Brahms thought of calling
‘A German Requiem’ ‘A
Its aim: comfort the living.
Beauty is a balm.
Brahms wrote A German Requiem in 1865-1868. The death of his mother in 1865 and the earlier death of his friend Robert Schumann are believed have been an impetus for its composition.
Brahms told Karl Martin Reinthaler, music director of Bremen Cathedral, where the full version of the Requiem premiered in 1868, “I will admit that I could happily omit the ‘German’ and simply say ‘Human.’” (Michael Musgrave, Brahms: A German Requiem, pp 1-2, here).
As Musgrave states, the Requiem is distinguished by its use of the German language, and not the traditional Latin. It is also distinguished by its deliberate choice (by Brahms himself) of Biblical texts that are not linked with Christianity. Brahms chooses to speak of universal emotions.
The Requiem is a beautiful composition, marked by moments of great intensity and drama, mixed with moments of great tenderness. I have had the privilege of singing an excerpt of the Requiem in a choir, and spending months learning this music gave me greater insight into what makes it so profound. Hearing individual vocal lines separately, and then hearing how they interweave is magical.
And yet I know I have only scratched the surface of understanding what Brahms has done in this work. The nuanced expressions, the intricacy of the writing…I only have an inkling of why it works.
But on performance day, I saw the faces of the audience, deeply moved, dabbing their eyes, and knew that whether it’s 1865, 2013, or 2213 Brahms still speaks to all of us. He has written a human requiem.