Where the more traditional Requiem Mass (also known as the Mass For The Dead) concentrate on the redemption of the dead from the horrors of hell, Brahms' Requiem is concerned with comforting and consoling the loved ones of the deceased. The history of the composition of the work are not completely known as Brahms was not one to divulge any specific inspiration for any of his works. It has been suggested by some scholars that the death of his mother in 1865 and the earlier death in 1856 of his advocate and friend Robert Schumann gave him the impetus to compose the work.
Five movements of the work were completed by 1866 and the first three movements were played in a concert in Vienna in 1867 to mixed reviews. The six movements of the original version of the Requiem were first heard in 1868 in the Northern German town of Bremen. The work was a great success and marked a turning point in Brahms' career. Brahms composed an additional movement later in 1868 and the final seven movement version was first performed in Leipzig in 1869.
A German Requiem has been controversial in a religious sense since the premiere of the first three movements in Vienna. In countries that are predominantly Catholic, the work has not fared as well as in areas that are Protestant. Brahms also strictly avoided using any scripture that dealt with Christian dogma, much to the consternation of a clergyman that wrote a letter to Brahms that mentioned this. Brahms steadfastly refused to change the work and wrote back to the clergyman:
As far as the text is concerned, I will admit that I would gladly give up the 'German' and simply put 'human,' and that I would also with full knowledge and consent go without passages such as John 3:16 From time to time I may have employed a thing because I am a musician, because I could use it, because I cannot dispute or cross out even a 'henceforth' from my honorable poets.I. Selig sind, die da Leid tragen (Blessed are they that mourn)
The German Requiem is the longest work Brahms ever wrote, and it begins with a solemn setting of one of the eight Beatitudes and is notable for the absence of violins in the beginning of the movement. Brahms used texts from the Old and New Testaments and molds them into music of great beauty.
Blessed are they that mourn
for they shall be comforted. [Matthew 5:4]
They who sow in tears
shall reap in joy.
Go forth and cry,
bearing precious seed,
and come with joy bearing their sheaves [Psalm 126:5,6]
II. Denn alles Fleisch, es ist wie Gras (For all flesh is as grass)
The funeral march feeling of the first section is undeniable as the words relate the fleeting nature of life, with a distinguishing feature of the music being that it is not written in the usual 4/4 time signature, but in 3/4 time. The second section lightens the mood until the funeral march appears again. But the movement doesn't end on a somber note as Brahms reassures the listener with music and words of hope that end in glory.
For all flesh is as grass,
and the glory of manlike flowers.
The grass withers
and the flower falls. [1 Peter 1:24]
Therefore be patient, dear brothers,
for the coming of the Lord.
Behold, the husbandman waits
for the delicious fruits of the earth
and is patient for it, until he receives
the morning rain and evening rain. [James 5:7]
But the word of the Lord endures for eternity. [1 Peter 1:25]
The redeemed of the Lord will come again,
and come to Zion with a shout;
eternal joy shall be upon her head;
They shall take joy and gladness,
and sorrow and sighing must depart. [Isaiah 35:10]
III. Herr, lehre doch mich (Lord, teach me)
The third movement features a contemplative solo for baritone that deals with the fleeting nature of life. After soloist and chorus ruminate on this, the music flows directly into some of the most remarkable music Brahms ever wrote. The movement ends with Brahms showcasing his mastery of counterpoint with a huge fugue for chorus, which is notable for the pedal point D that is held throughout.
Lord, teach me
That I must have an end,
And my life has a purpose,
and I must accept this.
Behold, my days are as a handbreadth before Thee,
and my life is as nothing before Thee.
Alas, as nothing are all men,
but so sure the living.
They are therefore like a shadow,
and go about vainly in disquiet;
they collect riches, and do not know
who will receive them.
Now, Lord, how can I console myself?
My hope is in Thee. [Psalm 39:4-7]
The righteous souls are in God's hand
and no torment shall stir them. [Wisdom of Solomon 3:1]
IV. Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen (How lovely are thy dwellings)
After the dramatic first three movements the fourth is one of calmness. This movement acts as a pivot, a center point to the work.
How lovely are thy dwellings,
O Lord of Hosts!
My soul requires and yearns for
the courts of the Lord;
My body and soul rejoice
in the living God.
Blessed are they that dwell in thy house;
they praise you forever. [Psalm 84:1,2,4]
V. Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit (You now have sorrow)
This is the movement that Brahms wrote and inserted after the first 6-movement version of the Requiem had been performed. It is a solo for soprano and is music of consolation.
You now have sorrow;
but I shall see you again
and your heart shall rejoice
and your joy no one shall take from you. [John 16:22]
I have had for a little time toil and torment,
and now have found great consolation. [Ecclesiasticus 51:27]
I will console you,
as one is consoled by his mother [Isaiah 66:13]
VI. Denn wir haben hie keine bleibende Statt (For we have here no lasting city)
Brahms begins this movement calmly, but it grows in intensity and power as the baritone soloist relates the raising of the dead and the end of death. A fugue for chorus is the feature of this movement.
For we have here no lasting city,
but we seek the future. [Hebrews 13:14]
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? [1 Corinthians 15:51,52,54,55]
Lord, Thou art worthy to receive all
praise, honor, and glory,
for Thou hast created all things,
and through Thy will
they have been and are created. [Revelation 4:11]
VII. Selig sind die Toten (Blessed are the dead)
A German Requiem comes full circle in this last movement as it moves towards a reminiscence of music heard in the first movement. Selig (blessed) ends the movement with the same word that began the first movement.
Blessed are the dead
that die in the Lord
Yea, saith the spirit,
that they rest from their labors,
and their works shall follow them. [Revelation 14:13]