by Donald Draganski

It should come as no surprise to anyone who knows something of Brahms’ professional career that he had a deep affinity for the human voice, both in his capacity as a writer of songs and as a composer of choral works.  Indeed, his first opportunity to work directly with a chorus came in 1847 when, at the age of fourteen, he conducted a men’s chorus in the small town of Winsen, in the district of Lüneburg.  From 1856 to 1859 he was appointed Music Director at the tiny Court of Lippe-Detmold (not far from Hanover) where he continued to gain experience in writing for chorus. The following year he was conducting and composing for a woman’s singing society in Hamburg. (Readers are referred to Susanne Schmaltz’s book Enchanted Remembrances, translated by NSCS’s own Inge Kistler, where one can find a fascinating first-hand account of this society.)

Even after he had already established himself on the continent as a major composer, he continued to work with choruses in Vienna — first with the Singakademie in 1863, which lasted only one season owing largely to the members of the chorus objecting to their conductor’s “Bach-infested” programs. A happier appointment came a few years later, again in Vienna, in 1872, which marked the beginning of a three-year association with the more prestigious chorus of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde. (Even here, the happy-go-lucky Viennese found fault with the somberness of some of his programs.  When Brahms got wind of their objections, he coolly informed them that he would open his next concert with the motet “Death is my delight.”)

Ein deutsches Requiem (A German Requiem), op. 45, was begun in 1856, the year of Robert Schumann’s death, an event which undoubtedly provided Brahms with the initial impetus for writing a memorial in memory of his long-time benefactor and mentor.  The subsequent death of Brahms’ mother in 1865 moved the composer to take up the work again; an additional movement (no. 5, with solo soprano) was written in 1868, bringing the work to its final shape as we know it.

The first public performance, an exceedingly under-rehearsed reading of the first three movements, took place in Vienna in 1866 to a very mixed reaction.  Indeed, the closing fugue of Part 3 elicited a fusillade of hisses from a part of the audience.  (It should be pointed out that the fault actually lay with an over-exuberant timpani player who, rolling that particular pedal D at full volume throughout the fugal section, managed to drown out both the entire chorus and the rest of the orchestra.  The Critic Eduard Hanslick described its effect as comparable to the sensation of a passenger rattling through a tunnel in an express train.)

This initial setback was soon corrected by a carefully prepared performance which took place in Bremen on Good Friday of 1868.  Many of Brahms’ friends and colleagues were present at the Bremen Cathedral, as well as the composer’s father, Johann Jakob.  An eyewitness later recalled the old gentleman’s reaction:

He was the only man to remain calm — the rest were in tears even at the opening chorus. I remember so well when we were coming out of the church after.  I spoke to him and asked him if he was proud of his son’s triumph, but all he said was: “Es hat sich ganz gut gemacht” (“It was quite well done.”) — and took a pinch of snuff. He was the only man who seemed calm; he took it for granted that his son would triumph.

This characteristically North German propensity to laconic understatement was also shared by Brahms himself who habitually resorted to self-deprecation in discussing his works.  He once characterized his monumental B-flat Piano Concerto as a “trifle.”

The warm reception which the work received in Bremen augured well for the future, and performances of the Requiem soon appeared throughout Europe.  Within three years the work was performed in every town of any significant size where German was spoken, and the audiences everywhere received the work with great admiration and affection. The German Requiem thus marked the thirty-five-year-old composer’s first great success with the general public.

The full title of the work is Ein deutsches Requiem, nach Worten der heiligen Schrift, “A German Requiem, with words from the Holy Scriptures.”  Brahms himself compiled the text which he freely chose from the German Bible, without reference to any specific liturgical service or rite.  The end result is a highly personal work that is not so much a Requiem for the dead as it is a source of solace for the living.  Late in life Brahms commented that he would have liked to change the word “German” to “Human” in the title, not merely to downplay any hint of nationalism, but to emphasize the universality of its message of comfort and consolation, irrespective of any church or creed.

Copyright © 1997 by Donald Draganski