March 2019

Brahms Requiem

guards’ chapel, birdcage walk

Amanda Pitt soprano
Sam Young baritone
Martin Ford, Jonathan Dods piano

Brahms’ Ein Deutsches Requiem is one of the great choral masterpieces of all time. Its name affords a clear distinction from the Catholic Requiem, or Missa pro defunctis, Brahms’s work being in the vernacular and intended for Protestant use but in a concert setting.

The drawn-out genesis of the piece was typical of a composer whose sense of perfection seemed to intensify in proportion with the size of the challenge. The sinister ‘march’ of the second movement is rooted in music written around the time of Robert Schumann’s tragic demise in 1856, while much of the rest was composed in the aftermath of the death nine years later of Christiane Brahms, the composer’s mother. While Brahms himself remained characteristically unforthcoming, many believe that his Requiem honours the memory of both, though it offers more comfort to the living than a prayer for the departed. Its partial première – in 1867 – was of the first three movements only; the first performance proper took place in Bremem in 1868 and the fifth movement was added later that year. The overall form is magnificent and elegantly conceived, being symmetrical about the fourth movement: the first three numbers representing mourning and a struggle with the acceptance of dying and the last three a reconciliation with – and victory over – death. The fourth movement is an archstone to the whole work.

Brahms’s primary concern for the living is evident from the text of the first movement, with its hushed tenderness and aching suspensions offering comfort to the mourning. The instrumental introduction outlines a possible reference to the Lutheran chorale Freu dich sehr, although Brahms’s reticence precludes confirmation; the same chorale appears at the funereal start of the second movement, encouraging us to hear it as a dark counterpart to the first movement. The prevailing gloom eventually gives way to the radiance of the first of the Requiem’s Handelian fugal passages (‘The word of the Lord endureth for evermore’). The third movement contrasts human ephemerality with divine immortality, minor with major, soloist with chorus, and antiphony with exhilarating counterpoint.

The exquisite Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen brings a welcome glimpse of heaven before Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit introduces the soprano soloist as a maternal figure who brings comfort to the sorrowful. The taut opening of Denn wir haben keine bleibende Statt gives way to Brahms’s thrilling tone-painting of the resurrection of the dead, marking the Requiem’s dramatic highlight; the ensuing fugue reaches heavenwards by extension of the three-note choral motive that opened and indeed pervades the entire work. Selig sind die Toten may seem anticlimactic despite – or even owing to – its neat symmetry with the first movement. Having depicted the transfiguration that might await us, Brahms seems to return us to where we began – resolutely human – yet offers also a fleeting glimpse of immortality.

Brahm’s choice of texts concerned the conductor Karl Reinthaler, who complained in a letter to the composer that “the central point about which all else turns is missing – namely, redemption through the death of our Lord.” At the Bremen performance, this omission was rectified by the insertion halfway through of the soprano aria ‘I know that my redeemer liveth’ from Handel’s Messiah, a practice that became something of a local tradition. But the natural home of the German Requiem was the concert hall rather than the cathedral. Not content with the limited opportunities for performance occasioned by the work’s massed orchestral and choral demands Brahms, at the request of his publisher, arranged the orchestral score for piano duet. Such arrangements were extremely popular and often provided the only means by which interested amateurs could acquaint themselves with the latest orchestral music from outside the region, and it was in this version that it received its British première 150 years ago at the home of the noted surgeon and polymath Sir Henry Thompson.

Brahms’s arrangements are invariably idiomatic and faithful to the spirit of the score. The piano accompaniment allows for an unsurpassed degree of intimacy, nimbleness, precision, and contrapuntal clarity, and sounds like a completely different score to the original: smaller in scale and less monumental, the music emerges more intimate and personal. The effect is closer to Brahms’ lieder and even his Liebeslieder Waltzes, though in deeply reverent tones. Brahms’s piano arrangement also found favour with choral societies and facilitated international recognition of his music at a time when his name was not sufficiently well known to guarantee the provision of orchestral forces overseas. To perform the work in this manner is thus to follow in a long and distinguished tradition that places pragmatism and the desire to communicate above authenticity for its own sake.