Recommended Listening: Brahms Requiem

Here are some recommended recordings related to Brahms' German Requiem, curated and with comments by our Artistic Director Andrew Lewis.

 

A German Requiem (London version)

 

1.  Accentus, dir. Laurence Equilbey | Sung in German

https://youtu.be/OrB2TBqGOKY?list=PLsFBSiH5HQI8Mhdif6gTobMUNzWQUQX03

Comments:

Laurence Equilbey and Accentus have made a series of recordings that are exquisite and powerful. This recording dates from 2013.

 

2.   Choir King’s College, Cambridge, dir. Stephen Cleobury, Hanno Müller-Brachmann, bass | Sung in German

https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL2W6pNKclmm7i1ZZOVLLyF_Pa5ERIJO5p

Comments:

Very different take from the Equilbey recording, this one features the boy trebles of the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge. The 2nd movement, particularly, has a surprising amount of power, verging on the vicious, while the 4th movement is sweet and tender.

 

 

 

Related music by Heinrich Schütz

Brahms had a fascination with Schütz and was one of the first conductors to revive his works for public performance. As music director of the Wiener Singakadamie he programmed a concert including works by J.S. Bach and Schütz. The Singakadamie have put their programming archives online. You can view Brahms’ program, from the 1863-64 season, here:

https://wienersingakademie.at/archiv/program.php?year=1863

 

1.  Selig sind die Toten, SWV 391

https://youtu.be/08E5TbcTyHo

Comments:

Both Brahms and Robert Schumann almost certainly knew of Heinrich Schütz’s Musikalische Exequien of 1636, a kind of German Protestant funeral mass coming from the tradition of Begräbnisfeiermusik, music for the burial service. Indeed, Brahms chose to set for the closing of his Requiem the same text that Schütz set, “Selig sind die Toten,” -- “Blessed are the dead.”

 

2.  Das ist je gewisslich wahr, SWV 277

https://youtu.be/zLJE8EeQ4y4

Comments:

This was on Brahms’ 1863 program he conducted with the Wiener Singakademie.

 

 

3.  Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen, SWV 29

https://youtu.be/7JiUqd3NUbE

Westminster Cathedral Choir, dir. Martin Baker

Comments:

It is uncertain whether Brahms was familiar with this work but nevertheless quite interesting to compare the two settings.

Re-Creating Brahms' German Requiem: The 1871 London Version

Program Notes
by Andrew Lewis, Artistic Director

In 1853, Robert Schumann returned to the magazine for which he was once the editor, Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, to write an article proclaiming a messianic-like figure “called to give expression to his times in ideal fashion: a musician who would reveal his mastery not in gradual stages but like Minerva would spring fully armed from Kronos’s head. And he has come; a young man over whose cradle Graces and Heroes have stood watch. His name is Johannes Brahms…” (translation from A Brahms Reader, by Michael Musgrave). Brahms was a mere 20 years old. While this certainly was a boon to the young man it was nevertheless a tremendous burden. He had not produced much yet and it was not until the 2nd performance (the first being a disaster) of his Ein deutsches Requiem in Bremen Cathedral in front of an international audience of musicians and public luminaries, in 1868 (i.e. 15 years later) that Schumann’s prophecy finally came true.

The 20-year-old Johannes Brahms appears in a photograph circa 1853, the year of Schumann's praise for him in the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik.

The 20-year-old Johannes Brahms appears in a photograph circa 1853, the year of Schumann's praise for him in the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik.

The death of Schumann seems to have inspired the idea of a German Requiem in Brahms.   He discovered, in what may have felt like a direct message from the beyond, a brief outline for “A German Requiem” in his mentor’s notes and manuscripts when he was helping Schumann’s widow Clara deal with the administrative aftermath of Robert’s death. And there is evidence that Brahms began sketching notes for the second movement in particular during this time. What’s more, both men almost certainly knew of Heinrich Schütz’s Musikalische Exequien of 1636, a kind of German Protestant funeral mass coming from the tradition of Begräbnisfeiermusik, music for the burial service. Indeed, Brahms chose to set for the closing of his Requiem the same text that Schütz set, “Selig sind die Toten”—“Blessed are the dead”.

Schumann’s death greatly moved and disturbed Brahms. He wrote in a letter, “I shall probably never again experience anything so moving as the meeting between Robert and Clara. He lay for some time with closed eyes, and she knelt before him with greater calmness than one would think possible . . . he recognized her but was past being able to talk any more.” And a few days later: “We should have breathed with relief at his deliverance . . . what a blessing! . . . how sad, how beautiful, how touching this death was. Joachim, Clara, and I have put in order the papers Schumann left behind . . . with every day one thus spends with him one comes to love and admire the man more and more.” (Quoted from the Afterword of the 3rd Edition of our performing score, edited by Lara Hoggard, published by Hinshaw Music.)

If Robert Schumann’s death was the impetus for Brahms beginning his own German Requiem, the death of his beloved mother, Christiane Brahms, inspired him to complete it. He received news from his brother in 1865 that “If you want to see our mother once again, come immediately.”  Though he undoubtedly dropped everything, the journey from Vienna to Hamburg proved too long for him to make it in time. She had died by the time he arrived. The following year he had completed the original form of his masterpiece.

As alluded to earlier, the first performance of the Requiem was a disaster. The musicians were poorly prepared and the conservative, Catholic Viennese public was not predisposed to Brahms’ Protestant and unorthodox outlook. For instance, nowhere is the word ‘Christ’ uttered.  But six months later, on Good Friday, Brahms mounted a performance of the complete work (that is, six movements: the now Fifth Movement, “Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit,” had not yet been composed nor even conceived) in Bremen Cathedral. Brahms was on the podium and his friend Julius Stockhausen was the baritone soloist. A few weeks later Brahms added the soprano solo as an “afterthought” commemorating his mother.

The final form of Ein deutsches Requiem—all seven movements—received its premiere at the Leipzig Gewandhaus in 1869.

In 1866 Brahms devised a piano four hands arrangement that is not a reduction of the work but rather a creative new look at the musical material of Ein deutsches Requiem. In 1871, this version of the work travelled to England for its British debut at a private residence in London, presented in English and without the Fifth Movement. Brahms’ friend, Julius Stockhausen, who was the baritone soloist in the performance in Bremen (and who also, by the way, was appointed music director of the Hamburg Philharmonic over Brahms) led 30 singers and two pianists in the performance, himself singing the baritone solo again. The English translation used at this performance has been lost.

Brahms’ manuscript of the choral entrance of the First Movement.

Brahms’ manuscript of the choral entrance of the First Movement.

The central question I have asked myself in deciding to perform this work in the manner that we are about to do for you is, 'Why should Bella Voce do this?' There is so much music out there for us to perform. The answer is that we approach music—even new music—from the standpoint of historical performance practice. We make connections between music of our own time to that of the Renaissance and Baroque. It gives us the opportunity to revisit great masterworks well-known to the public as well as those that have fallen into obscurity. It is ironic that this work, which is second only to Handel’s Messiah in the frequency of performance, is little understood outside of what I now realize is an ideologically driven quest for purity to perform only the orchestral version and in German. This, despite Brahms’ insistence that he could have just as easily called this “ein menschliches Requiem.”  A truly 'human' Requiem - especially one of the Romantic mold - would not set up but rather tear down barriers to immediate comprehension. What follows shows that Brahms expected performances in England to be in English. Additionally, the piano four hands accompaniment is not a reduction of the work but rather a creative re-interpretation done by Brahms himself; its Fourth Movement loosely resembles the Liebeslieder Walzer, Op. 52.  Moreover, it was common practice in the 19th century to disseminate orchestral works through piano four hand versions. What arises from this version is intimacy and clarity, but also a lean, muscular power, especially since Brahms himself, a virtuoso pianist, re-wrote the work, a task normally left to arrangers working directly for the publisher, not the composer. That world, where highly-skilled amateur musicians craved and paid for a steady flow of new music, is almost entirely lost in our time. Electricity and the phonograph have done great wonders for our society, but we have ceded much of the work of music to other people and technology. It used to be that, if you wanted to hear music, you either had to make it yourself or be in the same room with another human being performing it for you. Alas, a direct connection with the musicians is no longer the common experience. Now we put on our headphones, purposefully tuning out other people, and escape into our manicured tonal reverie created almost entirely by machines. That is, except for you, our dear, intrepid, and valued concert-goers!

We have the opportunity here to recreate and connect with the spirit of a bygone age.

Additionally, by performing in English, we erase the barrier to immediate comprehension for those listeners whose German is not advanced enough to understand the text as it flies by them. They will not need to split their focus between having their eyes in the program and their ears attuned to the performers. Shakespeare was beloved by the Romantics all across Europe. What language were the plays performed in throughout Europe?  Almost always in the local vernacular. In the tradition of German Lieder, of which Brahms was a proponent, Shakespeare’s texts were always set in German. This is something that seemed to be critically important to not only Brahms but the entire ethos of Romanticism: directness, immediacy, connection, and the awakening of the senses.

Finally, Brahms’ own words:
[Excerpted from Leonard Van Camp's  A Practical Guide for Performing, Teaching, and Singing the Brahms "Requiem"]
In a letter to his publisher, which 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." [Styra Avins, Johannes Brahms, p. 360.]

Also, Brahms went on to make the argument that the Requiem should be performed in whatever language the singers and audience are most accustomed to hearing (again, quoted from Van Camp): "’In Holland everything is sung in German. France is not under consideration. [Brahms did not like the French, and the war with France was only two years away.] That leaves only England and an English text, which would do quite well, certainly, and in any case already fits of its own.’ Here is Brahms himself suggesting an English translation for performances in England!”

To be sure I am not arguing that all performances of this work be performed in English when presented to an English-speaking audience. I have performed this work twice as conductor with the Elgin Symphony and Elgin Master Chorale and will be performing it with them again at the end of April. I also sang it under Robert Shaw's direction at Eastman—all in German. But our performance is entirely different—it’s almost even a different work, as it was performed in London for its UK premiere. We are recreating that experience, summoning up the lost practices of Brahms' time, while also improving it: 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. Brahms would definitely approve. Do you?

Let us know via Twitter, @BellaVoceChicag, or Facebook, https://www.facebook.com/BellaVoceChicago/

 

Johannes Brahms & his friend Julius Stockhausen circa 1870.   Stockhausen performed as the baritone soloist in both the successful 1868 performance of Ein deutchses Requiem in Bremen (in German) and in the 1871 London performance (in English).   Stockhausen also was appointed music director of the Hamburg Philharmonic over Brahms.  

Johannes Brahms & his friend Julius Stockhausen circa 1870.   Stockhausen performed as the baritone soloist in both the successful 1868 performance of Ein deutchses Requiem in Bremen (in German) and in the 1871 London performance (in English).   Stockhausen also was appointed music director of the Hamburg Philharmonic over Brahms.  

Bach: The ‘Wedding Meal’ Cantata and The ‘Refugee’ Cantata

Essay and recommending listening by Andrew Lewis, Artistic Director

 

Feeding the hungry, detail from Caritas, The Seven Acts of Mercy, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1559

The two cantatas on this program address the idea of and need for radical hospitality. BWV 180, Schmücke dich, o liebe Seele (“Adorn yourself, O dear Soul”), encapsulates the Christian reality of the achieved state of grace through the radical hospitality of Christ, received by the believer without her agency. BWV 39, Brich dem Hungrigen dein Brot (“Break your bread with the hungry”) exhorts the listener to then act upon this achieved state of grace in the same way as Christ would: “When you see one who is naked, clothe that person even though it may mean you yourself will go naked.” [My paraphrase.] When I programmed these two cantatas I could not have guessed the turmoil our society would face with a new presidential administration. Perhaps this is one of the fundamental lessons any of us can learn about our earthly existence: justice is always timely.

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) Cantata BWV 39: Brich dem Hungrigen dein Brot (23 June 1726) Part I. 1. Brich dem Hungrigen dein Brot (Chorus) 2. Der reiche Gott (Recitative: B) 07:46 3. Seinem Schöpfer noch auf Erden (Aria: A) 09:13 Part II. 4. Wohlzutun und mitzuteilen vergesset nicht (Aria: B) 13:21 5. Performed by Philippe Herreweghe and the Chorus & Orchestra of Collegium Vocale Gent (1993).

The ‘Wedding Meal’ Cantata

BWV 180 is part of Bach’s second yearly cycle of cantatas written for his new position as Thomaskantor in Leipzig and is of a genre called “chorale cantata,” for it is based on the chorale tune, in this case the eucharistic hymn, Schmücke dich, o liebe Seele. The gospel reading for the day was Matthew 22:1-14, the “Parable of the Great Banquet” (or, using Martin Luther’s term, Hochzeitsmahl – ‘wedding meal’) in which, among other things, Jesus correlates the invitation to attend the wedding feast of a king’s son to that of the invitation to the heavenly glory of God’s kingdom. Those invited, presumably the elite of society, seem to cavalierly reject the invitation, which leads the king to invite strangers to the feast. (Please read the text itself. My summary does not offer a complete understanding.) The extension of hospitality to those who would otherwise be excluded, and the joy at the invitation, shapes this entire cantata.

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) Cantata BWV 180: Schmücke dich, o liebe Seele (22 October 1724) 1. Schmücke dich, o liebe Seele (Chorus) 2. Ermuntre dich, dein Heiland klopft (Aria: T) 05:05 3. Wie teuer sind des heilgen Mahles Gaben! -- Ach, wie hungert mein Gemüte (Recitative, Chorale: S) 09:56 4. Performed by Paul McCreesh and the Gabrieli Consort & Players.

The ‘Refugee’ Cantata

“Break your bread with the hungry, and those who are in misery into your house!”

Before the chronology of Bach’s cantatas was thoroughly known it was believed that this cantata was written in 1732 in response to the banishment of Protestants from Salzburg, hence the ‘Refugee’ title. Alas, though an “agreeable legend” (Alfred Dürr), this cantata was written for the third yearly cycle of cantatas Bach wrote for Leipzig, which was in 1726. Bach makes expressive use of the Blockflöte, also known as the alto recorder. This was the final cantata in which Bach employed the instrument. According to Charles Sanford Terry, in his seminal 1932 work, Bachs Orchestra, published by Oxford, “Of no other instrument is Bach's characterisation so clear and consistent as the Blockflöte ... No other instrument identifies itself so closely with the simple piety of Bach. It voices his tenderness for his Saviour, his serene contemplation of death as the portal to the eternal ... it is the vehicle of mysticism so deep-rooted in Bach's nature... for in its clear tones he could utter the ponderings of his devout mind.” If Terry is to be believed, one can add a layer of meaning to the text of the cantata, namely, the giving of oneself is the vehicle for a profound acceptance of and gratitude for the gifts of life and death. The sharing of the grace that the individual has received is a simple and straightforward act, uncluttered by rationalization and justification.

The Sermon on the Mount, woodcut by Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1582

While we don’t wish to promote a specific Christian ideology through this concert, it is impossible to escape the central tenets of this music, especially given our present state of national anxiety: give gratitude for your privilege, share your good fortune without jealousy or envy even to the point of your own deprivation, and extend mercy and welcome to the stranger in your midst.

© Andrew Lewis, 2017