About this Recording
8.573952 - BRAHMS, J.: Deutsches Requiem (Ein) (1871 London version) (Sung in English) (Areyzaga, H. Russell, Bella Voce, A. Lewis)
English 

Johannes Brahms (1833–1897)
Ein deutsches Requiem (‘A German Requiem’), Op. 45 (1871 London Version)

 

On 1 October 1853, Johannes Brahms—20, fresh-faced Photo: Simon Pauly and practically unknown beyond his home town of Hamburg—met Robert and Clara Schumann. He had come at the recommendation of a mutual friend, the violinist and composer Joseph Joachim, and was warmly welcomed into the Schumann home and asked to play some of the compositions he had brought. The Schumanns’ reaction to this first encounter is encapsulated in Robert’s diary entry that evening: ‘Visit from Brahms—a genius.’ Convinced that this young North German would be the man to ‘give expression to the times in the highest and most ideal manner’, Robert wrote an article just a few weeks later in the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, introducing Brahms to the musical world at large in the grandest terms. He predicted, furthermore, that ‘when once he lowers his magic wand over the massed resources of chorus and orchestra, we shall have in store for us wonderful insights into the secret of the spiritual world.’

Brahms himself, dizzy from such adulation and naturally fiercely self-critical, was ambivalent about Robert’s publication. He wrote shortly afterwards to thank the Schumanns (for it was thanks to their intervention that he now saw his first compositions into print), but added that above all, Robert’s piece—and his praise—‘will compel me to exercise the greatest caution in my choice of pieces for publication … You will naturally understand that I am straining every nerve to bring as little as possible disgrace to you.’

It was in the field of large-scale music most of all that Brahms came to struggle, over many decades, to reach a level of brilliance that he considered worthy of publication. His First Symphony was only premiered in 1876, over 20 years into his career—and over 20 years since his first attempt at writing in this form, prompted by Robert’s article, in 1854. In fact it was through choral music that the young composer was to learn his craft and make his way to the city which finally became his home: Vienna.

Brahms arrived in the Austrian Imperial capital in 1862 to take up the conductorship of the Singakademie. By this time he already had experience of conducting and writing music for several choirs, and had become particularly fascinated in the choral music of the 16th to 18th centuries. Consequently, he programmed music by Bach, Handel and then-obscure Renaissance repertoire at the Singakademie, which the singers found difficult and the audiences and critics baffling. It was far from standard fare, and after a year, Brahms resigned the post. Still, his own choral compositions had gradually moved from an almost pastiche Renaissance style towards a fully mature, Romantic approach which incorporated all manner of techniques from his older models. These were to bear fruit in 1865, when he began work on a large-scale piece for choir, soloists and orchestra. This piece was Ein deutsches Requiem.

The Requiem is not, despite the second part of its title, a mass for the dead in the traditional sense: it does not set liturgy, and is not in Latin. Instead Brahms chose to pull together sections of the New and Old Testaments and the Apocrypha in Luther’s translation: a work in the vernacular for his singers and listeners, and a highly personal statement. Strikingly, Christ’s name is not mentioned in any of the sections Brahms chooses, and overall one is left with the feeling that this piece is far more a message of consolation for the living, and acceptance of mortality, than the desperate imploring for the souls of the dead with which the Latin Requiem Mass is concerned. The unusual text and the slanting of its subject matter raised eyebrows at the time. When the first performance of the piece was planned in Bremen Cathedral on Good Friday, the cathedral authorities announced that it was not sufficiently ‘geistlich’ (‘sacred’) to constitute the entire programme, and other pieces had to be added—excerpts from Bach’s St Matthew Passion and Handel’s Messiah to bring it up to standard! After that first performance in Bremen—given without the soprano movement, which was added later—Clara Schumann wrote in her diary, ‘As I saw Johannes standing there, baton in hand, I could not help thinking of my dear Robert’s prophecy, “Let him but once grasp his magic wand and work with orchestra and chorus”, which is fulfilled today. The baton was really a magic wand and its spell was upon all present.’

The first performance of the complete work was given in Leipzig on 18 February 1869. Two years later, Ein deutsches Requiem was first performed in Britain. This time, the format was not a grand concert with large chorus and orchestra (that had to wait until 1873). Instead, the performance took place in a private home on Wimpole Street, in central London, at the home of the composer pianist Kate Loder. It featured a choir of around 30 voices, a solo soprano and baritone, and a piano duet pairing of Loder and Cipriani Potter.

Brahms had arranged the Requiem, as was quite usual with large-scale works, for piano duet. This had been published in 1869, with the chorus cues written into the texture of the pianists’ four hands. On 7 July 1871, in that house on Wimpole Street, Brahms’s duet score was judiciously doctored by the baritone Julius Stockhausen, long-time collaborator of the composer and the soloist at the Bremen Cathedral performance. The duet score was edited to remove the vocal doublings, so that the pianists would simply provide accompaniment to the singers present.

This recording follows a similar practice. Furthermore, the performance is given here not in German, but in English—as it was, in fact, at the first public performance in Britain in 1873. The translation, prepared by Lara Hoggard, is heavily based on the King James Bible. No doubt Brahms would have approved of the notion of performing in the audience’s vernacular, since he famously remarked that ‘I confess that I would gladly omit even the word German and simply put Human’.

The Requiem is in seven movements, with key architectural pillars at the outer points and middle. The opening movement, Blest are they who are sorrowful, is a gently consolatory choral number in which the mourners are told that they shall be comforted. The opening vocal lines weave and intertwine like Renaissance counterpoint, but in a distinctly Brahmsian idiom. This music returns at the piece’s conclusion, in Blessed are the dead, bringing the work to a close in a peaceful F major. At the centre of the Requiem sits How lovely are Thy dwellings, warm and impassioned, and frequently extracted as an anthem for church use. The second movement, which contains the oldest music of the piece, is a grim funeral march—but with three, rather than four, beats to the bar. This is followed by the third movement, the first appearance of the baritone soloist, though the bleak opening message eventually resolves into a mighty choral fugue over a D major pedal, But the righteous souls are in the hand of God. The baritone returns in the sixth movement in a thrilling struggle against death and hell, and the sounding of the last trump. The fifth movement, the last to be added in performance, introduces a soprano soloist and features the text ‘I will give you comfort, as one whom his own mother comforts’. Brahms’s mother had died shortly after he began work on the piece; Clara Schumann remarked that ‘we all think he wrote it in her memory though he has never expressly said so.’ However, in later life, Brahms did admit to it being a Requiem written with one person in mind, at least: Robert Schumann, whose words had first welcomed him to the musical world at large over 30 years before.

Katy Hamilton

The Performer’s Perspective

Johannes Brahms insisted that he could just as easily have called his Ein deutsches Requiem ein menschliches Requiem’. A truly ‘human’ Requiem—especially one of the Romantic mould—would not set up but rather tear down barriers to immediate comprehension. Brahms clearly expected performances in England to be sung in English. In a letter to his publisher, who was trying to get the Requiem translated into Latin, Brahms replied, ‘why then is it called a German Requiem? Who needs the Latin text, and where do you plan to get it from? For it cannot simply be translated at will, fits with difficulty under the same notes, etc. etc. The English, on the other hand, fits easily.’ In another instance Brahms wrote, ‘In Holland everything is sung in German. France is not under consideration. That leaves only England and an English text, which would do quite well, certainly, and in any case already fits of its own.’ The text in this version is a thoroughly researched, much revised and edited version by Lara Hoggard that fits the notes, declamation, and prosodic underlay of the original German while maintaining a King James and Spenserian/Elizabethan idiom, itself contemporaneous with Luther’s translation of the Bible. There are very few commercially available recordings of A German Requiem sung in English. We here remedy that situation.

Additionally, the piano four-hands accompaniment is not a reduction of the work but rather a creative reinterpretation done by Brahms himself, a task normally left to arrangers working directly for the publisher. As such, the fourth movement loosely resembles the Liebeslieder Walzer, Op. 52. With a chamber chorus of professional musicians what arises from this version is intimacy and clarity, and also a lean, muscular, and expressive power.

Andrew Lewis


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