Johannes Brahms (1833-1897):  
Ein Deutsches Requiem
,  Op. 45  

This imposing and emotional work largely established Brahms’ reputation while he was still in his mid thirties.  It is not a conventional requiem since it doesn’t use the words of the catholic Requiem Mass, but instead draws texts from the Lutheran (or “German”) Bible, more in the manner of an oratorio.  It speaks of consolation for the living rather than the commemoration of the dead.  Although Brahms had probably been planning such a work since Schumann’s death in 1856, it was actually begun in response to the death of his mother at the age of  76 in January 1865, completed only gradually and not performed in full until 1869.  Three of the eventual seven movements were given for the first time in Vienna in 1867, and Brahms conducted six in Bremen the following year, when friends from his home city of Hamburg were among the performers. 

The first movement, subdued and reflective, sets words of comfort for those who mourn; while the second is a pounding funeral march with a text about the frailty of earthly life.  In the third the baritone soloist joins the choir with a plaintive melody which continues the theme of the impermanence of the human condition before suddenly giving way to a confident fugue.  The fourth movement is the famous and lyrical “Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen” (“How lovely are thy dwelling places”: Psalm 84) often sung separately by choirs in concerts and church services.  The last-completed movement, the fifth, involves the soprano soloist and refers, with poignant beauty, to the comfort given by a mother.  The baritone returns for the sixth movement, with texts about the conquest of death, principally from 1 Corinthians: this movement starts sombrely, has an agitated central section and concludes in a stately and extended fugue.  The final movement returns to the mood of the opening one, with familiar words of reassurance from Revelation.

The first performance in Britain of Ein Deutsches Requiem was in 1871 at the private London home of the eminent concert pianist Kate Loder (Lady Thompson); and for this occasion Brahms made the four-hand piano version of the accompaniment.   Brahms was still a relatively inexperienced orchestral writer at this date and the piano version reveals the rhythmic and harmonic structure of the music with sharper clarity and greater intimacy than the orchestra often does (in fact it can be performed quite effectively even without the choir!).   

Peter Harbord,  North Yorkshire Chorus

Text and translation  (pdf)

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