Wednesday, June 26, 2013

A Requiem for Today?

When Colin Davis died earlier this year, I posted several movements from Mozart's Requiem on facebook, because I have enjoyed listening to his recording of Mozart's Requiem for years. Last month's BBC Music Magazine featured a free disc of Brahms' A German Requiem, which is not based upon the Catholic Mass at all, but upon texts Brahms selected from Luther's Bible. The booklet with the CD notes that Brahms wrote the Requiem after his mother's death, but that he did not believe in an afterlife at all. The Catholic Requiem Mass is offered for the repose of the soul of the deceased, but Brahms wrote for the consolation of the living, the surviving, mourning, relatives and friends of the deceased--there's no Judgment, and no resurrection of the dead, either; no Heaven or Hell.

Listening to Brahms' Ein Deutsches Requiem for the first time, I did not really hear the words, but the music is beautiful, so often serene. This site notes that the work did not succeed very well when performed in Catholic countries, but was accepted in England and the USA immediately:

Following the paradigm of reception that we have set up for Germany -- the fact that Catholic towns were far more resistant to the Requiem than their Protestant counterparts -- it comes as no surprise to learn that the Requiem was considerably better received in England and the United States than in Catholic countries such as France and Italy. Indeed, we have little documentation of any reception whatsoever in these countries; in England, on the other hand, reviews, commentary, and performances were abundant from 1871 onwards. There is some statistical disagreement about the number of performances of the Requiem in Europe during Brahms' lifetime: while Musgrave cites the figure of 79 performances outside Germany between 1869 and 1876, Kalbeck reports 85 performances between 1867 and 1876 [22]; in any event, the work was most certainly performed in most major European cities, and subject to repeats on demand on several occasions. In Britain, which had by far the strongest and most positive reception (as was typical for choral and religious music, Musgrave notes), the Requiem premiered in a private performance in London in July 1871, conducted by Julius Stockhausen himself, on one of his frequent visits to Sir Henry Thompson. The public premiere, also in London, was in April of 1873, and was the subject of great critical attention -- most of it quite positive. The work was immediately recognized as difficult, but esteemed at the same time as a work of a great composer, already seen as the successor in the German tradition of Bach and Beethoven. The only major criticism came from those who felt, like Hanslick's original commentary, that the concert hall was the wrong place for such a religious funeral service; others also echoed their Continental counterparts and claimed, alternately, that the work was either too "contemplative" or that it was "unemotional." The second public performance in Britain, in 1876, was similarly received: critics remarked in glowing terms of the great masterpiece, and the only major flaw, they felt, was that English singers were not well-trained to sing the contrapuntal German passages. Not surprisingly, when the London Bach Choir began performing the Requiem on a semi-regular basis, the reviewers raved: vocalists trained for Bach, they agreed, were by far the best-equipped to handle Brahms' difficult demands.

Because it does not pray for the dead or cover those issues of judgment and eternity, Brahms' work is very suited to a more secular age--note this story about the MIT community gathering to perform it after the Boston Marathon bombings:

Unlike other requiems, Brahms wrote his as a comfort for the living. That’s another reason why Buckley wanted to perform it. She said traditional requiems are based on the Latin Mass for the dead.

“One of those texts is about the day of judgment, the day of wrath. So they’re beautiful pieces of music — I mean who doesn’t love the Mozart Requiem? But I think that the Brahms is extra special,” Buckley said. “The connection to his mother is important, and the fact that he chose the text from Luther’s translation of the bible. He believed no text is in judgment of the dead.”

So plans for this massive singing event were set midweek.

Reading the texts Brahms selected does emphasize the comfort, peace and assurance Ein Deutsches Requiem offers--but I did see that he does mention the Resurrection of the Dead:

Behold, I show you a mystery:
We shall not all sleep,
but we all shall be changed
and suddenly, in a moment,
at the sound of the last trombone.
For the trombone shall sound,
and the dead shall be raised incorruptible,
and we shall be changed.
Then shall be fulfilled
The word that is written:
Death is swallowed up in victory.
O Death, where is thy sting?
O Hell, where is thy victory?

Fascinating. I'll have to listen to it again.

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