We’ll be performing the Brahms German Requiem this month…a piece that holds a very special place in my life.
Horn players like me generally like Brahms because of all the “meaty” horn parts. The German Requiem, however, doesn’t have that much for the horn, so for much of my musical career I didn’t give it much thought.
Admittedly, I was always a bit of a horn “jock” in my youth. You know the type – like the Football jocks…the Sports Car jocks…the Business jocks…the Running jocks…the Yoga jocks – those who flaunt their prowess at the “game” to anyone who will watch. I’m not proud of it, but there it is.
But then came 1990. In 1990 I suffered an injury that forced me to stop performing. I retired from music…from the Horn. I couldn’t conceive of anything else. Horn-playing was all I knew. And yet I was confronted with the reality that I needed to take a radically new direction in life. I totally lost my frame of reference.
At about that time I went to a concert where the Brahms German Requiem had top billing. It wasn’t a concert I was particularly looking forward to because…well, there wasn’t much for the horn there. (Years of reflex action!) So, bored and unenthusiastic, I buried myself in the program notes as a way to pass the time.
In 1865, Brahms’ mother had just died, as had his mentor and friend, Robert Schumann, some time before. Brahms’ world was upside down; he had lost pivotal connections with his past and his familiar frame of reference was gone. As a means of memorializing those he had lost, Brahms set out to compose a Requiem Mass. Now the Requiem Mass had been around for a very long time – since the earliest musical settings as Gregorian chant during the Middle Ages. Indeed, the form and Latin text of the Requiem Mass have remained essentially unchanged since the Middle Ages. A long list of illustrious composers had composed Requiem Masses before Brahms, including Michael Haydn (F.J.’s equally-prolific brother), Mozart (the Requiem made famous by the movie, Amadeus), Antonio Salieri (Mozart’s colleague and nemesis), Luigi Cherubini (whom Beethoven regarded as his greatest contemporary), and Hector Berlioz (whose Requiem used an orchestra even more extravagant than his Fantastic Symphony). All those before Brahms remained relatively faithful to the traditional format and Latin text. So by the time Brahms got around to writing his Requiem, one could argue that not a lot remained to be said.
So Brahms took a different approach. Instead of using the rigid Roman Catholic canon, he decided to create a Requiem much freer in form using his native German language and passages selected from the (decidedly Protestant) Luther Bible. Brahms intended his work as a Requiem for his fellow countrymen – a German Requiem. It was a radical approach that was inconceivably different from anything before it.
As the concert began all those years ago, I found myself in a much more reflective space – in a perfect space, one could say, to hear the German Requiem. Brahms, too, was grieving loss. He, too, knew he must break with his past and with tradition. He, too, was uncertain about the trajectory of his future. And through music, he found consolation that a better place was yet to come. I thought to myself, maybe there was something interesting about the German Requiem after all…
As I listened, I heard this music as I had never heard music before. The disconsolate grief…the self-reflection…the unbridled optimism…all expressed through the music and the dark, sonorous sounds of chorus with orchestra. I was transfixed, and it shaped me in a profound way that, I’m certain, will last the rest of my life.
What had I heard that was so different? For the first time I had listened to music for its art and emotional context rather than with the ear of a critic, analyzing the “craft” and criticizing its imperfections. As a musician, it’s easy to get caught up in the craft of music rather than the art. We become so preoccupied with perfecting our craft and reproducing that perfection in concert that we miss out on what it’s really all about: the spiritually transformative beauty of the art. But that’s really not worth missing.
My “German Requiem Experience” of 1990 led to me to awaken to a whole new world of music – a world I had lived around for years but had, curiously, ignored. (Believe it or not, there’s LOTS of terrific music without horn!) Listening to music then helped me find consolation as I forged my way into the future…which wasn’t all that bad, as it turned out. I returned to college for a few years, got graduate degrees in Engineering and Business, moved to this fantastic place called Idaho, and came to call it my home.
Oh…and after about 10 years away from the horn, I found that, miracle of miracles, I could play again. This time, though, I’m not going to miss listening to the music!
(Brahms came out of it OK, too, by the way. After the German Requiem, he went on to write four symphonies, his second piano concerto, six more works for chorus and orchestra, a bunch of chamber music, and, well, over a hundred other pieces, too!)
Interested in hearing more? Here are some other great Requiems spanning a broad range of musical periods and styles…
Michael Haydn 1771
W.A. Mozart 1791
Antonio Salieri 1815
Luigi Cherubini 1836
Hector Berlioz 1837
Johannes Brahms 1868 A German Requiem, Op. 45
Giuseppe Verdi 1874
Camille Saint-Saens 1878
Gabriel Faure 1890
Antonin Dvorak 1891
Charles Gounod 1893
Maurice Duruflé 1947
Benjamin Britten 1962
Igor Stravinsky 1966
John Tavaner 1969
John Rutter 1985
Andrew Lloyd-Webber 1985
And here are some other great works for chorus and orchestra by Brahms…
Rinaldo, Op. 50
Alto Rhapsody, Op. 53
Schicksalslied, Op. 54 (Song of Destiny)
Triumphlied, Op. 55 (Song of Triumph)
Nänie, Op. 82
Gesang der Parzen, Op. 89 (Song of the Fates)