Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment

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Brahms’ humanist Requiem

Tue Oct 30 2018

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“Brahms’ Requiem is essentially humanist, less a prayer for the dead than a personal meditation for the consolation of the living.”

Ahead of our performances with Marin Alsop, we explore how Brahms’ German Requiem broke the mould. 

Brahms found in the Lutheran Bible a lifelong source of wisdom and spiritual enlightenment. But as a defiant agnostic he selected the texts for A German Requiem for their personal rather than their specifically Christian associations.

The conductor Carl Rheinthaler, who prepared the choir and orchestra for the premiere in 1868, was uncomfortable that the work contained no reference to Christ’s redeeming sacrifice, and suggested that Brahms make amends in the sixth movement, after the passage ‘O death, where is thy sting?’ But, true to form, the composer remained unyielding. He replied that he had chosen certain Biblical passages – from the Old and New Testaments and the Apocrypha – and omitted others ‘because I am a musician, because I needed them’. And while Christ’s words are quoted in the first and fifth movements, there is not a single mention of his name throughout the work.

Elsewhere the composer wrote of the Requiem that ‘I could happily omit the “German” and simply say “human” ‘. And this is the key to the work’s meaning. Alone of the great 19th-century Requiems, Brahms’s is essentially humanist, less a prayer for the dead than a personal meditation for the consolation of the living: on the evanescence of life, the need for patience and forbearance in times of sorrow, the rewards of hard work, and the assurance of joyous renewal.

Despite the composer’s claim that he conceived the Requiem with ‘the whole of humanity in mind’, Clara Schumann and other close friends were convinced he wrote it in memory of his mother, who had died in February 1865. And the maternal link is made explicit in the fifth movement, the most intimate in the work.

Richard Wigmore

We perform Brahms’ Requiem with Marin Alsop to mark Armistice Day, 2018:

Saturday 10 November, 7.45pm, The Anvil, Basingstoke BOOK NOW

Sunday 11 November, 7pm, Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, London BOOK NOW

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