest symphonic work, that the 34-year-old composer was affirmed as a master of his art, both at home and abroad.

With the title A German Requiem and the texts chosen by the composer from Luther’s German translation of the Bible, Brahms provides a unique commentary on the universal theme of death. Rather than dwelling on the themes inherent in a Latin “Requiem,” this work offers comfort for the bereaved and rejoicing in the prospect of a better life beyond. The arch of Ein Deutsches Requiem is shaped by the first three movements expressing the voice of mourning, the final three a transformation of sorrow to joy and certainty, with the central peak expressing a longing for dwelling with the Lord.

As a young man Brahms was devastated by the untimely illness and death of his beloved friend and mentor, Robert Schumann, in 1856. There is evidence that by the next year Brahms had begun working on the idea of a memorial work, at first along the lines of a 4-movement Bach cantata centered around a text from I Peter that states “For all flesh is like grass.” A few months following the unexpected death of his mother in1865, Brahms began serious work on his German Requiem, completing a four movement version in 1867 of which three movements were presented in Vienna later that year. (That performance was marred by the timpanist nearly drowning out all the other performers during the extended choral fugue which concludes the third movement.) The entire six-movement work was premiered at Bremen Cathedral on Good Friday, April 10, 1868, under the composer’s direction and was enthusiastically received by audience and musicians alike. Following this performance, Brahms realized that the work was not yet complete, so he added an additional movement shortly thereafter. The complete seven-movement version was premiered in Leipzig, February 18, 1869 and was heard twenty times in other German venues over the next year, quickly spreading throughout the musical world.

Brahms employs the forces of mixed-voice chorus (primarily written in 4-parts and technically within reach of good amateur choruses popular at the time), soprano and baritone soloists, a moderately sized romantic orchestra (full strings, winds, timpani) plus harps, and ad libitum organ and contrabassoon. Evidence of the composer’s mastery of and respect for his Germanic roots is manifested in a number of ways, including the use of extended choral fugues used to crown three of the movements (II, III, and VI). Two aspects of the structure of the seven-movement work are particularly noteworthy for the listener: the key progression of the movements and the elegantly balanced structural arch of the whole work. In terms of key progression, the work begins and ends in the key of F major. Listen for the depiction of comfort and hope as furthered not only through the texts but also through the rising tonality of key of each succeeding movement (i.e. F to B-flat to D to E-flat to G to C to F).

Considering the arch structure of the whole, notice first that the apex of the work is movement IV, “How lovely is thy dwelling place.” It is a tranquil statement full of yearning, deservedly one of the most beloved choral pieces in the repertoire. The two major solo movements are balanced around the apex: movement III with the baritone leading the chorus in asking personal questions of mortality, “Lord, make me to know the measure of my days.” Following the choral declaration, “My hope is in Thee,” the movement concludes with an monumental 36-bar double fugue over a relentless D pedal point. The balancing solo movement is no. V for soprano, “Ye now are sorrowful.” Written following the death of the composer’s mother it gives a gentle, flowing, maternal message of comfort.

The largest, most dramatic movements stand in the second and penultimate positions. Movement II, “Behold, all flesh is as the grass,” is a funeral march expressing the inevitability of death, but following the choral proclamation “The Lord’s word endureth for evermore,” the message of sorrow turning into joy is conveyed through a large choral fugue, “The redeemed of the Lord shall return,” which ends with quiet confidence. The most descriptive movement of the work is no. VI. The baritone soloist begins “Here on earth have we no continuing place” and continues with the apostle Paul’s description of the resurrection. As the German Bible uses the word posaune (trombone) as the instrument that announces the resurrection, Brahms has the trombones and tuba lead the chorus in describing the joys of that event. Following the choral “Death, where is thy sting,” this movement concludes with an enormous fugue intoning a psalm of praise and triumph, “Worthy art Thou to be praised, Lord of honor and might.” Finally, the outer portions of the arch are anchored with the beatitudes of the first and last movements. The first is “Blessed are they that mourn,” the last, “Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord.” The first movement begins without violins (the sombre colors being provided by divided violas and cellos). The last is presented as a pastorale, with the sopranos affirming “Blessed are the dead . . . that they rest from their labors,” supported by strings reaching from the depths to the heights of the orchestra. As it began, The German Requiem, with its richness of sound, comforting texts, wonderfully balanced organization, and bold yet solemn pronouncements tempered by serene tranquility, ends the way it began, with the word “Blessed.”


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Program notes by Linda Mack. Copyright 2007.
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