Brahms' German Requiem

By Armin Zebrowski

"It is a truly tremendous piece of art which moves the entire being in a way little else does." Clara Schumann's deep feeling, as expressed in a letter to Johannes Brahms (1833-1897), was evoked at Christmas in 1867 when she held in her hands a copy of Ein deutsches Requiem transcribed for piano. What was it that stirred Clara Schumann so deeply, and what has kept this piece embedded in the consciousness of musicians, lovers of classical music, and Christians? It is often performed by the world's best choirs and orchestras at Christmastime, and enthusiastically rehearsed by amateurs. Without a doubt, it is the elevated, noble tone and theme which lend a deep spiritual dimension to this work rooted in free Christian thought.

Musically, the German Requiem marks a turning point in compositional technique by which Brahms influenced the entire world of music. The way he arranged the seven movements and composed individual passages demonstrates that his thinking was free from musical as well as Christian dogma. Brahms conducted the first performance of the work, comprising six movements, before an audience of 2,500 in Bremen Cathedral on Good Friday 1868, and it met with a positive response from the entire German musical community. In February 1869 the final version, consisting of seven movements, premiered in Leipzig. Brahms was then thirty-six and had worked on the requiem for more than a decade.

Much speculation surrounds the motivation behind this work. Certainly Brahms had a very serious character. "Inside, I never laugh," he once said about himself; and "Life robs us of more than death does." His deep and close relationship with Clara and Robert Schumann, whom he first met in 1853, proved particularly significant. Brahms deeply admired the composer more than twenty years his senior, while Schumann called his young friend the future champion. The relationship between Brahms and Clara Schumann was also close and affectionate. It was a terrible blow to Brahms when Robert Schumann attempted suicide by plunging into the icy Rhine in the winter of 1854. Although he was saved, Schumann spent the remaining two years of his life in an asylum. Brahms was severely shaken by the illness and death of his friend, and began work on the requiem that same year. The death of Brahms' mother in 1865 was another important incident. He was inconsolable, and resumed work on the requiem which had already progressed far before she died. Music historians point out that the added fifth movement can be associated directly with her death: As one whom his mother comforteth, so will I comfort you. The finished work was dedicated to Robert Schumann, Brahms' mother, and the whole of humanity.

Johannes Brahms

The requiem or mass for the dead originated in the Roman Catholic liturgy as a prolonged intercession for the departed. It is based on a traditional text which has remained almost unchanged since the Middle Ages, where the congregation asks God to redeem the deceased from all torments of hell, to be merciful in the Last Judgement, and to give him eternal peace. Brahms broke radically with this tradition. He himself compiled the verses, moving freely within the entire Lutheran Bible. Correspondence with Karl Reinthaler in October 1867 reveals that he purposely left out usual Christian dogma. After looking through the score, Reinthaler, as musical director of the Bremen Cathedral, was rather doubtful about performing it on Good Friday:

In the work you come close to the perimeter not only of the religious, but even to the thoroughly Christian. Already the second movement touches the prophecy of the Second Coming of the Lord, and in the next to last the mystery of the resurrection of the dead, . . . But from a Christian perspective it lacks the point around which everything rotates, namely the redeeming death of the Lord. . . .
You show yourself so knowledgeable about the Bible in the way you put the texts together, that you certainly will find the correct words should you find any other alteration advisable . . .

Brahms answered, completely unmoved: "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." Brahms' aim was to create, not a Christian or indeed a religious opus, but rather one addressing humanity. However well versed in the Bible he may have been, he cared little for the Church. When attacked for this attitude, he responded: "Nevertheless, I do have my faith."

In this work Brahms changed the purpose of the requiem. Instead of a mass for the dead, he points out the path for mankind. He does not speak of the Redeemer's death but of God -- whether he was thinking of a personal, anthropomorphic God remains a moot question. In the context of the perennial wisdom, God can be regarded as the Creator on the one hand, and on the other as the God within us, our own higher self. The Bible verses he chose confirm this universal viewpoint, especially for those in a Christian culture. His "human" requiem examines cosmic cycles of life and death, the fleeting nature of outer life, and the eternity of truth and the inner worlds. Rather than fear of sin, God's wrath, and the Last Judgement, it conveys tidings of love and immortality. Thus his work begins with words of comfort: "Blessed are they that mourn; for they shall be comforted" (Matthew 5:4), and continues: "They that sow in tears shall reap in joy. He that goeth forth and weepeth, bearing precious seed, shall doubtless come again with rejoicing, bringing his sheaves with him" (Psalm 126:5-6).

In the second movement he approaches the finiteness of manifested existence with the following words: "For all flesh is as grass, and all the glory of man as the flower of grass. The grass withereth, and the flower thereof falleth away" (1 Peter 1:24). At the same time, however, the cyclical nature of life is hinted at, since in spring grass and flowers return and bring forth new blooms: "Be patient therefore, brethren, unto the coming of the Lord. Behold, the husbandman waiteth for the precious fruit of the earth, and hath long patience for it, until he receive the early rain and the latter rain" (James 5:7). Here Brahms points out that everything has its own time and that our destiny will be fulfilled when the time is ripe. The movement ends with: "But the word of the Lord endureth for ever" (1 Peter 1:25); "And the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with songs, and everlasting joy upon their heads: they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away" (Isaiah 35:10).

These words are consolidated in the third movement:

Lord, make me to know mine end, and the measure of my days, what it is; that I may know how frail I am. Behold, Thou hast made my days as an handbreadth; and mine age is as nothing before thee; verily every man at his best state is altogether vanity. Surely every man walketh in a vain shew: surely they are disquieted in vain: he heapeth up riches, and knoweth not who shall gather them. And now, Lord, what wait I for? my hope is in thee. -- Psalm 39:4-7

Nothing is as deceptive as the illusion of thinking oneself safe and able to conquer death. Only by permitting reflection on our own death will we be able to lead an aware and purposeful life, a life within God, a life according to the spirit of our own inner divinity. The only consolation lies with the Lord -- and this does not refer to the Lord Jesus, but to the God within, the light of our heart. This opening verse also cautions those who devote too much attention to trivialities while forgetting their inner source. When we die, we will leave behind all earthly goods, and all our supposed defenses will not protect us. In the face of death we can take along only ourselves: what we are, what we have made of ourselves. The movement ends on a hopeful note: "The souls of the righteous are in the hands of God, and there shall no torment touch them" (Wisdom of Solomon 3:1).

Manuscript of Deutsches Requiem

The fourth movement says: "How amiable are Thy tabernacles, O Lord of hosts! My soul longeth, yea, even fainteth for the courts of the Lord: my heart and my flesh crieth out for the living God. Blessed are they that dwell in thy house; they will still be praising thee" (Psalm 84:1-2, 4). These dwellings of the Lord are our inmost selves, the heart of our heart. God lives within us all and we live within God. Our souls demand the spiritual kingdom within our breast.

The three verses of the added fifth movement comfort us by making us aware of our own immortality: "And ye now therefore have sorrow: but I will see you again, and your heart shall rejoice, and your joy no man taketh from you" (John 16:22); "Ye see how for a little while I labor and toil, yet I have found much rest" (Ecclesiasticus 51:27); and "As one whom his mother comforteth, so will I comfort you" (Isaiah 66:13).

This theme is consolidated in the sixth movement: "For here we have no continuing city, but we seek one to come" (Hebrews 13:14). Death is simply a doorway to another plane of existence. We rest in the cosmic cycles of evolution, we are transformed time and again:

Behold, I shew you a mystery; We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. . . . then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? -- 1 Corinthians 15:51-2, 54-5
Thou art worthy, O Lord, to receive glory and honor and power: for thou hast created all things, and for thy pleasure they are and were created. -- Revelation 4:11

This concept makes death less frightening, with no chance of eternal damnation. In the end everything that happens is God's will; it occurs within the limits of the universal laws which determine the course of life and death. We cannot escape these laws for we are a part of them. In this view the continuing city is not an everlasting paradise, but our destiny. And this destiny is not a question of our physical body or a single earthly life; no, we are children of the universe and will come into our inheritance one far-off day.

With the concluding movement the wheel turns full circle: "Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord from henceforth: Yea, saith the Spirit, that they may rest from their labors; and their works do follow them" (Revelation 14:13). Like the first movement, it refers to the karmic law without which reincarnation is inconceivable.

The German Requiem is one of the few classical works based on the Christian Bible that touches the spiritual issues of death, cosmic cycles, karma, and reincarnation. Unfortunately, the elevating music Brahms employed as a medium cannot be described here -- music which, in the way it moves us, is a message in itself. Those wishing to enter the depths of the freethinker Brahms may get a good recording of this work and read the text while listening. Brahms' composition of the requiem is interwoven with a very subtle atmosphere which may be a wonderful light on the path of the independent seeker of truth, for he will recognize kindred thoughts.

  (From Sunrise magazine, August/September 2002; copyright © 2002 Theosophical University Press)

Arts Menu

Forms are altered and dissolved. Religions die. The human spirit leaves them behind, as the wayfarer leaves the fires that warmed him in the night, and goes in search of other suns; but religion remains. Thought is immortal: it survives all forms and is born again from its own ashes. The idea frees itself from the shrunken symbol, escapes from the chrysalis which prisoned it, which criticism had eaten through. It shines forth pure and bright, a new star in the firmament of humanity. How many has faith yet to add that the whole way of the future may be illumined? Who can say how many stars, thoughts of the ages, have yet to rise in cloudless splendor and shine in the firmament of mind that man may become a living epitome of the Word on the earth? -- Giuseppe Mazzini