Wiener Philharmoniker, Bernhard Haitink
A German Requiem to words from the Holy Scriptures, for soloists, chorus, and orchestra
Recorded Wien, 4/1980
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Brahms's Message of Consolation and Hope
Despite the obvious differences between the two works united in this recording, a certain inner relationship may be observed. They both deal with suffering and sadness, but the message they convey offers consolation and hope. Even chronologically the two compositions are connected. The "German Requiem" was completed in 1868, and in the same year Brahms conceived the idea to set the "Song of Destiny" to music.
The composer allowed most of his works a long time to ripen before he was fully satisfied with the end product. This is particularly true of his largest - and possibly also his greatest - composition, the "German Requiem." As early as 1854, Clara, the wife of Robert Schumann and a life-long friend of Brahms, wrote in her diary that she had tried out with Brahms three movements of his magnificent sonata for two pianos. This sonata was, as we know, later completely remodelled by the composer. Two of its movements were used for his Piano Concerto in D minor, while the sarabande-like funeral march was transformed in the years 1857-59 into the main section of the Requiem's second movement. By 1861. the composer had assembled the texts for four movements of his planned funeral cantata. In the following years other projects occupied Brahms's mind, and only in 1865, after the death of his mother, did he take up the composition. Under the impact of his bereavement it made quick progress, and in the following years six of the oratorio's seven movements were completed. They were performed, under the composer's own direction, at the Cathedral of Bremen in Northern Germany, on Good Friday, April 10, 1868. Despite the enormous success of this concert, Brahms himself did not consider his work to be complete. In May 1868 he added the deeply-moving soprano solo of the fifth movement which rounded off the whole composition.
In the "German Requiem" the composer's activity was not confined to the creation of the music; it started already with the selection of the text. This was by no means a simple German translation of the traditional Latin funeral service of the Catholic church. The choice of words in Brahms's oratorio is quite independent of this model. The composer chose his texts exclusively from verses in Martin Luther's Bible translation. Both the Old and the New Testament served as his sources, and he carefully selected fragments from the Psalms, the writings of the Prophets, the Gospels, Epistles, and Revelation, thus assembling a mosaic of deep meaning and unusual beauty. While the Latin Requiem is a prayer for the peace of the dead who are threatened by the terror of the Last Judgement, the words Brahms has chosen are meant for the living to show them that the end of our existence on earth is not to be feared, for it brings peace and blessed relief from hardship and worry.
Brahms's idea to write a German-language funeral composition was not entirely new. As early as 1636 Heinrich Schutz wrote a "Teutsche Begrabnis-Missa" (German Funeral Mass), and similar works were contributed by various later composers. Closest to Brahms's work is, however, a small-scale work which is not even designated as "requiem." This is J.S. Bach's Cantata No. 106, known as "Actus tragicus," which Brahms, a great admirer of the St. Thomas cantor's work, is sure to have known. In this funeral cantata the composer has likewise chosen his own text from verses in the Old and New Testaments, a text which is imbued with promises of bliss and salvation. Moreover, the formal construction of Bach's work appears like a miniature model for Brahms's big oratorio; in particular an important detail in the older master's choice of instruments may well have inspired the peculiar orchestration in the first movement of the "German Requiem." In a highly significant detail, however, the two works differ. Bach refers to the mercy of the Redeemer who will take the soul of the departed to Paradise. Brahms, on the other hand, avoids all direct reference to Jesus. His work is deeply religious with a truly universal meaning; it is meant for mankind and for no individual denomination.
The first movement, "Blessed are they that mourn," immediately creates the mood of smiling-through-tears which the composer wants to convey in this work. The orchestration is rather subdued, since both violin parts and other brilliant instruments like clarinets, trumpets, and piccolo are omitted. Against this fairly dark background the human voices assume a particularly light and floating, almost disembodied quality. The absence of violins from the instrumental body is, incidentally, a feature this movement shares with Bach's "Actus tragicus."
The second movement may well contain the earliest part of the score Brahms brought to paper. In its orchestration it sharply contrasts with the first movement. The bright sounds of clarinet, trumpet, and piccolo are restored and the violins, divided into three sections, are used in their high range. However, the strings have to use mutes, and long sections are pianissimo which robs them of all brilliance. An eerie effect is thus produced, and the vision of a slow, inexorable dance of death is unfolded. But this weird mood does not prevail. Presently we hear a veritable hymn of joy intoned by those who have achieved salvation.
A powerful baritone solo is introduced in the third movement, and a moving dialogue unfolds between the single voice and the full chorus. As the crowning end of this section, Brahms introduces a mighty fugue based on a pedal point. Unfortunately the composer's intentions were misunderstood at the very first performance of this movement which took place in Vienna in December 1867, several months before the Bremen concert. Brahms prescribes in this fugue sempre con tutta laforza (always with full strength), and the timpanist, who has to repeat the same note without any break, took him at his word, playing so loudly that the rest of the music was barely audible. The audience was mystified and acted in a rather hostile manner which deeply hurt the composer. Just the same, Brahms did not change his score, as he rightly trusted the good taste of later performers.
Serenity is restored in the next movement, which is the heartpiece of the whole work: the description of Paradise. Most likely it was written early in 1865 under the immediate impression of Christiane Brahms's death. In its gentle grace it seems to reflect the image of his departed mother that the son held in his heart.
The same mood is carried over into the following movement, which contains one of the most moving and beautiful soprano solos Brahms ever wrote. Like a heavenly bird, the singer's voice rises over the soft murmuring of the chorus: "As one whom his mother comforteth, so will I comfort you."
The sixth movement contains a second baritone solo leading to a vision of the Last Judgement, which is stripped, however, by Brahms of all its horror. Instead the triumphant message is conveyed: "Death is swallowed up in victory." The movement ends in a mighty double-fugue of Handelian strength and glory.
The final movement takes up the spirit of the very first one. Not only do the texts of the two pieces display marked similarities; with unobtrusive art the music passes towards the end of this movement into the concluding strains of the first one. Thus the circle is closed, helping to provide the "German Requiem" with a completely unified, monumental character.
Brahms felt deeply inspired by the revival of antique Greek spirit in German poetry. He used Goethe's "Gesang der Parzen" (Song of the Fates), Schiller's "Nanie" (Dirge), and Holderlin's "Schicksalslied" (Song of Destiny) as a basis of choral compositions with orchestra. The earliest work - and possibly also the greatest - was the "Song of Destiny," created in the years 1868-71. The author of this text was a Swabian poet who inserted this rhymeless ode into his romantic novel "Hyperion." The basic idea of the short poem is the fearsome contrast between the bliss of the immortal gods and the despair of suffering mankind. Brahms did not share the poet's hopeless pessimism, and provided a resolution of the frightful conflict.
A lofty instrumental introduction in the key of E flat major precedes the entrance of the voices. Brahms who, as a rule, abstained from the use of German expression marks, prescribes here Langsam und sehnsuchtsvoll (slowly and full of longing). Gradually, first the altos alone and then the full chorus come in to describe the luminous clarity in which the gods dwell. At the climax "as the musician's finger does the holy strings," the strings gently strum their instruments in pizzicato to symbolise the accompaniment of heavenly lyres. Presently this picture of serene happiness is replaced by a darkly passionate Allegro in C minor. The menacing unisons and wild outcries of the chorus, supported by a turbulent, racing orchestra, create an overwhelming picture of human misery, unrest, and despair. Especially impressive is the description of mankind's uncertain fate by the violent entrance of a harsh new rhythm at the words "like water dashed between the cliffs"; it is followed by a general pause interpolated into the fortissimo passage and a sudden dispirited piano. Exhaustion seems to set in, but we are confronted by a second, even more violent outburst of hopeless despair. The vocal part ends on a note of sorrowful resignation, and at this point poet and composer part company. Brahms ends his work with an Adagio in C major, closely related to the serene instrumental introduction to the piece. The composer seems to proclaim that downtrodden humanity may rise to higher spheres and the lot of gods and men be united in one reconciling bond.