Ein deutsches Requiem is one of my husband’s favorite pieces by his favorite composer. He has also taught Bible as Literature. So when BCCO sang the Requiem in Arlene Sagan’s last semester, with Joe Liebling directing two of the three performances, he combined his love and respect for the music with his knowledge of the significance of the text Brahms chose and wrote this Appreciation. Each time I read it, I am even more moved by the music.
Ein deutsches Requiem — An Appreciation
by Jim Hausken
Brahms’ use of diverse passages from the German (Lutheran) Bible was more of artistic necessity than an iconoclastic break from the Latin liturgical tradition. The German Requiem lacks grounding in a theology more specific than basic Judeo/Christian/Muslim monotheism. Beyond acknowledgment of the Lord and the rightness and comfort of the Lord’s plans for us all, the messages in the selections of scripture and their arrangement convey Brahms’ personal regard of the blessedness of eternal rest.
What are the messages? What shapes emerge throughout the seven movements? Are the verses randomly chosen building sites on which to erect sound structures? Are there unifying themes? Why these lines to this music? Why each selection placed where it is?
Blessed are they that mourn; for they shall be comforted. 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.
The first and last movements begin with “selig” – blessed. These two pillars at both the entrance and exit are not accidental. By the end of the work we should understand why two opposites – the living and the dead – could be considered blessed. The first movement’s purpose is to comfort mourners with a promise of future blessedness. Nowhere in the Requiem is grief trivialized, particularly not with distractions like the Day of Wrath. The mourners will be comforted. They might now “sow in tears” but soon “shall reap in joy.” As death is universal, the promise of future joy for the bereaved is a reflection of the “rejoicing” already experienced by the departed. All of us journey to the “courts of the Lord,” some sooner, some later. Without this assurance, mortality appears tragic.
For all flesh is grass, and the glory of man as the flower of grass. The grass withereth and the flower thereof falleth away. Be patient therefore, brethren, unto the coming of the Lord. Behold, the husbandman waiteth for the precious fruit of the earth, and hath long patience for it, until he receive the early and latter rain. But the word of the Lord endureth forever. 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 will flee away.
Universality is the focus of the second movement: life, though lovely as a blossom, will soon wither. We wait for the seed of rejoicing patiently, the soul’s farmer toiling in the cycle of planting, growth, and promised harvest. And sometimes our labors, our tears blind us to what endures – the word of the Lord, the source of promises and comfort. The predestined, dreary march to the grave is interrupted by the protest of faith: “But (‘Aber’) the word of Lord endureth forever.” This joyous assurance leads, as does the final victory over death relished in the sixth movement, to a celebratory fugue, a majestic way of shoving fate to the side of our attention.
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 my age is nothing before thee: verily every man at his best state is altogether vanity. 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. But the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and there shall no torment touch them.
Ah yes, but many of us need help in getting to the point where we can approach death with equanimity and maybe even ridicule the grave. The first step in this aid is humility and acceptance of one’s transience in the larger scheme of things, and that this shielding in the “hand of God” is the antidote for death’s torments. This acceptance and these promises are what wipe away sorrow and fear, and let us see the beauties of now becoming eternal, the stars as the heavens.
How amiable [lovely] are Thy tabernacles, O Lord of hosts! My soul longeth, yea, 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.
Yes, the passing flower and the eternal heavens are lovely. We can love both now because one beauty, like movements of music, leads to another, where memory is a song heard in the “courts of the Lord.” Selig are those who abide there now as are those who, with mortal eyes, long for the continuing city. This lovely fourth movement will be on the program at celestial concerts.
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. As one whom his mother comforteth, so will I comfort you. Behold with your eyes, how that I have laboured but a little, and found for myself much rest.
The fifth movement was added within two years after the completion of the rest of the work. It is odd in different respects. It returns again to the comfort promise, a continuation of the first movement. Here the comfort comes not so much from the divine authority, the Word of the Lord, but is more human, more personal, “like a mother who comforts” her son. The comforts of the world, of mortal loved ones, are not left easily. Here the earthly comfort is made eternal. Nothing is lost; everything is gained. The Requiem was begun shortly after Brahms’ beloved mother died. It is difficult not to think of these lines without wondering if they are the most personally relevant of the composer’s scriptural references.
This is not looking back. The mother’s comforting is in the future, where she will see her son “again” in a place where his “joy no man taketh.” The joys of this world will not be lost but fulfilled. The starry corridors will echo lullabies; we can take only the best with us. This faith is the victory which makes death a muted threat, a withered blossom, the memory of an ancient dream. Death is just an awkwardly designed transit station on the soul’s journey to its rewards and loving comforts. We will be passing on to a life incorruptible.
For we have here no continuing city, but we seek one to come. 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? Thou art worthy, O Lord, to receive glory and honor and power: for thou hast created all things, and for Thy pleasure they are and were created.
Now is the time for the climax, the final victory. We have accepted our mortality and triumphed. The general fear becomes the object of sarcastic taunts; death can be mocked — What sting? What grave? What follows is an eruption of appropriate praise; the promise of rejoicing in the first movement has arrived. The double fugue salutes the rightness of the soul’s journey to eternal comfort and joy. We see our future – blessedness for those who “die in the Lord.”
But the work doesn’t end here. This is not a work for the departed. It was directed at those who mourn, to comfort them, not only for their loss but for their fears. The blessedness of those already in the Lord’s tabernacles descends into the hearts of those still here. The promised victory is now; all of us are brothers plighted in the same joy, a blessedness in our going out and our coming in. For some exceptional, lucky ones, like Brahms, their works presage for us now the beauty of our future.
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.