This Friday and Saturday night at TPAC, the Nashville Symphony Chorus will join the Nashville Symphony to perform A German Requiem by Johannes Brahms. Baritone Daniel Mobbs and soprano Nancy Davis Booth, both experienced and accomplished performers, will be featured soloists. This is the music that made Brahms an international name, turning him from a composer with a local and disputed reputation into the third “B,” after Bach and Beethoven. Despite changing fashions in musical taste, Ein deutsches Requiem has securely held its eminent place for 130 years.
This music is a “classic,” but to say so begs a crucial question: It is hard to know anymore how “classic” will fit into a particular ear. Used carefully, the term has two primary sensesand both apply to this Requiem. The first has to do with accurate execution, although Brahms obviously no longer has any say in that; his destiny is in other people’s hands. The second has to do with conception. But there too, his destiny is in other hands. In the same way that browser programs present the World Wide Web differently, readers of Brahms’ score render the same piece of music in different ways. The conception is certainly religious, but it is not parochial.
Given its first full performance in Bremen Cathedral on Good Friday, 1868, Ein deutsches Requiem evokes the tradition of Roman Catholic Requiem Masses reaching from Ockeghem in the 15th century to Duruflé in the 20th. But it reforms that tradition, as Martin Luther did the church. This Requiem is in German, not in Latin. It does not focus on rest for the departed, petitioned by troubled survivors; it focuses on comfort for survivors bereft of the departed.
What’s more, though the texts are biblical texts, chosen by Brahms from Martin Luther’s strenuously poetic German translation, what the Requiem affirms, and how it affirms, are not comfortably Christian. The first text, from the Gospel of Matthew, says, “Blessed are the sorrowful, for they shall be comforted.” The last text, from the Book of Revelation, says, “Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord.” The texts in between face squarely the inevitability of grief before affirming the confident hope that “the dead shall be raised incorruptible.” But for Brahms, the question of how the dead shall be raised has, from the outset, been moot. The texts allowbut certainly do not demanda fundamentalist reading. Brahms was, for the record, baptized and confirmed as a Lutheran.
He resisted, however, being seen as a meekly “correct” Lutheran. As his selections of texts reveal, Brahms knew the Bible very well indeed. But he valued itin Luther’s German, which even today holds a place like that of the King James version in Englishas a literary repository of universal human experience and wisdom. Carl Martin Reinthaler, organist at Bremen Cathedral, who arranged this first performance, asked Brahms to amend his work to make it clearly orthodoxand Brahms refused. He wanted nothing to do, he said, with John 3:16. Accordingly, Reinthaler supplemented the Requiem with the unmistakably Easterly aria from Handel’s Messiah, “I Know That My Redeemer Liveth.” (In this weekend’s performance, serving a similar purpose, two compositions will comprise the first half of the evening: the “Easter Festival Overture” by Rimsky-Korsakov, and one movement from L’Ascension by Messaien.) Yet undeniably, Ein deutsches Requiem is powerfully affirmativein the way Oedipus Rex is, and King Lear is; though tragic works, they body forth a creative energy that affirms one of Christ’s own sayings: “Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit.” (John 12:24)
Quickening the listener’s imagination is Brahms’ special sound, which fluidly fuses classical lucidity, baroque intricacy, and Romantic expressiveness. This sound is best compared to a grand, harmonious mansion comprised of seven halls, each having its own character. Yet each part of the whole is a permutation of certain simple shapessteps, planes, arches. In a sense, Ein deutsches Requiem is the musical equivalent of Bremen Cathedral, the architectural wonder where the work was premiered.
In the first hall, orchestra and choir sing, “Blessed are the sorrowful, for they shall be comforted.” In the second, choir and orchestra sing that all flesh withers like grass, but seed, patiently husbanded, brings forth fruitand this process itself is the Word of the Lord that stands forever.
And so the music proceeds through this grand construction: In the third hall, an anxious baritone soloist prays for wisdom and patience to accept that his life must end. In the fourth, choir and orchestra sing, “My soul and body rejoice in the living God.” In the fifth, a female(!) soprano soloist sings words that in John’s Gospel are spoken by Christ about to be crucified: “You now have sorrow, but...I will comfort you, as a mother comforts a child.” In the sixth, the baritone, along with the choir and orchestra, triumphantly proclaims, “Death is swallowed up in victory.... Lord, you are worthy to receive praise and glory and power.”
The seventh hall leads back to the first, bearing out the structural brilliance of Brahms’ creation. Here, the choir and orchestra serenely affirm, “Blessed are the dead...they rest from their labors, and their works are their disciples.”
Critics, some in tweed, some in jeans, have for more than a century growled at one another over the correct interpretation of the score. But none of them denies the power of the music encoded there. Johannes Brahms himself is raised from the dead, superbly alive, so long as this music can be brought to life.
The score allows some interpretive latitudethe slow, sustained resonance of Sir George Solti; the quicker, crisper dance of Roger Norrington. And today’s recording technology permits us to try the whole range. But a recordingI have said this beforedoes not resonate as a live performance does, even in a poor hall. Don’t miss this rare chance to revitalize your ears.
Of course, we have to wait to hear how the music will actually sound this coming weekend. But even imperfectly realized, Ein deutsches Requiem has the power to make listeners feel that they are indeed, in the final words of the final chorus, selig, seligblessed.
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