Our music for this week is the second movement of the German Requiem by Brahms. This week also marks the beginning of a new series on the music of Johannes Brahms. In particular, I want to focus on his larger works, such as the Requiem and his four symphonies.
The Requiem is based on the following set of verses:
Blessed are they that mourn
Behold, all flesh is as the grass
Lord, let me know mine end
How lovely are thy dwellings
Ye now have sorrow
For we have here no abiding city
Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord.
The verses above, which Brahms chose himself from both the Old and New Testaments, is clearly focused on themes of death and mourning. However, there is a consistent message of hope throughout the Requiem, and there is a widespread consensus that Brahms intended this piece to be a comfort for the living rather than a memorial for the dead.
It is likely that he wrote this piece in memory of both his mother and his dear friend Robert Schumann, both of whom died shortly before the composition of this piece. In fact, Brahms wrote the following words about the Requiem after its first performance:
“If you were to consider the situation and how it relates particularly to me, you would know how much and how profoundly a piece like the Requiem is altogether Schumann’s and how, in the secret recesses of my mind, it therefore had to seem quite self-evident to me that it would indeed be sung to him.”
The second movement, written in the especially dark key of B-flat minor, is the funeral march portion of the Requiem. While the later movements of the Requiem (which you are more than welcome to listen to at your leisure) depict the acceptance stage, this movement is fully saturated in the despair of loss. The tenor and bass parts are the foundation of the funeral march, and they repeatedly sing the words “Behold, all flesh is as the grass.” There is a persistence emphasis throughout this movement on the inevitability of our fate.
However, Brahms provides the listener with a brief respite during the middle of the movement, when he transitions to a lighter and more uplifting episode focused on the words “But yet the Lord’s word standeth forever.” These words and the brightness of this section are an excellent example of Brahms’ desire to, as noted above, comfort the living rather than mourn the dead.
The ending of this movement is particularly interesting. You will notice that it does not end in the somber darkness in which it begins. In many ways, this ending is the beginning of the transition from grief to acceptance. It is interesting to note that, despite the persistent focus on fate and grieving in the previous verses, the last words of this movement are simply “Eternal Joy.”