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Brahms's German Requiem:

promise fulfilled


1853: Brahms aged 20









More photos at the Brahms-Institut website -

Passage from German Requiem in Brahms's hand

Passage from the German Requiem in Brahms's hand.

Aged 20, Johannes Brahms was hailed by Robert Schumann as a genius, "like Minerva sprung fully armored from the head of Zeus". When Brahms completed his German Requiem in 1869, critics considered it the fulfilment of Schumann's prophecy. Emmeline Rushton pays tribute to the composer's monumental achievement

There are many ways to tell the story of Brahms's German Requiem.  It is the story of a young, hard working composer finally hitting it big with a piece that launches him into fame; the story of an old composer prophesying the rise of new talent; the story of one man's personal expression of faith resonating with thousands. While these aspects give the work historical depth, the music and spiritual themes of the Requiem are what make it one of the most beloved pieces in the choral repertoire. 

The history of the piece is rather complicated. When Brahms first met Robert Schumann he was only twenty years old, but Schumann immediately proclaimed him a genius in an article called "New Paths". Though Brahms was unknown and had had little formal training, Schumann considered him already a master, "like Minerva sprung fully armored from the head of Zeus".

Schumann suggested that if Brahms should garner the forces of chorus and orchestra, he would raise "the mysteries of the spirit-world" before his audiences.  "New Paths" is now one of the most famous articles in music history, precisely because Schumann's predictions about the young composer are generally acknowledged to have come true. 

For many young composers, being hailed as the new Messiah of music would be a great blessing, but Brahms only became more self-critical and withdrew into a period of musical study.  Meanwhile Schumann's mental condition deteriorated and he threw himself into the Rhine river and was hospitalized for two years; this did nothing to help Brahms, who, in the meantime, also fell in love with Schumann's wife Clara.  Brahms began a funeral march after Schumann's suicide attempt in 1854, which would later become the second movement of the German Requiem.

Through the 1850s, Brahms studied early vocal music and wrote many exercises in counterpoint, not unlike the music theory students of today.  In1858, he was set up with a women's chorus in his home town of Hamburg, where he gained valuable experience writing for choir. By the time he began his requiem in the mid-1860s, Brahms had already written German motets, an Ave Maria, and an incomplete Catholic mass.  None of these works came close in scope to the Requiem, Brahms's biggest and possibly most beloved composition.

The German Requiem was finished in its original six-movement form by 1867. Scholars suggest that the death of Brahms's mother inspired his work on the piece, especially the fifth movement with soprano solo, which he added last. Various incomplete versions of the Requiem were premiered with success in Vienna and Germany, and the complete piece took Germany by storm in 1869.  Though Brahms had composed a fair share of beautiful pieces before the Requiem, there was something in the tone and color of the Requiem that spoke to German-speakers across city and country boundaries.  For his requiem, Brahms had assembled his own texts from the Lutheran Bible rather than following the traditional Latin.  The resulting text does not include the name "Jesus Christ," but rather focuses on more general themes of comfort and hope for those dealing with loss, which made it attractive for people of various religious backgrounds.  The musical style, with its unique blend of Lutheran chorale reminiscences, Bachian counterpoint, and modern harmonic vocabulary, had just the right blend of tradition and future to appeal to a mass audience.  One Brahms scholar has offered that for Germans on the brink of national unification, this was the "Apocalyptic Moment", and that Brahms's Requiem captured that spirit of tradition and transition.
The Requiem launched Brahms into fame and back into the musical spotlight; almost all critics agreed that he had earned the attention himself this time, and not thanks to Schumann.  In fact, they often claimed that he had fulfilled the prophecy of Schumann. Music journals sang his praises and amateur musicians rushed to buy piano-choral reductions of the Requiem.  Anecdotes describe how various groups of friends would sit down and begin one section of the Requiem, and find themselves singing through the whole piece.  Of course not everyone loved the Requiem; Brahms's compositional rival Richard Wagner began sneeringly to refer to Brahms as "blessed Johannes" and declared that "we will want no German Requiem to be played to our ashes."

The piece makes a coherent whole; the moods and harmonic colors are similar throughout the seven movements.  One contemporary critic even thought he heard thematic similarities between movements, but Brahms was quick to dismiss this.  The Requiem also has a certain symmetry, with the first and last movement in F major, both with similar texts and harmonic language.  The first movement begins with a simple repeated F in the basses, and the cellos introduce the harmonic progression that recurs through the entire piece.  There are no violins in this movement, and the lower strings and winds create a muted sound that suits the text "selig sind die da Leid tragen" (blessed are they that mourn). 

Brahms reworked his funeral march from the 1850s to create the second movement we have now.  In muted B-flat minor, the opening melody descends through two octaves in the violins and the vocal entrance pairs altos and tenors in the same low register.  A contrasting section in G-flat major introduces the text "sei nun geduldig" "Be patient therefore…" in a lighter mood, with the lowest strings dropping out.  After a return to the funeral march theme, the movement moves toward its B-flat major finale (a Carolina Choir favorite): "Die Erlöseten des Herrn" (the ransomed of the Lord). The fugal subject introduced by the basses is joined by the entire choir at once, as if in their joy they can't wait for one entrance at a time.  This section includes some of the most dramatic text setting in the Requiem.  Brahms sets "und Schmerz und Seufzen" (and pain and sighing) in a quiet, chromatic passage that contrasts with the rest of the sentence: "wird weg müssen" (shall flee away).  Reminiscences of the bass subject remain in the orchestra as the movement winds to a close.

The third movement introduces the first baritone solo.  The text reflects on the insignificance of mankind, and so the orchestration is pared down for the soloist's address. Brahms's solo vocal writing is rarely in the sweeping Italian melodic style, and in the beginning here it is broken-up and halting.  The somber mood continues even in the major section ("Ach, wie gar nichts"), where the woodwinds keep the main theme in the background.  "Ich hoffe auch dich" (My hope is in thee) presents the turning point of hope, with its rising triplet figures and trumpets. This gives way to one of the most unique moments in the piece, and in all of music history:  a fugue written over one long pedal point (a low D).  The pedal point caused Brahms some trouble, first with Clara Schumann, who suggested he take it out, then at an early performance.  Stubborn on musical issues, Brahms had ignored Clara's suggestion and kept the fugue scored as he had written.  At the first run-through, however, the timpanist got carried away with the pedal point and his drumming overpowered everything else, much to Brahms's chagrin.
The fourth movement, the middle resting point, is the most famous of the Requiem.  It is most often performed by itself, although any of the movements could be, as business-minded Brahms was quick to inform his publisher.  It was the first movement he completed in 1865, and as he sent it to Clara Schumann he wrote: "I hope to produce a sort of whole out of the thing..." Musically, the 3/4 meter and E-flat major help give this movement's main theme a lullaby-like quality, which contrasts nicely with the fugal section "die loben dich immer dar" (they will always be praising thee). 

While the soprano solo movement is generally a slower, comforting one, its harmonic twists and turns provide some dramatic coloring.  The opening technique here is an old Renaissance one, whereby the soprano enters with a long, slow-moving melody against the faster figurations of the orchestra.  This technique creates a sense of stability in the movement, and the chorus often sings beneath the soprano, repeating her words "ich will euch trösten" (I will comfort you).  The ending is one of the most moving moments in the entire piece, where the soprano slows and stops on the words "wieder sehen" (see again), with the woodwinds left to finish the descending line.

The sixth movement brings back the baritone solo, and the same minor-major tonal plan from earlier.  This movement is almost operatic in its interaction between soloist and chorus.  The harmonically vague opening choral line is "For here have we no continuing city, but we seek one to come." Over a drum roll and ushering in a key change, the baritone replies, "Behold, I show you a mystery…"  The tension builds until the chorus breaks into the defiant "Tod, wo ist dein Stachel?" (Death, where is thy sting?).  Apocalyptic, indeed.  After such storm and stress, Brahms ends the movement with a traditional and triumphant fugue in C major.

The closing movement alludes largely to the first movement, creating a nostalgic sense with its reminiscent sounds. Its sudden turn from F to A major creates a fresh change in color, also reflective in character, made possible now by the various keys of the previous movements.  The opening theme "Selig sind die Toten" (blessed are the dead) is sung by the sopranos, basses, and tenors, but not the altos, who eventually reintroduce the musical material from movement one –a return to the comforting tones of home.  The piece closes on the same word with which it began: "Selig" (blessed).

Emmeline Rushton

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