NOTES BY ARTHUR F. EDWARDS
Los Angeles Master Chorale
Rhapsody, Op. 53
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
Fragment from Winter Journey in the Harz Mountains (Harzreise im Winter) by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe for alto soloist, male chorus and orchestra.
In 1777 Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) wrote the ode Harzreise im Winter to state the case against despair as depicted in The Sufferings of Young Werther (1774). Deborah Hayes (The Choral Journal, Nov. 1973, p. 23) skillfully analyzes the poem in which "Goethe describes a hunting expedition through the Harz Mountains. Most of the hunting party - for this, read 'mankind' - follows easily the path marked by 'Fortune.' But the poet notices one who has become 'lost' in the 'wilderness.' The lost one has turned inward, away from mankind, or away from the hunting party on the marked path. He does not see the trail right beside him. Or (final stanza), he is 'a thirsty man in the desert,' who does not see the nearby 'well-springs' or oasis. The poet implores God, the 'Father of love,' to show him the way, to 'open his eyes,' to 'quicken his heart.'" Brahms became acquainted with Harzreise im Winter in 1868 when he found an earlier setting of the text by Johann Friedrich Reichardt (1752-1814). He took 22 lines from the 88 line poem, and wrote a tripartite cantata. The "first and most rhapsodic of the three stanzas, with the prominence of the orchestra and the recitative-like solo, provides the necessary introduction to the second, which takes the form of an aria in three sections. These first two stanzas find their solution and fulfillment in the profound 'emotion of the third, where the chorus supports the solo voice for the first time. Logically and lucidly the little drama is unfolded until love is invoked in the transfigured and genuinely Brahmsian close.... Here we encounter for the first time, in a choral work by Brahms, that Hellenic spirit which was to appear so clearly in the artist's later compositions." (Geiringer: Brahms: p. 315) The Rhapsody is scored for flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons and horns in pairs, strings, alto solo and male chorus.
A German Requiem, Op. 45
On texts selected from Luther's Bible by the composer and scored for soprano and baritone soloists, chorus and orchestra.
Ein deutsches Requiem was more than a decade in gestation (1857-68). It began as a one-movement work (possibly in memory of Schumann) and, after the death of his mother in 1865 was expanded to a work in four movements. By the official premiere on Good Friday, April 10, 1868, at the Cathedral in Bremen, the Requiem had again expanded to six movements. Within the year another movement was added (which became the fifth) for solo soprano and chorus. With this history of its gestation, the most amazing thing about the work is its seemingly inevitable, though asymmetrical symmetry. At 35, and as yet beardless, Brahms had reached "complete maturity, and this perfect fulfillment of his self-imposed task reveals the composer at the very height of his powers. Most of the movements of the Requiem are in three parts, and this tripartite symmetry gives the whole work of seven movements its special stamp. Not only do the first and last movements correspond to each other, but the second and sixth, and the third and fifth. The central point, however, is the graceful fourth movement, which is, as it were, the gentle trio of the 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 towards the end of the seventh movement into [repetition of the theme heard in] 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 [a transmutation of a discarded movement for the projected symphony Brahms had worked on in 1857-9, the rest of which had become the Piano Concerto in D minor] 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 (characteristically stripped by Brahms of all its terrors), 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, to gain 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." (Geiringer: Brahms pp. 312-13)
Although Ein deutsches Requiem is echt Protestant in lineage and conception (from Schutz' Musikalische Exequien to Schubert's Deutsche Trauermesse) it also reflects much of the Jewish approach to death: in the Kaddish, or so-called prayer for the dead, the dead are never mentioned ... the prayer is completely an affirmation of life and praise of the Creator. In the Requiem Brahms' purpose is consolation for and affirmation of the living. By his selection of texts, he produced a work the cumulative effect of which is very different from the traditional Protestant emphasis on the redemptive power of Christ (as best exemplified in Bach's Cantata 106 [Gottes Zeit ist die Allerbeste Zeit]). In fact, Brahms carefully avoids any mention of Christ (the usual English translation is incorrect in the second movement - not "the coming of Christ," but "the coming of the Lord." It is, throughout, the very personal conception of a man who from childhood intimately knew the Bible, but as an adult was unable to accept much of the usual interpretation of scripture and codification of dogma. It is a message of consolation totally devoid of the sentimentality of the Victorian era. The Requiem is scored for piccolo with flutes, oboes, clarinets and bassoons in pairs, contra bassoon, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones and tuba, tympani, harp, strings, soprano and baritone soli and chorus.