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 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.
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?