About this Recording
8.574273 - BRAHMS, J.: German Requiem (A) (Gansch, Winckhler, Mainz Bach Choir, German Radio Saarbr├╝cken-Kaiserslautern Philharmonic, Otto)
English  German 

Johannes Brahms (1833–1897)
Ein deutsches Requiem


Comfort for my sadness

‘Should he lower his magic wand down to where the masses, in choir and orchestra, lend him their powers, we’ll be looking forward to even more wonderful insights into the spirit world.’ With these enthusiastic words Robert Schumann introduced the 20-year-old Johannes Brahms to the musically inclined wider public as the upcoming composer of his day and age in an article entitled Neue Bahnen, published on 28 October 1853 in the magazine Neue Zeitschrift für Musik.

Even today Schumann’s prophecy can still amaze us. For him, Brahms’ potential was mainly in the field of choral symphonies. The works Brahms had composed and premiered until then comprised many different genres, but he could not make his breakthrough with any of them as a composer. However, the premiere of his German Requiem in 1868 caused such a sensation that worldwide everybody was talking about Brahms, and he virtually became famous overnight.

Brahms’ Requiem as a memorial to Schumann

Brahms already had the first ideas to compose a ‘cantata of grief’ long before his mother’s death in 1865. Maybe this project was inspired by the tragic death of his admired friend and supporter Robert Schumann in 1856, who might have told him about his own plans for a German requiem. As Brahms most probably knew about Schumann’s idea to compose a work of the same title, the view that A German Requiem can (also) be considered as a memorial to Robert Schumann can hardly be denied. However, interpreting the melodics of the second movement as a compositional elaboration of Schumann’s song Anfangs wollt’ ich fast verzagen (from Robert Schumann’s Liederkreis, Op. 24, on poems by Heinrich Heine) that is based on various similarities—from the interval steps to the dotted notes—is quite surprising.

Quite late, in the run-up to the Schumann festival in Bonn in 1873, Brahms tried his best to get the Requiem performed with himself as conductor (which fell through). When talking to the festival organiser Joseph Joachim about his respective commitment, Brahms pointed out that he should know ‘how especially a piece like the Requiem is intimately linked with Schumann so that, deep down, it must also be obvious to me that it be sung for him.’

In her diary entry (April 1868) after the premiere of Brahms’ Requiem, Clara Schumann says more or less the same thing (using Robert Schumann’s words): ‘This requiem moved me in a way church music never did before … When I saw Johannes standing there with the baton in his hand I always had to think of my dear Robert’s prophecy … which came true today. The baton really became a magic wand and enthralled everyone, even his fiercest enemies.’

The process of composing as grieving and consolation

The German Requiem is intimately linked with Robert Schumann. Another important influence is loss—the pain of separation and the break-up of relationships—experiences that characterise the years between 1862 and 1865 when Brahms created this work. He had to part with his ambition to become a conductor, his ideal of marriage and his beloved home town of Hamburg; he was confronted with the break-up of his parents’ marriage and his longing for love being unfulfilled, and finally he lost his friend and supporter Schumann and his mother.

Brahms’ own remarks after finishing his composition might give us an idea of how profoundly his need for comfort must have influenced the creation and form of his work: ‘I have now found consolation! I have overcome what I thought I would never be able to overcome. Now, I am like an eagle that can fly higher and higher’ (1866). Soon afterwards and in quite a similar way Brahms explains that grieving, i.e. ‘composing the German Requiem’ helped him recover from all those immense psychological strains: ‘I have now cast off my grief, it has been taken from me; I have finished my music of grief as a blessing of the suffering. I have now found consolation and made it a sign for those that mourn’ (1867).

Theology and Pathos

With regards to the sung texts, Brahms informed the conductor of the Bremen performance, Karl Reinthaler, that he ‘chose some of them because I am a musician, because I needed them’ (letter from 9 October 1867), which suggests that when making his choice music took priority over the text. But what is more, the selected texts also include two other elements: the topic of consolation covers theological aspects whereas pathos finds expression on a more emotional literary level.

Where blessing the suffering (movement I) and the corresponding blessing of the dead (movement VII) are concerned, Brahms sets quotations to music which are central to Protestant piety and provide those suffering with consolation and words of comfort from different theological perspectives. The topics referring to theology are transitoriness and redemption, the parable of the mustard seed, the raising of the dead, grief and joy, eternal peace and the beatific vision of God.

Beyond the expression of sorrow and pain the music also expresses enthusiasm and solemnity in the sense of pathos, as a request and invitation to ‘feel empathy’. The topic of sorrow and pain is never presented as a lament but rather as a statement of facts. Nearly all the texts Brahms chooses are characterised by a ‘though—but’ argumentation: though ‘they sow in tears, they shall reap in joy’ (movement I), ‘all flesh is like grass, but be patient, the Lord’s word endures for eternity’ (movement II), though ‘my life must have an end, the righteous souls are in God’s hand’ (movement III), ‘you now have sorrow, but I shall see you again and your heart shall rejoice’ (movement V), though ‘here we have no lasting place, we all shall be changed’ (movement VI).

This choice of texts is testament to the composer’s extensive knowledge of the Bible but also shows Brahms’ tendency to objectify the sorrow and pain he himself had suffered. He does not embed sorrow and pain in a theological context alone but also in the pathos concept of occidental cultural history, which provides a broader basis for identification than the strictly religious one.

This humanitarian piety, which is typical of the 19th century, is based on the Bible but nevertheless maintains a certain distance from the church. This gives Brahms’ Requiem a universal character as the basis for tremendous success.

A patchwork genesis

Already the first texts indicate that—despite its later title—the composition, originally planned as a cantata of grief, would be no requiem in the terms of Catholic liturgy. Movement II, For all flesh it is like grass, has to be considered as the first one to be composed and is probably based on the slow scherzo of Brahms’ Sonata for 2 Pianos (1854) that he drafted in the year of Robert Schumann’s attempted suicide. In 1861 Brahms wrote down the list of texts he chose for the German Requiem on the back of the fourth song of his Magelone Romances, Op. 33 (with the exception of movement V) together with remarks referring to the scale and keys of the first two movements. Movements I and II (without end) were probably finished by this time.

After that Brahms obviously stopped working on A German Requiem for quite some years. His mother’s death in February 1865 and the imminent 10th anniversary of Schumann’s death might have prompted him to resume work on the project. In April 1865 he sent movement IV of the composition to Clara Schumann to get her expert advice. Movement III was probably composed during Brahms’ prolonged stay with his friend, the photographer Julius Allgeyer, in Karlsruhe. Movements VI and VII were probably written in Lichtenthal (near Baden-Baden) and / or Winterthur in the summer of 1866. Today’s movement V did not exist right from the start but was composed in May 1868 and only added to the work after several performances.


Movements I to III of the German Requiem (more was deemed to be ‘not acceptable’ to the audience!) were prepremiered in a concert organised by the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Vienna at the beginning of December 1867—a complete failure. On the occasion of the ‘premiere’ at Bremen Cathedral on (Good Friday) 10 April 1868, the work was still not presented in its final version, for the later movement V was missing. Instead Brahms inserted a series of works by Bach, Handel, Tartini and Schumann between the movements, probably as a reaction to the text compilation being criticised for lacking the Christological dimension. This makes it a composition whose form we nowadays find a bit strange: though text and music revolve round consolation and comfort, the work does not present a cohesive and homogeneous whole from a strictly musical point of view. Programme for the concert on 10 April 1868

1) A German Requiem, Part I (Movements I–III)
According to words from the Holy Scriptures for solo, choir and orchestra composed by Johannes Brahms, performed for the first time and conducted by the composer himself.
The solo is sung by Mr Julius Stockhausen.
Organ part: Mr L. Rakemann.
Harp parts: Mr Gerstenberger from Kassel, Mr Freigang from Petersburg.

After Part I of the Requiem, solo recital by Mr J[oseph] Joachim.
Andante by J.S. Bach,
Andante by Tartini and
Abendlied (‘Evening Song’) by Schumann.

2) Aria from S. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion for an alto with violin solo and orchestral accompaniment, performed by Mr and Mrs Joachim. [Erbarme Dich (Have mercy) …]

3) Aria from Handel’s Messiah:
Chorus: Behold the Lamb of God
Aria: I know that my Redeemer liveth. Mrs Joachim
Chorus: ‘Hallelujah.’

4) A German Requiem, Part II [movements IV, VI and VII]

Movement V which was composed later and distinctly refers to being comforted by a mother. It was first presented on the occasion of a private performance at the Musiksaal beim Fraumünster in Zurich on 17 September 1868. Friedrich Hegar conducted the choir and orchestra of the Tonhallegesellschaft Zürich from the manuscript. The complete German Requiem was premiered at the 17th subscription concert at the Gewandhaus Leipzig on 18 February 1869, conducted by Carl Reinecke.

Musical form

The fact that Brahms draws on church music styles dating back to the Renaissance and Baroque period (for instance as regards choral techniques) properly acknowledges the dignity of the texts, and the same goes for the pieces by other composers that were added for the premiere. Brahms’ ‘referring to the past’ in this way is not just a copying of handed-down styles but reflects his conviction that in tradition is hidden all that is real and true. That is why Brahms uses old, traditional styles to create ‘long-lasting music’ and thus timeless works.

The final version shows the mirror image, symmetrical structure of the work, with the fourth movement as the axis. The fact that the composition is built around a musical and thematic centre makes it, as regards its overall form, an integrated whole. Movements I and VII—the texts as well as the music with the ascending threenote ‘blessed motif’—give the composition its frame. The ‘blessed motif’ recurs in nearly all movements in various forms and serves as a central motif: it occurs for the first time in movement I (which is dominated by choral elements), vitalises the whole composition in its progression and contributes to making A German Requiem a homogeneous and integrated whole.

In movements II and VI the transitoriness of everything alive is lamented and the eternal metamorphosis of that which has being is praised (II. For all flesh it is like grass, VI. For here we have no lasting place). The steady basic rhythm of movement II, which is reminiscent of a solemn procession and evokes associations of a funeral march, corresponds with the setting of the text at the beginning of movement VI.

The third and fifth movements, whose texts deal with the experience of mortality, human grief and God’s comforting words (III. Lord, teach me and V. You now have sorrow), are each impressive dialogues between choir and soloist (baritone or soprano). These musical monologues are intimately linked with Brahms’ song ideal, i.e. strictly text-oriented, smooth and inherently consistent melodies on the one hand and ritornello-like preludes and postludes on the other hand—an ideal which characterises nearly all movements of the Requiem more or less distinctly.

Sound design

Apart from the complex genesis of Brahms’ German Requiem several other components indicate that the composer had the urgent wish to create an extraordinary sound design that was based on much more than just historical composition techniques. In 1871, for instance, a version of the composition was performed in London for which Brahms had arranged the orchestral setting for piano four-hands that leaves much more scope for the dynamism of the choir.

It seems that right from the start the composer had an elaborate sound design in mind that went far beyond the use of rather unusual instruments (the two harps, for example): it is especially the instrumental parts for contrabassoon and organ that Brahms regarded as essential, even though their parts have the indication ‘ad libitum’, i.e., Brahms left their actual execution to the interpreter’s discretion. That is why—up to now—both instruments have been left out in most performances and recordings. However, the new recording presented here features both instruments!

The score of the first print does not include the parts of organ and contrabassoon. The organ part that Brahms had composed himself could already be heard in the Bremen ‘premiere’ but was just attached to the score. In the score of the first complete edition of Brahms’ works (1927 by Eusebius Mandyczewski), however, the organ part was integrated into the notation. Brahms’ personal copy of the score has the instruction to specifically highlight the contrabassoon part. This was put into practice in concerts in Vienna that Brahms conducted himself. Both contrabassoon and organ definitely featured in the performances at the Großer Musikvereinssaal on 28 February 1875, at the Vienna Hofoper on 2 November 1879 and most probably also in the concert repeated on 3 November 1879.

In most of the movements—and specifically almost throughout movement I—it is essential that the pedal of the organ is used. The sometimes subtly notated chordal sections intensify the recurring passages and are thus (for example in movement II in connection with the words ‘For all flesh it is like grass’) strictly word-related. The fulltoned sound of the organ is also given a vital role in the colla parte accompaniment of the fugue in movement III (‘The righteous’ souls are in God’s hand …’); in movement V the organ remains completely silent. Apart from using the ‘king of instruments’ for intensifying the tone colours of the bass register, Brahms generally uses this instrument for cadenzas and the finale, which creates a ‘sacred aura’ and might therefore have been particularly important for Brahms.

Also the contrabassoon (not featuring in movements IV and V) enormously contributes to intensifying the tone colours of the deep sound register. The fact that organ and contrabassoon enrich the instrumental setting and thus the expressiveness of the work’s tonal dimension is certainly an argument for not leaving out these two instruments.


The work’s message and promise of consolation and comfort is reflected throughout the composition on different levels. Referring to the title of the work, A German Requiem, Brahms wrote to Karl Reinthaler in a letter dated 9 October 1867: ‘I admit that I’d rather leave out “German” and simply replace it by “human”.’ Among other things it is exactly this ‘human’ dimension that might explain why Brahms’ German Requiem (apart from Handel’s Messiah) was performed much more often in the German-speaking world between 1869 and 1914 than, for instance, Bach’s two passions put together.

Without a doubt, A German Requiem is an interdenominational work of remembrance and contemplation, of consolation and comfort, which emotionally deeply affects the listener—an experience that no analysis can really put into words. Brahms’ friend, the poet Klaus Groth, told the composer in a letter from 9 April 1880 about the releasing effect of crying after attending a performance in Hamburg: ‘I just wanted to tell you about my impressions of your great and wonderful masterpiece. I am not ashamed to admit that from time to time I had to wipe away my tears to be able to go on reading the notes. […] You will certainly say that I am not very musical. However, most of your listeners definitely are and I am sure to have felt that most of those present shared my feelings. At the end of several passages I could hear the tell-tale noises that say so much more than the usual cheers.’

Norbert Bolín
English translation by Dorothee Kau

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