How Brahms composed his German Requiem

On Saturday 16 November the Bury Bach Choir will perform Brahms’s Ein deutsches Requiem accompanied by piano four hands – one piano played by two people, James Recknell and Christopher Moore. The concert will also feature soprano Helen Bailey and baritone Tom Asher. 

Although his Requiem was conceived and written for a large chorus and full orchestra, Brahms made two piano arrangements, one for two hands, and the four hands version that will accompany the choir at this concert. Each version has equal authority although the performances are inevitably different, and in each version the power and sincerity of Brahms’s invention shine through.

Future posts will discuss piano four hands - and our pianists and soloists - in more detail, but this post considers the work itself.

As its title suggests, Brahms’s Ein deutsches Requiem (A German Requiem) is not a requiem setting in the conventional liturgical Latin tradition of Mozart or Verdi. Rather, by choosing words from the Lutheran Bible which focus on suffering and consolation as opposed to judgement and the afterlife, Brahms allies himself to the North German Protestantism of his upbringing and, moreover, the Lutheran musical tradition of J S Bach and Sch├╝tz.

Brahms had studied the Lutheran Bible: his copy, preserved in a Viennese collection, is covered in pencil annotations and he kept a notebook with potentially useful texts. Lutheran theology rejected the concept of Purgatory and many of the Catholic rites, and while the traditional Latin Requiem is a plea for peace for the souls of the dead, Brahms’s Requiem seeks to provide comfort for the bereaved and proclaim the hope of resurrection and reunion after death.

The composition of the German Requiem was a prolonged affair. While Brahms had formulated the idea in 1861, by when texts for four of the seven movements were selected, the sombre yet powerful B flat minor funeral march of the second movement originally started life in a symphony written under the shadow of Schumann’s death five years earlier. Schumann had championed Brahms as a young composer from provincial Hamburg, believing he had found the man whose ‘destiny should be to express the spirit of the age in the highest and most ideal fashion’.

Later in life Brahms enjoyed showing his friends the manuscript of the work in its many different paper sizes, reflecting that when he began it, he couldn’t afford more than a few sheets of paper at a time!

The German Requiem received its first performance on Good Friday 1868 at Bremen Cathedral, but it was not until the following year that the work was premiered in the version with which we are now familiar, with the inclusion of the fifth movement. This, with its reference to motherly love, was perhaps inspired and influenced by the death of Brahms’s mother in 1865.

The work - Brahms’s first for major choir and orchestra - met with great acclaim at the Bremen performance, which was attended by over 2000 people, including many significant figures in German musical life. It was performed more than one hundred times throughout Europe over the next ten years. Brahms had finally fulfilled Schumann’s prophetic words written in 1853: ‘when he lowers his magic wand on the masses of choir and orchestra whose powers endow him with strength, we shall await wondrous glimpses into the world of the spirit’.

The concert is at the Apex concert hall, Charter Square, Bury St Edmunds on Saturday 16 November 2019, starting at 7.30pm. To get tickets, go to www.burybachchoir.co.uk, phone 01284 760101, or click here. Tickets are selling fast.




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