Also Ein deutsches Requiem (a German Requiem). Composed by Johannes Brahms, opus 45. A true choral masterwork, Brahms finished the work in its final form in 1868; although the date that Brahms actually began composing the work is uncertain, it is thought to have been started as early as 1857. Brahms' primary influences for the work are thought to be the deaths of his mother, and of his friend and benefactor, Robert Schumann. The piece was initially performed in Vienna in 1867, reworked after lackluster reviews, and finally won acclaim in 1869. (Note: the piece, in spots, is devilishly hard for both choir and orchestra, and part of the reason for the early bad reviews may have been lack of preparation of the performers--they didn't realize what they were dealing with!)

While not particularly nationalistic in nature, Brahms did intend to write a work for all of the people of Germany--a truly German work--hence the title. On the other hand, Brahms drew heavily upon his Lutheran background for the texts and for the emotions of the movements. In addition, the work stands in sharp contrast to the Catholic Requiem Mass. Consequently, the Catholic portions of the country (such as Bavaria), were not initially receptive to the work. Indeed, critics' and peers' opinions of the work were sharply divided, and often extreme. (Richard Wagner, in particular, was sharply negative, saying 'we will want no German Requiem being played to our ashes'.)

Brahms' German Requiem is in seven movements. It is scored for a large choir and a large-ish orchestra containing strings (violins, cellos, and bass), woodwinds (clarinets, oboes, bassons and flutes), brass (trumpets, and trombones), harp, organ, and tympani. The orchestra typically provides introductions to the movements, and often doubles voice parts. The first movement is slow, reserved yet sweet, and haunting ("Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted"). It features the full choir and makes effective use of the woodwind section of the orchestra. The second movement begins as a funeral march ("For all flesh is grass, and all the glory of man is as the flower of grass"), then transitions to a more hopeful tone of waiting for the Lord's return and then to a triumphant, fugue-like proclamation of the ultimate power of the Lord.

The third movement features a lengthy baritone solo, lamenting the mortality of man. (Note: this is the first of two rather difficult baritone solos. The line is very exposed, and the orchestral parts often provide a counterpoint. Rhythmically-challenged baritones can nearly ruin the performance.) Like the second movement, the third movement transitions to a more jubilant, fugal passage.

The fourth movement is probably the best-known and well-loved portion of the work, suitable for performance as a choral anthem, "How lovely is thy dwelling place, O Lord of hosts". This is the vision of eternity. It is extremely beautiful and uplifting, and while comparatively simple, must be sung with precision in order to avoid sounding overly sweet or sentimental.

The fifth movement centers around a lovely soprano solo, with a very soft backing part for the full choir providing responses to the solo voice. The text is very personal, relating that while you now feel sorrow, while your present labors may be great, you shall have rest ("as one whom his mother comforteth, so shall I comfort you"). The sixth movement contains a baritone solo providing the transition between the death which surrounds us today, to the Lord's triumph over death, highlighted by a dramatic passage, "O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?" sung by the full choir with ample support from the brass section. The movement then concludes with a song of praise, another fugue containing some almost playful elements (by comparison, at least).

The final, seventh movement is a reprise of the first, in some ways, using some of the same textual elements ("blessed are the dead which die in the Lord from henceforth: Yea, saith the spirit that they may rest from their labours") and the same hopeful mood, though in a slightly more cheerful way.

Notes on Brahms Requiem,
Classical Music Pages,
Ein deutsches Requiem: (Mis)conceptions of the Mass , Mary Thuleen, Apr. 1998 -

Side note: I was inspired to write this as a I listened to WQXR in New York play it late one evening shortly after the tragedies of September 2001 in New York City and Washington, D.C., as well by my own remembrances of performing this piece many years ago. Though I am not a very religious person--or perhaps because of that fact--I nevertheless felt the transcendent power of the music and its ability give us a glimpse into the eternal.

Deutsches Requiem is also a short story by Jorge Luis Borges, which takes its name from the above-mentioned Brahms work. It is a great example of how Borges writes his stories in the form of false documents, in order to effectively and with full force put forth controversial -- but extremely interesting and worth pondering -- ideas, that he does not necessarily endorse.

The story is narrated by Otto Dietrich zur Linde, a Nazi concentration camp subdirector who's been sentenced to die by the Nuremberg tribunal. The thesis of the narrator's essay is that in its defeat, the Third Reich is "comparable to the Wizard who fashioned the labyrinth and was then doomed to wander in it to the end of his days". That is, its purpose has been realized, but as an unforeseen and necessary consequence of this realization, it itself must vanquish. This purpose, according to the narrator was to teach the world "violence and the faith of the sword" and make sure that "violence reigns and not servile Christian timidity". This is the narrator's requiem to the late Third Reich (and to Germany, from his point of view): "If victory and injustice (typo? YK) and happiness are not for Germany, let them be for other nations. Let Heaven exist, even though our dwelling place is Hell". A shocking idea of the postwar world indeed -- a heaven in the eyes of Nazi philosophy!

This is a variation of the old "Battle not with monsters, lest ye become a monster, and if you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you" idea (Nietzsche is cited by the narrator as one of his great intellectual influences, Brahms being another one). But it is much more terrifying coming from the monster itself, gleeful that its monstrosity lives on in its slayer. Of course, this idea of the monster's is a monstrous, abominable one, but nevertheless it is fruitful to contemplate. That is why Borges must construct and employ a false author to this document. He even goes farther and uses footnotes to poke holes in the narrator's credibility.

Of course, this technique isn't unique to this story, Borges uses false documents and unreliable narrators to great effect in almost all of his stories, most notably The Garden of Forking Paths, The Shape of the Sword, Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote and Three versions of Judas. In the latter he invents a couple of theologians to suggest the idea that God did not come down to the earth as Jesus, but rather as Judas, an idea which is very interesting to ponder (read the story for the arguments), but should not taken into any real consideration.

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