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8.554115 - BRAHMS, J.: Four-Hand Piano Music, Vol. 5 (Matthies, Köhn)

Johannes Brahms (1833 - 1897)

Johannes Brahms (1833 - 1897)

A German Requiem, Op. 45


Johannes Brahms was born in Hamburg in 1833, the son of a double-bass player and his much older wife, a seamstress. His childhood was spent in relative poverty and his early studies in music, for which he showed a natural aptitude, developed his talent to such an extent that there was talk of touring as a prodigy at the age of eleven. It was Eduard Marxsen who gave him a grounding in the technical basis of composition, while the boy helped his family by playing the piano in dockside taverns.


In 1853 Brahms set out with the Hungarian-born violinist Remenyi on his first concert tour. Their journey took them, on the advice of the young Hungarian virtuoso Joachim, to Weimar to visit Liszt. More importantly, however, Brahms was able through Joachim to meet Schumann in Dusseldorf. The meeting was a fruitful one, leading Schumann to hail him publicly as the successor to Beethoven. In the years of Schumann's illness and after his death in 1856, Brahms was to establish a mutually supportive relationship with Schumann's wife Clara, one of the greatest pianists of the time.


Brahms had always hoped that sooner or later he would be able to return in triumph to a position of distinction in the musical life of Hamburg. This ambition was never fulfilled. Instead he settled in Vienna, internlittently from 1863 and definitively in 1869. To many he seemed to fulfil Schumann's early prophecy as the perceived champion of music untrammelled by extra-musical associations, as opposed to the Music of the Future promoted by Wagner and Liszt, to which Joachim and Brahms both later publicly expressed their opposition.


Brahms had a varied connection with choral singing. In short autumn seasons at the court of Oetmold he had conducted a choir in 1857, 1858 and 1859. In the last of these years he had established in Hamburg a women's choir, the Hamburg Frauenchor, formed by enthusiastic members of the Akadernie choir directed by his friend Karl Gradener In addition to the regular Monday morning meetings of the larger Frauenchor, Brahms also involved himself with a smaller group, who held evening meetings, His first appointment in Vienna, in 1863, was as conductor of the Singakademie, reviving the fortunes of the choir in a repertoire that ranged from unfashionable music of the Renaissance to that of Beethoven and Schumann and compositions by Brahms himself. He was offered a three-year extension of his agreement with the Singakademie, but resigned in 1864. Nevertheless, in 1872 he took up the position of director of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde, working with the most distinguished of the large choirs in Vienna. For three seasons he was able to offer a varied and innovative choral and orchestral repertoire, including some of his own major choral compositions, most notably his masterpiece, A German Requiem.


The immediate cause of the composition of the Requiem was the death in January 1865 of Brahms's mother at the age of 76. By April he had written two movements for chorus and orchestra that were to be the first and fourth of the completed work. These he sent to Clara Schumann, asking her not to show them yet to Joachim. He also asked for her approval of the texts he chose for the rest of the work. In this choice Brahms carefully avoided anything overtly Christian, suggesting that even the word 'German' in the title would be better replaced by 'Human'. The work has nothing in common with the Latin Requiem Mass. It draws, instead, on that essential cultural document, Luther's Bible, following a tradition stemming from Schutz and continuing with Bach in his so-called Actus tragicus, the funeral cantata Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit (God's time is the best time), Three movements of the completed work were heard in Vienna in 1867, to be greeted, after a poor performance, by some hostility. A full first performance, however, was arranged for Bremen Cathedral the following year, to take place on Good Friday. Here it won immediate success before an audience that included many of the composer's friends, including Clara Schumann and the Joachims, with a choir that included members of Braluns's old choir in Hamburg. In preparing the work for publication Braluns added another movement, the soprano solo Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit, now fifth of the seven movements. There was soon a further performance in Bremen and other performances elsewhere in Europe over the following years, with the first London performance in 1869 replacing the orchestra with an accompaniment for piano duet.


The four-hand piano version of the Requiem deserves attention in itself and serves as much more than a mere reminder of the work in its choral and orchestral form, revealing the structure and grandeur of a work that is central to Brahms's achievement. The first choral movement sets words from the Beatitudes, taken from the Gospel of St Matthew and its parallel text in the Psalms, bringing comfort to those that mourn. The thematic material suggests Wer nur den lieben Gott lasst walten (Who resigns his will to God), a chorale that Brahms is reported to have claimed underlay the whole work, in which serene resignation to God's will and the resulting spirit of consolation is pervasive. The opening chorus leads to the march-like second movement, modulating from B flat minor to major and setting texts from the Epistles of St Peter and St James, both quoting the Prophet Isaiah on the frailty of humanity. The principal theme is said to have been conceived for the slow scherzo of an early symphony, the source of the later Piano Cancerto in D minor. The funeral march is followed by the baritone solo of the third movement, setting words from the Psalms and the Wisdom of Solomon, in a mood of submission to the divine will. The movement ends with a fugue over a tonic pedal, to the words Der Gerechten Seelen sind in Gottes Hand (The souls of the righteous are in the hands of God). Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen (How lovely are thy dwellings), an E flat major choral setting of a Psalm text, breathes consolation, while the soprano solo of the G major Ihr habt nun traurigkeit (And ye now therefore have sorrow), from the Gospel of St John,

Ecclesiasticus and Isaiah, continues this gentle mood. Modulating from C minor to major, the Pauline Denn wie haben hie keine bleibende Stall (For here we have no continuing city), with its baritone solo, reaches a dramatic climax at the words Denn es wird die Posaune schallen (Then the trumpet shall sound), heralding not the day of judgement but the day of resurrection. The movement ends with a fugue. The original key of F major is restored in the final choral Selig sind die Todten (Blessed are the dead), with its reference to the first movement, in an apotheosis of the chorale.


Keith Anderson




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