A Guide to Brahms’ German Requiem and His Best Recordings

A “sort of German Requiem” – such was the unformed composition plan that 32-year-old Brahms announced to his friend Clara Schumann in a letter from 1865. Four years later, this magnificent work fulfills the prophecy of the genius of Brahms made by Clara’s husband. Robert in 1853.

When Brahms composes A german requiem and what inspired it?

Brahms began to write his A german requiem about halfway through the long and torturous process of composing his First Symphony, a work begun in 1854 but not premiered until 1876. Aged 32 at the time, his output so far consisted largely of works for solo piano and in chamber music – a notable exception was his first piano concerto which, after a disappointing premiere in Hanover in 1859, had gone on to enjoy better reception elsewhere. That same year had also seen him break off his engagement to Agathe von Siebold who, he would later tell a friend, was the last love of his life.

The requiem emerged from a decade of turmoil. The composer moved between cities, looking for professional opportunities. It absorbed musical influences ranging from the operas of Wagner to the choral and orchestral works of Schubert, which emerged posthumously in Vienna. He also held his first demanding job as conductor of Vienna’s Singakademie, a role that exposed him to centuries of choral repertoire.

However, circumstances were increasingly troubled at home in Hamburg. After his separation from Brahms’ father, Christiane, the composer’s beloved mother, died of a stroke, aged 76, in early 1865. Johannes rushed home but he was too late to see her. In April, he sent Clara Schumann two movements from the Requiem.

The rest of the year is taken up with concerts and other compositions, but Brahms returns to the Requiem in early 1866. Three movements were unsuccessfully tried in Vienna, but some listeners agreed that it was perhaps too austere, too “Bach-Protestant” for the pleasure-loving Viennese. Brahms’ friend Albert Dietrich sent the score to the organist of Bremen Cathedral, Karl Reinthaler. He was so impressed that he organized a performance for Good Friday, conducted by the composer himself.

At this point there were six movements, dramatizations of Lutheran biblical texts which Brahms himself had collected, which chart a course from suffering to acceptance: the first movement opens, “Blessed are those who mourn » ; the dramatic second movement opens by declaring that all flesh is like grass, but the word of the Lord remains; the third features the baritone soloist, who pleads with God for acceptance of his transience; the fourth sunny, the most popular stand-alone number, contemplates the beauty of the sky; the original fifth movement matches the second, setting up the famous “The trumpet shall sound” and continuing to ask “Death, where is your sting?” » ; the reconciliation is accomplished in the last movement with the words ‘Blessed are the dead’.

However, Reinthaler pointed out a problem, namely that neither movement clearly stated Christian doctrine. Brahms replied that he deliberately omitted such passages. A compromise for the premiere was reached by including the aria ‘I Know that My Redeemer Liveth’ from Professions Messiah. The performance was a huge success – for Dietrich it was “simply overwhelming” – and Brahms was later celebrated at a banquet.

Handel’s aria insertion was clearly a sticky plaster solution, so Brahms wrote a new fifth movement, for solo soprano and chorus, to the words: “Now you weep, but I will comfort you like a mother”. For many, it is the expressive heart of the work, recalling Brahms’ own tragic loss.

Historians have also argued for other possible associations: for example, with the death of Schumann, mentor and friend of Brahms; with a broader humanist message; and finally, with a nationalist imperative. Admittedly, the Requiemcompleted just before the Franco-Prussian War, touched German listeners, symbolizing the war dead and signaling the rise of a new empire.

Nevertheless, the work was soon being performed throughout Europe, including in a piano duet in London in 1871. Given its extensive performing tradition, it is difficult to pinpoint Brahms’ intentions. For example, most tempo markings in early versions were simply Andante. Later it replaced the first movement Andante with Quite slow and expressive (“Quite slow and with expression”), suggesting a heavier and more nuanced conception. Likewise, the Andante con moto of the final movement has been replaced by solemnly (“ceremonial”) – however it is done, it remains a challenge even for experienced choirs.

Almost 30 years later, Brahms asked his publisher to remove the metronome marks from the score, claiming that “good friends” had persuaded him to add them. This has led to a lot of controversy over how best to present one’s intentions. It has taken decades for the Brahms Collected Edition team to prepare a new edition of the work – but Brahms enthusiasts can rejoice that it is finally in print.

The best recordings of by Brahms A german requiem

Daniel Harding (driver)

Christiane Karg (soprano), Matthias Goerne (baritone); Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra / Daniel Harding

Harmonia Mundi HMM902635

Recordings of Brahms’ large-scale choral-orchestral works must pass two litmus tests: first, the balancing of massive structures so that the whole holds together, without rushing or dragging;
and second, the manipulation of texture, so that listeners can hear individual orchestral-vocal lines and timbres, but also enjoy the harmonious fusion of the gigantic collective sound that gives these works their meaning.

Harding’s sense of structure in this 2019 recording is assured and persuasive, evoking a slow, dignified but steady movement from the depths of grief into a bruised but courageous renewal. The orchestral sound is revelatory, evoking the austerity of a church organ without giving up an ounce of emotional weight. The unusual string sound borrows heavily from the world of historical performance, but without sacrificing the luxurious sound and emotional vulnerability that comes with using vibrato. The chorus sounds both substantial and bright, with crystalline German, effectively navigating the long, demanding fugues.

The second movement – ​​the most overwhelming, almost Verdian number – begins with an exquisite weariness, evoking the shuffling feet of slowly processed mourners. The surge of the climactic cry that “all flesh is like grass” leaves the listener broken, before the visceral relief of major reassurance that follows. Matthias Goerne is a superbly battered soloist in the third movement – ​​anyone who has helplessly contemplated his own mortality can relate to the Promethean despair (and rage, in the repeated section) of that molten, burnished voice.

The fourth movement is cleanly sung, but it’s the orchestra that really shines here, each timbre emerging, shining from the overall texture, be it high winds or rounded brass. This is an ideal setup for the solo soprano movement that follows. Karg’s sound is dramatic, if not perfectly suited to Goerne, but again it’s the silky orchestra-choral sound that wins out. The sixth movement is the perfect dramatic corollary to the second, Goerne’s startlingly tender utterance of “We shall be changed” leading to the hugely thrilling choral chant of “Death, where is your sting?” “. The stillness and stillness of the final movement brings a satisfying sense of closure and healing.

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Oolfgang Sawallisch (conductor)

Orpheus C039101A

From the opening notes of this 1995 performance, we know it will be a serious and dignified experience, characterized by large-scale choral-orchestral sound and spacious, grand tempos. But there’s pathos here too; each phrase breathes naturally, never sounding regimented. Thomas Allen brings robust grief to his solos, while Margaret Price’s sound is both richly resonant and angelic. The rhythm picks up in the last two movements, beautifully expressing the bereaved’s healing.

John Eliot Gardiner (conductor)


The vibrato-free Revolutionary and Romantic Orchestra may divide listeners, but the reward of this 2008 live performance is the fabulous sound quality recorded across the entire range, from the haunting underground bass that opens the work to the high, piercing winds from the ground. interior. movements. There is no rush here; it is a measured and patient march towards reconciliation with death. Although Katherine Fuge and Matthew Brook aren’t the most distinctive soloists, they fit beautifully into an ensemble characterized by soft, creamy strings and the strong but nimble sound of the Monteverdi Choir.

Otto Klemperer (conductor)

ICA Classics ICAC5002

While some may find this 1961 recording too vague, Klemperer’s handling of tempo and rhythm reveals a deep and deeply impressive sense of architecture. Hermann Prey sings the harrowing baritone solos as if his life depended on it, while Elisabeth Grümmer’s warm, mature sound offers the confidence and reliability often lacking in more ‘feminine’ interpretations. The Cologne Radio Choir’s German is remarkably clear, yet they still deliver an attractive old-school sound, smoothing out between notes and avoiding any sharp edges.

And one to avoid…

Brahms haters often complain that they find his music claggy, densely textured and too serious. James Levine’s 2004 recording with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra would reinforce this view – it sounds like a dirge without grandeur, relentlessly static. The second movement is formlessly slow; the fourth melodic and muffled. At the end, you don’t feel any different from the beginning.

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