Johannes Brahms: Ein deutsches Requiem, Mvt. I: Selig sind, die da Leid tragen

We've talked about Brahms before.  In discussing his 1st symphony in which he paid homage to the father of the Romantic Era, Ludwig van Beethoven, we talked a bit about why I've adopted him as the patron saint of Listening Friday. Brahms means a lot to me as a musician.

Brahms means a lot to me as a human.

In February of 1865, Brahm's lost his mother.  Prior to that, in 1856, he lost his dear friend and fellow composer Robert Schumann.  Schumann was an important figure in the life of Brahms as he was instrumental in elevating the young Johannes to the stature of renowned composer.  Much of Brahms' early life was spent playing in dive bars or giving lessons in order to keep food on the table for his family or himself.  There's some evidence that his youthful appearance encouraged patrons of the taverns to abuse and harass him, frequently to the point of causing emotional trauma.

Brahms was introduced to Robert and his wife, Clara, by way of his close friend and violinist, Joseph Joachim, who held a common interest in the preservation of German musical ideology developed in the Baroque and Classical eras.  You have to understand that at this point in history music was evolving fairly quickly, and it had somewhat established itself into two camps.  The so-called "new school" was supported by the likes of Franz Liszt and Richard Wagner (among others) and promoted a liberation from the form-laden structure of the previous centuries of Classical and Baroque architecture.  Both schools espoused the importance of melodic content that defines the Romantic era, but composers like Brahms and the Schumann's rejected the...well, rejection of the structure and form that was perfected by the likes of Bach and Beethoven.  It was a bit of a "throwing the baby out with the bathwater" moment for them.

The interesting thing to me is that despite their philosophical grievances, Brahms would manage to maintain a relationship of mutual respect with Liszt and Wagner, with reciprocal feelings of appreciation towards each other's music.  


Prior to his death (from what we presume is syphilis) Robert had struggled in his later years with a tremendous amount of mental instability, much of which is now attributed to a "meningioma" at the bottom of his brain.  He did unsuccessfully attempt suicide by jumping into the Rhine in 1854 after expressing fear that he might harm his wife while he was out of his mind. Brahms stepped in at this point to help Clara raise their seven children and keep Robert from becoming a public spectacle, lest he tarnish his well-respected reputation.

Here's the thing. Brahms had it bad for Clara. Like, Romeo and Juliet, forbidden love, "Jesse's Girl" bad.  Clara had identical feelings, but also loved her husband dearly.  Brahms also deeply cared for his friend, Robert, whose life was pretty much going belly up at this point. Neither of them wanted this, but neither could ignore it either. Brahms was often described as both gruffly abrupt and congenially warm, but most will agree he was nothing if not loyal to friends.  While it's not conjecture that Brahms cared deeply for Clara, historians are divided over how far their relationship went. Some believed them to have consummated it in Switzerland following Robert's death, others say that Brahms respected the boundaries of his friendship up Schumann to the end. It's quite obvious that both were "down with getting down" to use the vernacular. Brahms was notoriously popular in brothels and Clara, as I mentioned before, had seven kids. 

So.  You know.

They burned their letters to each other, so if nothing else the destruction of evidence points toward a potential guilt factor. They also destroyed much of Robert's last works, feeling that the madness he experienced tainted his otherwise astute style of composition.

What we do know is that after Switzerland Brahms took off to Hamburg and left Clara to her devices, which we know from her journal entry on the day of his departure, she was feeling "as if [she] were returning from a funeral". He would again play the dating game with other prominent women in musical circles, breaking them off right when the rubber met the road, in a manner of speaking. However, he may have had a particularly seething and disparaging view of the fairer sex in general. Many attribute this to Brahms' upbringing, pointing out that much of the abuse he suffered at the hands of bar flies and ne'er-do-well's in the taverns he played in during his childhood was deviously sexual in nature.  To Brahms it was a shameful affair, but one that refined his personality and forced him to maturity faster than he might have developed left untouched.  However, he maintained his close relationship with Clara to the end and remained a vocal supporter of her own compositional endeavors. 

Brahms had a sense of perfection that was almost unequaled in his peers, so much so that he would destroy revision after revision of his works until what he had was acceptable.  In fact, the German Requiem itself wasn't completed until 1868 with its first complete premier in February of 1869. It was performed partially as early as 1867.  Brahms had conceived of the work early in his career and took the title of "German Requiem" to imply a requiem in the German language. He was said to have meant it as a "Human Requiem" in a sense and was quite moved when after Schumann's death, he discovered that Robert had also conceived such a work.

The work is for chorus and orchestra and is just absolutely enormous.  It's final form boasts seven movements that borrow scriptural text, befitting a piece of the name, however unlike the traditional Latin requiems of Brahms' forebears his is non-liturgical.  He cherry-picked scripture to speak to his message of comfort and love in the face of overwhelming grief.

A requiem is essentially a celebration of the deceased, incorporated into a church mass. It does not necessarily have to be about a particular person, but in its earliest forms it followed a pretty standard order and protocol.  An important difference between the traditional Catholic requiems and Brahm's more German Luther version is in who it actually addresses.  Most of the Catholic mass has to do with the dead and granting them all sorts of things like peace and rest.  Brahms chose to focus on those who are still living. I've always found this particularly useful since it's always so challenging to talk to dead people.  

They're always so busy dancing.

The text from the first movement is as follows:
Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.
Matthew 5:4

They that sow in tears shall reap in joy. He that goeth forth and weepeth, bearing precious seed, shall doubtless come again with rejoicing, bringing his sheaves with him.
Psalm 126:5-6
I'll go ahead and put English translations of the full text down at the bottom (below the video) if you'd like to read the entire work. Brahms isolated scripture that embodied a fairly central and unified theme: Everyone dies. That's part of life, but in God we have life forever.  He begins and ends the work with similar thematic material and answers "Blessed are they that mourn..." with "Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord..."

His editorializing did have its critics, particularly during the 2nd premier in 1868 at the Bremen Cathedral in Germany.  This performance would feature 6 movements of the work, the final version adding what is now considered movement 5 in 1869.  The musical director at the cathedral was an organist named Karl Reinthaler.  In the months preceding the performance, Mr. Reinthaler expressed his concerns that the text Brahms had included in his work did not reflect any scripture regarding the redeeming death of Jesus in a letter, excerpted here:
In the work you come close to the perimeter not only of the religious, but even to the thoroughly Christian. Already the second movement touches the prophecy of the Second Coming of the Lord, and in the next to last the mystery of the resurrection of the dead, . . . But from a Christian perspective it lacks the point around which everything rotates, namely the redeeming death of the Lord. . . . 
You show yourself so knowledgeable about the Bible in the way you put the texts together, that you certainly will find the correct words should you find any other alteration advisable . . .
Brahms responds thusly:
... I do have the need to tell you what a great pleasure you gave me by the sincere interest with which you read my work.  I appreciate it twice as much since I saw the work again with some horror and did some energetic housekeeping with my pen.  Concerning the music, I have answered so much more than you, indulgently enough, had asked and said. 
As far as the text is concerned, I will confess that I would very gladly omit the 'German' as well, and simply put 'of Mankind', also quite deliberately and consciously do without passages such as John Ch. 3 Verse 16.  On the other hand, however, I did accept many a thing because I am [a] musician, because I was making use of it, and because I cannot challenge or strike out the text of my revered bards, not even a 'from henceforth'.
But - I'll stop without having said all I have to say...

Reinthaler was forced to add an excerpt from Handel's Messiah to appease his clergy of the performance.  Fortunately, it ended up being performed by Brahms' good friend Joseph Joachim and his wife Amalia.  Clara wrote very kindly of the performance in her diary, calling Frau Joachim's performance "more [beautiful] than I have ever heard her."

It's up for debate as to whether Brahms was truly religious, followed it as a cultural norm of his time, or was moved to turn to the scripture out of an abundance of grief at losing his dear friend and mother. Regardless, in my opinion he managed to hit on a fundamental point in the Christian doctrine. The concept that grace is a gift given to all mankind. Jesus' death on the cross enabled that and whether we accept it or not is determined of our own volition, courtesy of free will. Grace does not care if you're the most generous person in the world or an absolute twit. It's irrelevant to grace since to obtain it one must simply accept it. God loved the world and this was his plan to absolve sins to bring the world back to him.

Beyond this point exists another part of Christianity that many of us tend to forget or misunderstand. In this life we are given to do as we desire. There is no punishment from beyond if we falter, nor is heaven and hell built to act as a carrot proffered before us, encouraging behavior one way or the other. Jesus came to say that we should simply be good and civil to one another, caring and loving each other as a shepherd does for his sheep. It's really quite simple.  I really like to believe that Brahms understood that. That the big secret of Christianity was that the "Good News" that everybody was talking about was only page 1.  I don't know the man, so I can't speak as to the veracity of such a statement.  However, one of my favorite authors summed it up like this:
Congressman Nixon had asked me why, as the son of immigrants who had been treated so well by Americans, as a man who had been treated like a son and been sent to Harvard by an American capitalist, I had been so ungrateful to the American economic system. 
The answer I gave him was not original. Nothing about me has ever been original. I repeated what my one-time hero, Kenneth Whistler, had said in reply to the same general sort of question long, long ago. Whistler had been a witness at a trial of strikers accused of violence. The judge had become curious about him, had asked him why such a well-educated man from such a good family would so immerse himself in the working class. 
My stolen answer to Nixon was this: "Why? The Sermon on the Mount, sir."
~Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

See you next Friday.


Note: this is the complete work.  It's worth listening to, but this entry specifically references the 1st movement.

Johannes Brahms: Life and Letters by Johannes Brahms


What follows is the complete text of the German Requiem, translated to English in the King James Bible.

1st Movement
Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.
Matthew 5:4

They that sow in tears shall reap in joy. He that goeth forth and weepeth, bearing precious seed, shall doubtless come again with rejoicing, bringing his sheaves with him.
Psalm 126:5-6

2nd Movement

For all flesh is as grass, and all the glory of man as the flower of grass. The grass withereth, and the flower thereof falleth away.
1 Peter 1:24
Be patient therefore, brethren, unto the coming of the Lord. Behold, the husbandmen waiteh for the precious fruit of the earth, and hath long patience for it, until he receive the early and latter rain.
James 5:7
But the word of the Lord endureth for ever.
1 Peter 1:25
And the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with songs and everlasting joy upon their heads: they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.
Isaiah 35:10

3rd Movement

Lord, make me to know mine end, and the measure of my days, what it is: that I may know how frail I am. Behold, thou hast made my days as an handbreadth; and mine age is as nothing before thee.
Surely every man walketh in a vain shew: surely they are disquieted in vain: he heapeth up riches, and knoweth not who shall gather them. And now, Lord, what wait I for? my hope is in thee.
Psalm 39:4-7
But the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and there shall no torment touch them.
Solomon 3:1

4th Movement

How amiable are they tabernacles, O Lord of hosts! My soul longeth, yea, even fainteth for the courts of the Lord: my heart and my flesh crieth out for the living God.  Blessed are they that dwell in thy house: they will be still praising thee.
Psalm 84:1, 2, & 4

Movement 5

And ye now therefore have sorrow; but I will see you again, and your heart shall rejoice, and your joy no man taketh from you.
John 16:22
Ye see how for a little while I labor and toil, yet have I found much rest.
Ecclesiastes 51:27
As one whom his mother comforteth, so will I comfort you.
Isaiah 66:13

Movement 6

For here have we no continuing city, but we seek one to come.
Hebrews 13:14
Behold, I shew you a mystery; We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed.
In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.. . . then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?
1 Corinthians 15:51-52, 54, 55
Thou art worthy, O Lord, to receive glory and honour and power: for thou hast created all things, and for thy pleasure they are and were created.
Revelation 4:11

Movement 7

Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord from henceforth: Yea, saith the Spirit, that they may rest from their labours; and their works do follow them.
Revelation 14:13