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Composed: 1857-1868
Length: c. 70 minutes
Orchestration: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, harp, organ, strings, chorus, and solo soprano and baritone
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: April 16, 1936, Otto Klemperer conducting

For a piece devoted to consolation, Brahms’ German Requiem has uncommonly contrarian aspects. The thing itself seems to stand aloof from immediate context, a magnificent effect from tangential causes. A work that reshaped Brahms’ career and made his reputation as a composer, it also aroused musical antipathy in its wake. A radiant, joy-filled work about death, its beautifully balanced structure – musically rounded and dialectically fulfilled – grew in haphazard fits.

The principal external markers, at least, are clear on the road to A German Requiem: Robert Schumann’s death in 1856, and the death of Brahms’ mother in 1865. Greatly burdened by Schumann’s early acclamation and equally conflicted by love for Schumann’s wife Clara, Brahms found himself with an urgent need to respond to the older composer’s death. He began to plan a musical memorial, not the Latin mass for the dead, but rather a staunchly vernacular German requiem. (Brahms found the title itself among Schumann’s papers, although Brahms also said before the premiere that he might have called it A Human Requiem.)

But indecisive agonizing over his feelings for the suddenly available Clara Schumann left him virtually paralyzed creatively. His rebounding attachment to Agathe von Siebold lifted his spirits enough to close out the 1850s with an outpouring of songs for her and the D-minor Piano Concerto. The Concerto’s failure as a performance vehicle for him, however, left him depressed again and seems to have precipitated the dissolution of his relationship with Agathe.

The gradual burgeoning of his career as pianist and composer occupied the ensuing years, marked most notably by shifting his center of activity to Vienna in the fall of 1862. With most of his Schumann demons of gratitude and guilt now exorcised, Brahms felt little urgency about the dormant memorial requiem.

The death of his mother was another matter altogether. “Time changes everything for better or worse,” Brahms wrote to Clara a few weeks after his mother’s death. “It does not so much change as it builds up and develops, and thus when once this sad year is over I shall begin to miss my dear good mother ever more and more.”

Well-tutored from youth in Scripture, Brahms retained a love for Biblical language, if nothing else, throughout his life. He began to piece together a text celebrating the seasons of life, fusing Old and New Testament verses into a unique “Protestant reflection on death, an affirmation of personal faith and courage and of consolation for the living,” as Lionel Salter describes it. Brahms dedicated the Requiem to his mother.

The slow movement he had been sketching for a symphony provided the basis for the funeral march (“Behold, all flesh is as the grass”) that opens the second movement of the Requiem. He planned five other movements, and worked at it for another year, while completing other projects.

Then he set aside the Requiem to allow himself time for objectivity with this incipient masterpiece, much the largest thing he had completed to this point. A stay in Switzerland, concert tours with his violinist friend Joseph Joachim, and a holiday with his suddenly remarried father gave him plenty to do until the end of 1867, when the conductor Johann Herbeck offered to try out the first three movements of the Requiem on one of the Philharmonic Society concerts in Vienna.

This ill-prepared partial performance – Schubert’s incidental Rosamunde music completed the odd bill – was hardly a success, but Brahms remained blithe. Clara Schumann had heartily endorsed the piano score of the Requiem and he had the official premiere of the full work – to be conducted by himself – already scheduled.

That took place in Bremen Cathedral on Good Friday (April 10), 1868, and was an overwhelming success, requiring an encore performance later that month. Nonetheless, Brahms immediately decided further revision was needed, and he added another movement – and a soprano soloist – to the work. This would be the fifth movement of the work, with its central text from Isaiah, “As one whom his mother comforteth, so will I comfort you.”

This final version had its premiere February 18 the following year at the Leipzig Gewandhaus. This was the great triumph so long expected of Brahms. From this point his reputation grew ever exponentially, in Austria, Germany, and abroad. But in art, as surely as in physics, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.

In 1877, Tchaikovsky wrote to his patroness Nadezhda von Meck about the C-minor Symphony by Brahms, “a composer whom the Germans exalt to the sky. He has no charm for me. I find him cold and obscure, full of pretensions, and without any real depth.”

George Bernard Shaw, that most perfect of Wagnerites, found himself suffering “the intolerable tedium” of Brahms’ Requiem on several occasions. “Mind, I do not deny that the Requiem is a solid piece of musical manufacture. You feel at once that it could only have come from the establishment of a first-class undertaker,” he wrote in 1890.

The problem, which recently deceased critic John Steane addressed with other Shavian quotations about the Requiem, is that notion of infinite solemnity. Infinite exaltation it should rather be – lyrical, to be sure, and deeply serious, but also fiercely dramatic and fully energized.

Much of the solution, as Steane saw it, lies in tempo. Brahms’ imagery is full of life and movement throughout, never static. The words ‘death’ and ‘dead’ do not even appear until the sixth movement, and then only to be triumphantly reversed: the dead shall be raised and death swallowed up in victory. This requires music-making of equal vividness and life.

Tempo is also crucial to the experience of Brahms’ architecture. Music exists in time, and a slow pace across Brahms’ long spans allows the connections to fade into temporal distance. The macro form is an intricate arch, and the opening beatitude (“Blessed are they that mourn”) cannot be a dim memory when the closing beatitude (“Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord”) is finally reached.

This is true at the micro level as well. The great fugues, for example, are temporal expressions of eternity but also of the completion of creation and experience.

To Steane’s law of tempo should be added a corollary of color. Brahms takes care of much of that, of course. The opening movement, for example, is scored without violins and emerges from depths – contrast with the following movement can hardly be missed.

The play between light and dark is crucial for much of Brahms’ dramatic and dialectical development. Throughout the Requiem Brahms contrasts the transience of human existence with the eternity of God, and he is not shy about underlining the difference. In the second movement, for example, after the steady opening funeral march (which has its parallel on the other side of the arch in the pilgrim’s chorus opening the sixth movement) and the patience of the farmer waiting for rain, Brahms strikes us with “But the word of the Lord endures for ever.” “This surely is one of the most decisive ‘buts’ in all music,” as Paul Minear writes. With this everything changes in the music, reflecting the qualitative level of the contrast. Properly projected, this sort of confident bravura of expression is the antithesis of Shaw’s intolerable tedium.

John Henken is Director of Publications for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.