Brahms, German Requiem. T. Herbert Dimmock provides an introduction to this work.  BDP #299.

 <music: J. S. Bach, Brandenburg Concerto No. 1>

Bach in Baltimore was founded in 1988. It is dedicated to performing the complete works of Bach and we are not going to let that work end until we finish that project. We have performed over 160 of the 200 plus cantatas. We have performed all of the motets, the passions, most of the Lutheran masses, the B Minor Mass—of course many times--, most of the instrumental concertos, all of the Brandenburg Concertos, and so on. So, we like to reach out and play music by other great Baroque composers and from time to time also go a little further a field and look at the music that follows. In general, when we look at music that follows Bach’s generation in the Classical or Romantic period, we like to look for music that has a relationship to Bach.

There are two Romantic composers who are known for having payed homage to Bach verbally and also in their musical language again and again. One of those two is Brahms. So, Bach in Baltimore will be doing its first performance of Brahms German Requiem very soon.

I had the great privilege of studying for about fifteen years with one of the world’s
leading choral conductors. He was maybe the greatest Bach conductor in the world and also a great authority on many other composers. This is he, Helmuth Rilling. I have in my hand a book he wrote just on the musical language of Brahms’ German Requiem. It is from my study of the German Requiem with Rilling that many of my ideas come. I am very grateful to him for that.

Brahms’ title for the piece is interesting. He called it a German Requiem. Not so much because it was for the German people, but to differentiate it from a traditional Latin requiem as found in the Latin funeral mass of the Roman Catholic Church. I think that he called it a German Requiem simply because he was German and he wrote it in the German language at a time when requiems that were liturgical would be in Latin. So, this differentiates the language more than the nationality.

It is very interesting which funeral text he chose. He made a point of not choosing liturgical text. In fact, he wrote that he wanted this piece to be for all humanity. I read in one of my many textbooks on music about Brahms, this little quote:
Brahms in character was honest and sincere in manners. He was plainspoken. He never married. To him art was life.

That phrase “to him art was life” is an essential thing to understand Brahms. I think that nothing better personifies Brahms than his German Requiem. He wrote it over a period of years beginning in 1857. It wasn’t performed until 1868. It is a seven-movement piece. The final movement that he wrote, which he inserted into the fifth spot in the overall piece. He added it upon the death of his mother. This idea of art was life: he wrote this comforting, affirming piece, particularly the fifth movement in memory of his mother. To him that was his way to celebrate his love for her and his love for life and to find comfort.

So, let’s look at the beginning of the piece, which uses two biblical texts. The first text is from Matthew chapter 5 verse 4. In Matthew chapter 5 we have the Sermon on the Mount in which Jesus prays or gives out the Beatitudes. This text is on the second of the Beatitudes. The second Beatitude is: “blessed are they that mourn, for they will be comforted.” The second text for this opening movement is from Psalm 126 in the middle of the psalm, verses 5 and 6:

They that sow in tears shall reap in joy. Who goeth forth and weepeth, and beareth precious seed, shall doubtless return with rejoicing, bringing his sheaves with him.

So, movement 1 is remarkable for the orchestration. It uses three distinct cello parts, two viola parts, two French horn, and a little bit latter some woodwinds. The violins do not play at all. It is all, if you will, darker colors. In begins [music] the first thing you hear is of course this [music] repeating note, recuring quarter note, it repeats incessantly. It is like a deep, ringing bell chime, which you might associate with a church bell or another bell ringing for a funeral.

By the way, this is a little tangent, the ringing of bells was understood as a way to keep the evil spirits away. So that is why churches ring bells as the person is taken from the church to the cemetery—to keep evil spirits away. So, this is reminiscent of that [music]…then here comes the cello [music]…another cello [music]…viola. It is just enormously expressive. There is a kind of sense of profound sorrow and sadness that permeates this piece. 

After a remarkably beautiful introduction with these low strings, the choir comes in. Now, what would you expect? If you don’t know the piece, you would expect him to pick up those ideas, wouldn’t you? But they don’t. This is what they do. The choir comes in and they sing the word “blessed” like this [music]…acapella, no instruments. This beautiful halo of blessedness. Blessed, blessed, blessed are they that mourn, for they shall have comfort. All those tessituras.

Here we are, Brahms had some Bachian thoughts about him. After this beautiful “blessed are they” “for they shall have comfort” there is a syncopated entrance, “and they shall” it leaps up—yes,  indeed. It is very affirmative.” For they shall” they sing [music], for they shall have comfort. There is a beautiful finish, they shall have comfort.

The orchestra comes back and again there is the beautiful blessed chord [music]…twice [music] and we are off into this beautiful piece.

So, we have these orchestration choices, this beautiful sense of blessedness, this affirmative sense that they indeed shall have comfort. Then comes the second phrase within the text. “They who sow in tears shall reap in joy.” You could absolutely think that Bach wrote this. For “they shall sow” he has [music]. In Baroque music we call them “twosies.” [music, singing] In Baroque music we call that a lament, a lament tune. The voices sing in pairs [music].

Above it the sopranos come in and they affirm that yes, this really indeed will be the case. It starts gently [music] then goes up a little bit [music] then a little more [music] then a little more [music]. Again, they sing this wonderfully affirming music. Against it the orchestra is mostly the low strings although at this moment there are some woodwinds coming in. Again, our violins are waiting their turn patiently.

The text of the opening movement says “they shall be comforted” but in fact the entire German Requiem is absolutely, deeply comforting. Movement after movement gives us this idea of comfort. It is emotionally impactful, and I find it completely unforgettable.

If you read through textbooks on Romantic music, this piece is considered one of the most important oratorical pieces in the entire Romantic period and therefore in the history of choral music. It is a very important piece with seven movements. Without a doubt it is a great treasure.

So, we hope that you will stay in touch with Bach in Baltimore. Of course, we do lots of Bach and we would love to see you in our Bach concerts. But when we do the German Requiem we would love to see you with us. You can find out about it on our website,

<music: J. S. Bach, Brandenburg Concerto No. 1>