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?
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