Spring 2019 concert notes

Johannes Brahms      1833–1897       

            A German Requiem (Ein deutsches Requiem), Op. 45

            Tragic Overture (Tragische Ouvertüre), Op. 81

 

The Requiem Mass, or Missa pro defunctis (Mass for the dead), is a Roman Catholic liturgical offering for the souls of the departed. Many great composers such as Mozart, Berlioz, Dvořák, Britten, Fauré, and Durufl é, to name a few, have contributed to a long and rich history of the genre. Over time the Requiem Mass evolved from its liturgical inception into a dramatic and operatic oratorio meant more for the concert hall than the church. Johannes Brahms’s addition to the genre further expanded these boundaries, and his interpretation of the Requiem setting launched his international career and secured him a title as one of the “greats.”

 

Though considered a traditionalist by his contemporaries for his study and emulation of Baroque- and Classical-era composers (J. S. Bach in particular), Brahms’s Requiem shattered convention. Rather than setting the customary Latin text,  Brahmsemployed passages from the German Lutheran Bible that explore the human experience of living with death as  one left behind — mourning, confronting humanity's mortality, and finding hope and assurance in spiritual perpetuity. Regarding the title Ein deutsches Requiem (A German Requiem), Brahms  commented : “I will admit that I could happily omit the ‘German ’ and simply say ‘ Human’.’’

 

The Requiem was not a commissioned work, but composed in remembrance of two individuals of great importance to Brahms. Robert Schumann, a dear mentor and champion of young Brahms’s talent, had written in his notes an idea for a “German Requiem.” Whether the idea was discussed in person or found amongst his documents later, Schumann’s death in 1856 may have inspired the initial idea for the work. The final motivation to put the idea to paper would be his mother’s passing in 1865. Although Brahms rushed to her side when he received news that she had fallen ill, he did not arrive in time to see her before she died. He set to work on the Requiem in the years following.

 

Revealed in segments, the first three movements of the Requiem were premiered in Vienna in December 1867 and received mixed reactions. The second public presentation, at this time a work of six movements, took place in Bremen Cathedral on Good Friday in 1868, and was met with resounding success. The first complete premiere took place at the Leipzig Gewandhaus in 1869, with the inclusion of movement 5, Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit (“You now must have sorrow”). This final addition was undoubtedly inspired by his mother. The only movement scored for soprano soloist, the chorus takes a supportive role beneath her as it sings, “Ich will euch trösten, wie einen seine Mutter tröstet” (“I will comfort you, as one whom his mother comforts”).

 

The orchestration of the work shows Brahms’s great attention to all the textures and colors available to him. Movement 1opens with low strings, which sets a comforting tone for the chorus’s a cappellaentrance on the text “Selig sind, die da Leid tragen” (“Blessed are they that mourn”). The rest of the movement is scored without upper strings, featuring instead the warmth and consolatory tone of the violas, cellos, and contrabasses. Movement 2 opens with a funeral march, anticipating our departure from this world (“Denn alles Fleisch es ist wie Gras”/ “For all flesh is as the grass”). Journeying beyond the worry of our fleeting nature, Brahms concludes this movement with a joyous contrapuntal section introduced by the basses (“Die Erlöseten des Herrn” / “The redeemed of the Lord”), and ends with exultant shouts of “ewige Freude” (“eternal joy”). Movements 3 and 6 also begin with heavy content (“Lord, teach me that I must have an end” and “For we here have no continuing place”), yet the state of mind develops musically and culminates in major fugues. Each statement of the fugal subjects compl ementsthe textual consolation of and reassurance in God. Movement 4, the middle movement and a turning point of the piece, brings us to heaven with long, sweeping phrases (“Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen” / “How lovely are thy dwelling places”). Until this moment the focus of the text has been on the living; in the following movements, the text assures the resting peace of the departed. In the end, movement 7, Brahms repeats the motivic material from the opening movement, this time blessing the dead. He leaves us just as softly as he began: Selig, selig, selig.

 

***

 

Eloquent in many other genres, Brahms wrote works for symphony orchestra, chamber ensembles, solo piano, vocal quartets, organ, and chorus (both accompanied and unaccompanied). In 1880, Brahms composed a pair of orchestral overtures. The Academic Overture (Op. 80)offered in appreciation for the honorary doctorate degree the University of Breslau had bestowed upon him the previous year, exudes pomp, circumstance, and gaiety. The Tragic Overture (Op. 81), turbulent and ominous, was composed to contrast with its jovial partner. Brahms commented, “One of them weeps, the other laughs,” perhaps an intentional reflection on the Greek tradition of partnering the performance of a tragedy with a comedy.

 

Whether the Tragic Overture wascomposed with a specific tragedy in mind or as a general expression of the spirit of drama, Brahms renders a tempestuous image right from the opening chords. Unison strings declare our solemn main theme in D minor over a trembling timpani, quickly followed by a dotted rhythm intoning a more vigorous mood. The triplet motive concludes the statement of all major musical material that Brahms further develops throughout the overture.

 

— JULIA MORRIS, Assistant Conductor