PROGRAM NOTES BY
RICHARD H. TRAME, S.J., Ph. D.
Loyola Marymount University
Any composition of a great composer, such as Johannes Brahms' A Tragic Overture (Op. 81), which can elicit such comments on the one hand as "conventional, failing to generate much heat," "lacking in inspiration" and on the other hand "one of Brahms' finest orchestral movements and fully worthy to stand beside any of his symphonies" may present the listener and performer with a singular challenge. Donald Tovey, in a brief essay on this work, has admonished the listener not to judge it by preconceived notions about the nature of tragedy, but rather to probe its detached, idealized universality wherein no specific story or tragic concept prevails. The fact that this Overture survived Brahms' constant and ruthless self-criticism should dispose us toward a positive judgment of it.
A Tragic Overture in D Minor was completed as a companion piece to the Academic Festival Overture (Op. 80) in late 1880. Sketches of a significant portion of the Overture date from the late 1860s when the Requiem was completed. It was first performed on December 12, 1880 in Vienna, and then again on January 4, 1881 in Breslau.
With the first performance of the yet incomplete German Requiem (Op. 45) in Bremen Cathedral on April 10, 1868, Brahms' reputation as a formidable composer was at last firmly established. The Requiem stands as the watershed of his artistic fortunes, for regardless of how subsequent compositions were initially received he now had to be reckoned with. Indeed the Requiem remains today the enduring touchstone by which the world judges his stature.
The Requiem marks Brahms' attainment of artistic maturity. Prior to its composition he had produced but two choral works with orchestral accompaniment, the Ave Maria (Op. 12) for women's voices, and the Funeral Hymn (Op. 17) for mixed chorus and wind instruments. Of his purely orchestral works, only the two Serenades (Op. 11 and 16) and the Piano Concerto in D Minor (Op. 15) precede it. The Requiem stands not only as his longest composition, but his greatest achievement in vocal writing.
No specific date can be assigned for the origin of the Requiem. Robert Schumann's death in 1856 may have provided the initial impulse, though Brahms had previously often reflected on death and resurrection. Between 1857 and 1858 he reworked a sarabande intended initially as a slow scherzo movement for the Piano Concerto in D. This excerpt became the Requiem's second movement. By 1861 he had expanded the composition into a four movement Cantata. The death of his beloved mother in February, 1865, motivated Brahms to complete the Requiem, through which he assuaged his deeply felt grief at her passing.
Although Herbeck's disastrous performance in Vienna of the first three movements of the Requiem on December 1, 1867, could be attributed both to inadequate rehearsal and to obscurities in Brahms' orchestral scoring of the third movement, the six movements were triumphantly received in Bremen. Between the third and fourth movements, and because it was Good Friday, some arias from Handel's Messiah ("I know that my Redeemer liveth"), and Bach's St. Matthew Passion were interpolated - a condition, it seems, for the Requiem's performance there since, throughout, it contains no reference to Christ. Shortly thereafter, Brahms, whose artistic instinct recognized the necessity of adding another movement for symmetry and emotional balance, completed the whole work in 1868 with his addition of the fifth movement for soprano and chorus. Even the cool reception accorded the performance of the now complete work on February 18, 1869 in Leipzig could not forestall its subsequent triumphant acceptance.
The precedents for the German Requiem lie not in the Roman Catholic liturgical rite to which the title Requiem properly belongs, but to such antecedent works as Heinrich Schütz's Teutsche Begraebnis Missa (Musicalische Exequien) and Bach's Actus Tragicus, Cantata 106 (Gottes Zeit). Perhaps even more immediately, its origins are found, according to Frederick Blume, in F.W. Markull's oratorio of 1848 Das Gedachnis der Engschlafenen and Herman Kuster's Die ewige Heimat of 1861.
With exquisite skill Brahms selected sixteen texts from Luther’s Bible, seven from the Old Testament and nine from the New. He explicitly resisted suggestions for the inclusion of any direct or indirect reference to Christ, feeling perhaps that such an inclusion would dampen his envisaged universality for the work. Nevertheless the texts chosen appear as those commonly associated with all Christian liturgy of burial and the transitory nature of life. Brahms chose to emphasize the consolation amid life's vicissitudes which the living derive from the prospect of final resurrection and eternal joy. The attachment of the word "German" to the title signifies only that the work was composed in German, the language in which obviously but not exclusively it should be sung.
Karl Geiringer has observed that the symmetry and perfect equilibrium of all the Requiem's parts "stamp the work as the product of Brahms' complete maturity at the height of his powers." Most of the movements themselves are related and exhibit this tripartite symmetry. The two outer movements, the second and sixth, and the third and fifth correspond to each other, while the fourth 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's succinct description of these relationships neatly summarizes the whole work:
"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 Judgment ... 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."
- Brahms, His Life and Work
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 with economical and striking means 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 gaiety." Throughout the Requiem, Brahms' use of harp and kettledrum along with his other instrumental effects produced color effects hardly surpassed in his later works.
Hans Gal summarizes the enduring impact of the German Requiem when he writes that it manifests that "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 the listener to his innermost soul and captivates him. This is the mysterious ingredient of those great works that tower above time."
The first American performance was on March 15, 1877 by the New York Oratorio Society.