Brahms – Ein Deutsches Requiem

by Max Derrickson

Johannes Brahms  (b. Hamburg 1833; d. Vienna 1897)

Ein Deutsches Requiem

It is unclear where Johannes Brahms (b. Hamburg1833; d. Vienna1897) got the extraordinary idea of composing a non-liturgical requiem. Precedence for the piece had long been established in the Roman Catholic Church as a Mass for the Dead. Many composers had composed requiems outside of the church’s confines, but had kept the sacred structure and liturgy mostly intact. Brahms, however, conceived a requiem which was intentionally not connected to any church influence. He chose the text from scripture taken from the Luthur translation of the Bible (i.e. not Latin ), and selected excerpts which avoided references to “Jesus” and “Christ”. To avoid still any further connection with the church, he entitled it Ein Deutsches Requiem  (A German Requiem). It is a piece dedicated to the suffering of the bereaved, a consolation for Humanity as much as a prayer for the dead.

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I. Chorus

Brahms set the text of this first movement, “Blessed are they that mourn…” in a darkly somber tone, omitting the violins, clarinets, and piccolo. As the violas, cellos, and basses solemnly play a sighing opening melody, we hear a three note cell that will be used throughout the entire work as a unifying motif. Interesting to note, and very rare for Brahms, is the use of the harp in the first and several additional movements of the work. Though solemn, the music expresses a sweetness veiled by mourning, as the text will show.

Blessed are they that mourn
for they shall be comforted.
Matthew 5:4

They that sow in tears
shall reap in joy.
They go forth and weep,
and bear precious seed,
and come again with rejoicing,
and bring their sheaves with them.
Psalms 126:5-6

II. Chorus

The longest movement of the work, “Denn alles Fleisch es ist wie Gras…” (For all flesh is as grass) beckons to the grim march of death, with the low registers introducing the theme and the funeral drums, and because it is in triple meter, it also implies a dance of death. [. . .]

[. . .]

VII. Chorus

This final movement recalls the proceedings of the first, but bathed in a new light. The basses and cellos utter a similar motif to that of the opening in the first movement, but here the music is more fluid, and the violins reinstated. Here also, the work of consolation for the bereaved is also done, and Brahms chooses text meant to comfort those who have died and look to their eternal rest (“Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord”). The closing section, set to new text, is very reminiscent of the themes of the first. The vocal and musical setting proclaims the final redemption, but one of comfort and quiet glory, in a way that recalls the bereaving of the living at a distance, as a dream remembered. The harp plucks teardrops into the hushed and beautiful eternity. The dead are remembered forever.

Blessed are the dead which die in
the Lord from henceforth:
Yea, saith the Spirit, that they
may rest from their labors;
and their works do follow them.
Revelations 14:13