by Richard H. Trame, S.J., Ph.D.
The 25 year old North German Brahms composed his lovely Italianate Ave Maria (Opus 12) in 1858, early in his "second" compositional period. The work reflects the influence of Robert Schumann and Felix Mendelssohn, among others. Brahms also had enthusiastically embraced composition for women's voices even before he became the conductor of the Hamburg Women's Chorus. A work of an experimental nature, particularly in its orchestration (it was originally scored with only organ accompaniment), the Ave Maria manifests its most Brahmsian character in the harmonies of the prayer's concluding phrases.
The origins of the Alto Rhapsody (Opus 53) of 1869 provide us with some profound insight into Brahms' character. His relationships with certain women throughout his life exhibited a reticence and shyness which exacerbated his loneliness and sense of rejection. Brahms strong but unexpressed love for Clara and Robert Schumann's daughter, Julie, received a devastating shock when she married an Italian, Count Morimorito. The embittered Brahms proceeded to compose the Alto Rhapsody utilizing three verses from Goethe's poem Harzreise im Winter. He observed that "it was a 'bridal song' for Countess Schumann, but with rage do I write such things - with anger."
Little did the perplexed Julie realize that the 36 year old Brahms - by giving expression to his grief - regained his self-control by composing a work he loved so much that he kept it under his pillow.
Apparently unaware of the Alto Rhapsody's origins, Clara Schumann wrote "A few days ago Johannes showed me a wonderful work for contralto, men's chorus and orchestra. He called it his bridal song. It has been a long time since I have received so profound an impression; it shook me with the deep-felt grief of its words and music." Such profundity could only have come from the personal experience of a solitary man prey to the agonies of loneliness.
Brahms uses Goethe's description of a visit to a depressed and misanthropic mountain dweller in this his closest approach to opera. The Alto Rhapsody exhibits a dramatic progression reminiscent of an opera with an orchestral introduction followed by a recitative (Adagio, Verse 1), arioso (Poco Andante, Verse 2), to aria with chorus accompaniment (Adagio, Verse 3). The sentiments of the poem depict a man lost and weighed down in a desert of miserable disdain and unsatisfying selfishness only relieved - through prayer - by a refreshing and uplifting melody.
With the first performance of the then incomplete Ein deutsches Requiem (Opus 45) in Bremen Cathedral on April 10, 1868, Brahms' reputation as a formidable composer was firmly established. Attending the performance that Good Friday were Joachim, Clara Schumann, Max Bruch and Albert Dietrich. Dietrich's comments well foreshadowed the work's subsequent reputation. "Never had the cathedral been so full, never had the enthusiasm been so great! The effect of the splendid performance of this wonderful work was simply overwhelming, and it at once became to the audience that the German Requiem ranked among the loftiest music ever given to the world."
The Requiem was first performed in all of its seven movements by the Gewandhaus Orchestra and Chorus in Leipzig under Carl Reinecke on February 18, 1869. Its first American performance was on March 15, 1877 by the New York Oratorio Society.
The modern biographer Hans Gal summarizes the work's enduring impact. He writes that it manifests rhat "infallible sense of form unhesitatingly reaching for greatness, an intense feeling of poetic expression, and a masterful handling of vocal settings. But the most essential thing that the composer achieved ... defies all analysis: the depth of experience and its utterance, which touches and captivates the listener's inmost soul. This is the mysterious ingredient of those great works that tower above time."
The Requiem marks Brahms attainment of artistic maturity. Preceded by the Ave Maria, the Funeral Hymn, the two orchestral Serenades, and his Piano Concerto in D, the Requiem stands as his longest composition and greatest choral achievement. No specific date can be assigned to the origin of the Requiem. Robert Schumann's tragic death in 1856, and Brahms' reflections on death and resurrection may have provided the initial impulse in 1861. By then he had expanded a rejected movement for his D Minor Piano Concerto into what was to be the Requiem's second movement. The death of his beloved mother in February, 1865 motivated him to complete the fifth (and last composed movement) through which he assuaged his deeply felt grief.
The precedent for a German Requiem lies not in the Roman Catholic liturgical rite to which the title "requiem" is normally given, but in such German antecedents as Heinrich Schiltz's Musicalische Exequien and Bach's Actus Tragicus (Cantata 106) "Gottes Zeit." He may also have been more immediately influenced by Markull's oratorio of 1848, Das Gedachnis der Engschlafenen, and Kuster's Die ewige Heimatof 1861.
With exquisite skill Brahms selected sixteen texts from Luther's Bible, seven from the Old Testament, nine from the New. He explicitly resisted suggestions for the inclusion of direct or indirect reference to Christ, feeling perhaps that such an inclusion would dampen his envisaged universality for this concert work. He did not consider himself specifically a Christian nor a believer in the soul's immortality. Nevertheless the texts chosen appear as those commonly associated with Christian burial and the transitory nature of life. Brahms chose to emphasize consolation amidst life's vicissitudes which the living derive from the prospect of final resurrection and eternal joy.
Karl Geiringer has observed that the symmetry and perfect equilibrium of all the Requiem's movements evidence Brahms' supreme maturity. "Most of the movements themselves are related and exhibit a tripartite symmetry. The two outer movements, the second and the sixth, the third and the fifth correspond to each other, while the fourth ("Wie lieblich") serves as a capstone, a gentle trio or scherzo of the type Brahms subsequently used in place of the more traditional vigorous symphonic scherzo.
Geiringer succinct description neatly summarizes this work for baritone and soprano soloists, four-part mixed chorus, and romantic orchestra. In his book Brahms, His Life and Work he states: "The connection between the two outer movements is most clearly defined. It lies not only in the correspondence of the words, but even more in the fact that Brahms, with unobtrusive art, passed toward the end of the seventh movement into the close of the first. In the sixth movement the content of the second appears, but repeated, as it were on another and higher plane. But while in this second movement the weird dance of death at the opening gives place to a veritable hymn of joy, the mournful, groping uncertainty which opens the sixth movement passes into a vision of the Last Judgement ... to conclude in a mighty double fugue of Handelian strength and glory. Lastly, the third and fifth movements stand to each other in the same relation as lamentation and deliverance. Both pieces begin with solo voices; but while the man's voice at the opening of the third movement first suggests grief and even despair, gaining confidence and hope in God's mercy only at the very end of the movement, the fifth movement opened by a woman's voice, is from the first note to the last conceived in a mood of maternal consolation."
While confining himself throughout the work to a four-voiced mixed chorus, Brahms manifests a sovereign grasp of contrapuntal writing. Likewise, in the orchestration he achieves his effects through adept use of the romantic orchestra. In the first movement the omission of the bright violins, clarinets, and trumpets fosters the subdued, dark-hued sentiments expressed. The use of divided strings with mutes in the second movement gives it a "sinister gaity." Throughout the Requiem, Brahms' use of harp and kettledrum along with his other instrumental effects resulted in an orchestral palette hardly surpassed in his later works.