Brahms’ “Requiem”

Twenty-four years ago, I was in the midst of post-recording production with the recording engineer who recorded the Sanctuary Choir’s Christmas CD, “Welcome Yule.” Producing a CD is an immense amount of work. Each piece is recorded 3-5 times. One CD can easily take four long evenings to record. The production process takes even longer. About halfway through the editing, our producer, George Blood, asked me, “Jeff, what do you think the five greatest choral works are?” I quickly responded with, “J.S. Bach’s “Mass in B-minor,” Mozart’s “Requiem,” Mendelssohn’s “Elijah,” Beethoven’s “Missa Solemnis,” and Brahms’ “Requiem.” Over my long career, I have had the privilege of conducting all these works, in some cases, several times. Of all these works, Brahms’ “Requiem” holds the most special place in my heart. I am thrilled to be able to conduct this masterpiece on Sunday, April 28, at 4:00 p.m. with our sublime Sanctuary Choir.

For those of you who are familiar with the piece, you may know that it was originally conceived for a full orchestra and large chorus. However, what you might not know is that Brahms himself arranged the original orchestral accompaniment for a piano duet: four hands on one piano. This more intimate version, arranged in 1869, with the wonderful writing for two pianists supporting the voices, is deeply moving. Brahms was no stranger to writing for two pianists; his Liebeslieder Waltzes, composed for two pianists and choir, are among the finest works ever composed. For our performance on April 28, we will use two pianos, all the better to support our wonderful choir.

It appears to be generally agreed among scholars that by early 1865, Brahms had already formed a clear concept and structure of the Requiem, including the choice of texts and early drafts of the music. He wrote the finished form of the greater part of the work, five movements, during 1865 and the first half of 1866. After revisions and more work over the next 18 months, he conducted the first public performance in Bremen Cathedral on Good Friday of 1868 in a version with six movements. During the following year, he wrote a seventh movement, no. 5, and the first public performances of the Requiem in its final form with seven movements were given in Cologne on 16 February 1869 and in Leipzig two days later. It was well received and gained early popularity, though more so in Protestant northern Germany, England, and the United States than in Catholic countries such as France and Italy.

Brahms was brought up in the Protestant tradition of the German theologian and church reformer Martin Luther, and in his title for the work, Ein deutsches Requiem, he is saying two things: this work is not a setting of the liturgical Requiem Mass of the Roman Catholic Church, and its text is not in the Latin of the Roman liturgy, but in the German of his native tongue. Brahms wrote to his publisher that his Requiem “cannot be sung in place of a Requiem Mass in church,” and it was thus primarily for the concert platform. Scholars believe that Brahms may have been agnostic in his religious beliefs.

Nevertheless, Brahms’ choice of texts, from the Old and New Testaments and the Apocrypha in Luther’s translation, are a meditation on the rest, peace, and comfort that can be found in the Christian scriptures when contemplating the inevitable circumstance of death. They make no mention, as in the Catholic Mass, of the day of wrath and of final judgment, and they have no prayer to Christ for the rescue of the faithful from the pains of hell. They speak rather of comfort for those who mourn and of the transitory nature of this life, expressing a firm belief in life after death and the blessed state of those who ‘die in the Lord,’ a belief that after the trials and troubles of this mortal life, there comes a life of peace and joy where ‘sorrow and sighing shall flee away.’

Except for the short fourth and seventh movements, Brahms chose verses for the text of each movement from different books of the Bible and, despite this variety of sources, combined them to complement each other in their message and to set out his own vision and understanding of his Requiem. However, the varied musical color and structure of both the work as a whole and as reflected in each movement deepen and enhance the meaning of the text. As Brahms understood so clearly, music adds its own deeper dimension and fullness to the meaning of words.

We are thrilled that baritone Nicholas Provenzale and soprano Kara Goodrich will be the soloists for this performance. Those of you who attended our Good Friday Bonhoeffer production know how magnificent a singer Nicholas is. Kara, who grew up in BMPC (her mother was a staff singer in the Sanctuary Choir), is now beginning a career as a professional singer. Her role as Mimi in “La Boheme” with Opera Philadelphia last spring brought rave reviews. Accompanying them will be pianists Susan Rogel Ricci and Laura Ward, who will be at the two concert grand pianos.

A free-will offering will be received to benefit the Homeless Advocacy Project, a non-profit organization that provides legal assistance to Philadelphia’s large homeless population. https://www.haplegal.org/

We look forward to bringing this spectacular work into your life on April 28 at 4:00 p.m.