© Mark Rohr 2016-17

Ludwig van Beethoven
Coriolan (Coriolanus) Overture, Op. 62

Ludwig van Beethoven was born in Bonn in 1770 and died in Vienna in 1827. He composed his Coriolanus Overture in 1807 and led the first performance in Vienna the same year. The Overture is scored for 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, and strings.

Beethoven had read Plutarch’s Lives, and he was familiar with Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, but it was the Austrian playwright Heinrich von Collin’s tragedy of the same name that inspired him to compose this piece. He also badly needed a new concert overture, for he had been using The Creatures of Prometheus over and over and it was past time for something new.

Gaius Marcius Coriolanus was a brave and imperious Roman general who had led his army in triumph over the neighboring Volscians in 493 B.C. As a patrician Roman he had a bone-deep contempt for the masses, and was boorish enough to say so in public. In the senate he tried to abolish the office of Tribune of the Plebs—the underclass’ only representative in Roman government. This caused a near-riot in Rome, and Coriolanus was brought before the people’s assembly to be tried for attempting to overthrow the government. He was found guilty and sentenced to exile. Furious, Coriolanus hired himself out to the very Volscians he had defeated and marched on Rome with their armies. When he laid siege to the city, Rome’s frantic leaders sent emissaries to Coriolanus to persuade him to withdraw, but nothing would change his mind. Finally a group of women, including Coriolanus’ wife and mother, came to plead with him and Coriolanus finally relented. Accounts vary as to what happened next; at this point in the story Shakespeare had him killed by the Volscians for his treachery, while in Collin’s play he committed suicide—an act considered by Romans to be the proper response to dishonor.

Beethoven’s Overture is not programmatic in the way we might expect a work from Berlioz or Wagner to be: he makes no attempt to tell the whole story. But his sonata-allegro form is a perfect medium to express Coriolanus’ torment as he is forced to choose between revenge and mercy. After the stentorian opening chords the first theme we hear is clearly Coriolanus himself, stubborn and imperious. The second, gentler theme is the entreaty of his wife and mother. In the development these themes confront each other as they must have in Coriolanus’ tortured mind. Finally, those opening chords return and we hear the music ebb away, along with Coriolanus’ life.

Concerto for Piano & Orchestra No. 3 in C-minor, Op. 37

Beethoven finished the score to his Third Piano Concerto in 1800, but sketches for the work go back as far as 1796. The premiere was in 1803 at the Theater an der Wein (Vienna) with Beethoven at the piano. The concerto calls for solo piano, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, and strings.

On the day of this concerto’s premiere, Beethoven was—as usual—still frantically writing out the parts. There was, in fact, no real piano part at all. Ignaz von Seyfried, who was deputized to turn Beethoven’s pages for him, reported that “I saw almost nothing but empty leaves; at the most, on one page or another, a few Egyptian hieroglyphs wholly unintelligible to me were scribbled down to serve as clues for him . . . he gave me a secret glance whenever he was at the end of one of the invisible passages, and my scarcely concealable anxiety not to miss the decisive moment amused him greatly.” Though Seyfried was terrified throughout the performance, the two had a good laugh about it at the after-concert dinner.

Beethoven begins the concerto conventionally, with a spacious orchestral exposition. This movement is full of high drama, sublime respites, astonishing key relationships, and brilliant pianism.

The extremely distant key of E-major makes the second movement Largo come as a mild shock, but a delicious one. This is a movement of sensuous beauty, where time seems to stand still.

The Rondo Finale is actually a melding of rondo and sonata forms. It begins in utter simplicity but delivers a wealth of surprises, including a fugato—soon dropped like a hot potato—an episode in the still-shocking E-major, and a brilliant coda that brings us to C-major rather than C-minor.

Much has been made of the similarities between this work and Mozart’s great C-minor Piano Concerto, K.491. Beethoven loved Mozart’s concerto and knew it intimately—he performed it himself several times—and some suggest he used it as a model. That may be so for there are many parallels between the two, intentional or otherwise. But Beethoven never set out to emulate another piece of music, not even in a work that is, perhaps, an homage to another: he set out to out-do them, and in doing so he unleashed his own unmistakable voice.

Symphony No. 7 in A major, Op. 92

Beethoven composed his Seventh Symphony in 1811-1812 and led the first performance in Vienna in 1813. The symphony calls for 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, and strings.

Stravinsky got himself into a bit of hot water when he said, “In general, I consider that music is only able to solve musical problems and nothing else; neither the literary nor picturesque can be in music of any real interest. The play of the musical elements is the thing.” He didn’t mean that music was incapable of expression, but he was complaining that many listeners find things in music that aren’t really there. To Stravinsky music had its own inner life, its own “entity” that existed in spite of any narrative attached to it or the emotions felt by its listeners. He later attempted to clarify what he was saying: “Today, I would put it the other way ’round: music expresses itself.”

Nonetheless, listeners often hear things in the music that the composer never imagined, for good music evokes and provokes. Though it seems unlikely, Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony has inspired an enormous—and sometimes preposterous—range of “meanings” heard by its listeners, and pretty sophisticated listeners at that. Wagner called it “the apotheosis of the dance.” Vincent D’Indy disagreed, saying, “The rhythm of the piece has truly nothing of the dance about it. It is nothing other than a pastoral symphony.” Meanwhile, various commentators over the years have heard in it a political revolution, a bacchic orgy, a rustic wedding, even a story of Moorish knights!

They can’t all be true, but all are correct as far as those listeners are concerned; in the end it is the individual who gets to decide. But in the Seventh Symphony, as much as in any of Beethoven’s works, “the play of the musical elements is the thing.” And the element at play here is the drive, dynamism, and drama of rhythm.

The long, slow introduction to the first movement’s sonata is a throwback for Beethoven; after all, he himself had reduced this traditional section to two jolting chords in his Third Symphony and eliminated it altogether in the Fifth. Here it is nearly a movement unto itself. It has two themes, its own development, and a heavy air of anticipation. All this winds down to an innocent dotted-rhythm figure that slips almost casually into the sonata proper. As we listen we find this rhythm to be the fundamental building-block of the entire movement—so much so that when Beethoven slyly inserts a silence at the end of the exposition, we tend to “hear” this pervasive rhythm filling the gap.

The Allegretto also has a pervasive rhythm, beginning after the opening chord. While the melody stays within a very narrow range, this rhythm can be heard constantly; it even shows up during the contrasting lyrical sections. Beethoven controls the form of the movement—its rhythm on a large scale—in an unusual way. The music builds to the big central fugue, then recedes in reverse order, like a mirror-image of itself.

After the somber second movement, the Scherzo is a headlong rush of trilling, whirling figures, all rhythmically alive. Listen for the single, sustained note that seems to hover over the Trio: what’s that doing there? Enjoy also how the Trio winds down to a few long, slow chords. It’s all a setup: we know the scherzo will come exploding back, but it still comes as a surprise. Now, classical music is deadly serious stuff, of course, but Beethoven decides that this would be a good place for a joke: as the movement heads to its close, the Trio—having made its customary two appearances—tries to sneak back in for a third. Beethoven dismisses it with five sharp chords.

The Finale is a tornado of rhythm, wheeling from one climax to the next. Even its abrupt pauses seem to imply motion rather than repose. By the end of the electrifying coda the symphony’s anticipations and tensions are settled, all the way back to the first movement’s long introduction.

Throughout the Seventh Symphony Beethoven deliberately subjugates the role of melody. While there are a few moments that one could call lyrical, there aren’t really any “big tunes.” For the most part the melodies of the symphony are confined to a narrow range and sometimes they get stuck on a single note for what seems like forever. As listeners we rarely focus on rhythm exclusively. But by narrowing the scope of the melodic interest Beethoven is saying: Music takes place in the temporal realm as well as the melodic and harmonic, and I’d like to have some fun with that. When he does he unleashes all the energy, power, and propulsion that rhythm can bring.

Is that why the Seventh is so evocative? Perhaps. Listeners will hear in the music what they will, be it a peasant dance or a horde of Moorish knights. Still others will simply have a toe-tapping good time. In any event, “the play of the musical elements is the thing,” and never has it come so close to perfection.

—Mark Rohr
Questions or comments?


Hector Berlioz
Overture to Béatrice et Bénédict

Hector Berlioz was born in La Côte-Saint-André, France, in 1803 and died in Paris in 1869. He composed his comic opera Béatrice et Bénédict, based on portions of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing on a commission for the opening of a new opera house in Baden-Baden in 1860-1862, and it was first performed there in 1862 under the direction of the composer. The score of the Overture calls for 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, and strings.

After Berlioz’ seemingly endless struggles with getting his opera Les Troyens produced—and never succeeding in his lifetime—his next (and last) big project, the comic opera Béatrice et Bénédict must have seemed like a relief. Certainly it sounds like it was: the opera’s gaiety and sheer sparkle is infectious.

Berlioz had been thinking of setting Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing to music for over twenty years, but life and Les Troyens had intervened. Berlioz greatly simplified the plot of the play, added a character, and wrote some of the text. But the essence of Shakespeare’s work—especially the lively banter between the title characters—shines through.

That banter is one of the many delights of the opera’s Overture. All the music comes from the opera itself, though not as a parade of greatest hits: Berlioz weaves his themes together deftly, with both delicacy and panache. He famously called it “a caprice written with the point of a needle.”

Robert Schumann
Concerto for Cello & Orchestra in A minor, Op. 129

Robert Schumann was born in Zwickau, Germany in 1810 and died at Endenich, Germany in 1856. He composed this concerto—he originally called it a Concertstück (Concert Piece)—in 1850, but it was not performed in his lifetime. The first performance came in 1860, with Ludwig Ebert the cellist, at the Leipzig Conservatory. The score calls for solo cello, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, and strings.

Both Clara and Robert Schumann were glad of the opportunity to leave Dresden; the city had been unreceptive, and in their five years there they had made few friends. The Schumanns moved to Düsseldorf where Robert became the municipal music director. They were warmly received, and the early going was very positive. Schumann’s recurring insanity (the result of syphilis contracted in youth) stayed in remission for a long while, allowing him one of his most productive periods. Along with the Cello Concerto Schumann also worked on the Rhenish Symphony, Scenes from Goethe’s Faust, the Overture to The Bride of Messina and many songs.

Schumann once said, “I cannot write a concerto for the virtuosos. I must try for something else.” He referred to the Cello Concerto as a “concert piece for cello with orchestral accompaniment,” a subtle distinction. The opposition of musical ideas and moods takes place not between the cello and the orchestra, but as an internal dialog within the solo line itself. The soloist is the purveyer of the musical essence, and the orchestra assists. While the cello part never indulges in flashy display, it is wide-ranging both technically and emotionally.

The first movement is a wealth of understated lyricism. Everything flows, except when the exposition builds expectantly to a cadence; in place of a resolution, Schumann abruptly begins the development. The Langsam makes one wonder at Schumann’s poor reputation as an orchestrator when, out of nowhere, the orchestra’s principal cellist joins the soloist in a duet of consummate beauty. The concluding Sehr lebhaft is a combination sonata-rondo form with much more dialog between soloist and orchestra, and a written-out, accompanied cadenza.

Clara Schumann was certainly partial to her husband’s music, but she was also an accomplished musician and a perceptive critic. Her diary gives this assessment: “I have played Robert’s Violoncello Concerto again and thus procured for myself a truly musical and happy hour. The romantic quality, the flight, the freshness, and the humor, and also the highly interesting interweaving of cello and orchestra are, indeed, wholly ravishing, and what euphony and deep sentiment are in all the melodic passages!”

Maurice Ravel
Suite: Ma Mère l’Oye (Mother Goose)

Maurice Ravel was born in Ciboure, France in 1875 and died in Paris in 1937. He composed the piano version of Ma Mère l’Oye in 1910 and it was first performed in Paris the same year. The orchestral version was first given as a ballet in Paris in 1912. The work is scored for 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 2 horns, timpani, percussion, harp, celeste, and strings.

Maurice Ravel was thought by some to have been something of a cold fish. A friend remarked, “He would rather be taken for unfeeling than to betray his sentiments.” But he did have a special fondness for Mimi and Jean Godebski, the young children of a friend. To encourage their musical education Ravel composed this little suite, for piano four (small) hands, based on their favorite fairy tales. Ravel later orchestrated the suite, then turned it into a complete ballet by adding a prelude and composing transitional interludes between the movements.

The Pavane of the Sleeping Beauty in the Woods lasts a mere twenty measures. It is both solemn and ethereal, as her maids realize they cannot rouse the Sleeping Beauty.

Hop-o’ My Thumb recounts an adventure of Tom Thumb. Like Hansel and Gretel, Tom drops breadcrumbs as he wanders in the woods, confident that they will lead him home. But he is unable to find them, for the birds (in the guise of violin and flutes) have eaten them all.

The Ugly Girl, Empress of the Pagodes was made ugly by a witch, and lives in a faraway castle. In this scene she is serenaded at her bath by the pagodes, tiny people made of crystal, jewels, and porcelain. In keeping with their size, they play lutes made of walnut shells and violas made of almond shells; their music is based on the pentatonic scale, like the black keys on the piano.

In The Conversation of Beauty and the Beast, Beauty speaks with a naive little waltz, while Beast replies in a grumbly contrabassoon. Listen for the triangle, for it marks the point where Beauty agrees to marry the Beast, and he is transformed into a handsome prince.

Prince Charming’s kiss awakens Sleeping Beauty in The Fairy Garden, and they are joined by all the other characters in a happy fanfare.

Ravel said, “My intention of evoking the poetry of childhood in these pieces naturally led me to simplify my style and thin out my writing.” Yet his genius at orchestration turns these simple piano pieces, playable by children, into diversions of great color and imagination. At the same time he reveals in himself a surprising warmth that he would only allow children to see.

Johannes Brahms
Variations on a Theme by Haydn, Op. 56a

Johannes Brahms was born in Hamburg in 1833 and died in Vienna in 1897. He composed this work in 1873, and led the first performance in Vienna the same year. The Variations call for 3 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 3 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, percussion, and strings.

Brahms came to orchestral music surprisingly late in his life; he had attempted a symphony several times, but did not issue his first until he was 43 years old. Brahms knew that his symphonies would inevitably be judged against those of Beethoven: “You have no idea,” he said, “how the likes of us feel when we hear the tramp of a giant like him behind us.” Brahms wrote several orchestral works to test the waters; the Variations on a Theme by Haydn is the one that proved he was ready, unleashing a rich period of works for orchestra.

Karl Pohl, a friend of the composer’s (and a Haydn biographer) once showed Brahms a divertimento for winds allegedly by Haydn. Brahms was struck by the beauty of the second movement, entitled “Choral St. Antoni.” He copied out the piece and later used it as the theme for his Variations on a Theme by Haydn. Since then the attribution to Haydn has been considered dubious; it more likely came from Pleyel or one of Haydn’s other students. No matter: the theme, with its unusual five-bar phrase length and simple charm, is no less worthy of Brahms’ treatment.

Brahms presents the theme as simply as it occurs in the original. After the theme there are eight variations, then a Finale based on a five-bar passacaglia derived from the chorale’s bass-line. In a display of immense virtuosity, the Finale unwinds a further seventeen variations before ending with a grand reiteration of the theme.

Brahms’ Haydn Variations has, over the years, provided countless students with perhaps the greatest example of theme-and-variation technique ever composed: you could write a textbook using this piece alone. Yet it is far more than a mere academic exercise; who would listen to it if it were? It is supremely effective and enjoyable music precisely because Brahms’ craftsmanship makes it so.

No one seems to know—though there has been plenty of speculation—what St. Anthony story might have originally inspired Haydn (who probably didn’t write it) or Pleyel (who may have) or for that matter Brahms (who definitely wrote the Variations). It’s not important, really, nor are all the fascinating minutiae of variation technique on display here. What impresses is how a work under such tight control can spin out as if each note were inspired. It makes you wonder why Brahms waited so long.

—Mark Rohr
Questions or comments?


Gustav Mahler
Symphony No. 5

Gustav Mahler was born in Kalischt, Bohemia, in 1860 and died in Vienna in 1911. He composed this symphony in 1901-02 and led the first performance with the Gürzenich Orchestra of Cologne in 1904. Mahler revised the orchestration of the work after nearly every performance he conducted; the last revision came in 1909. The score calls for 4 flutes, 2 piccolos, 3 oboes, English horn, 3 clarinets, bass clarinet, 3 bassoons, contrabassoon, 6 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, harp, and strings.

“Heavens, what is the public to make of this chaos in which new worlds are forever being engendered, only to crumble into ruin the next moment? What are they to say to this primeval music, this foaming, roaring, raging sea of sound, to these dancing stars, to these breathtaking, iridescent, flashing breakers?”

Well might Mahler ask. With his Fifth Symphony Mahler wiped the slate clean and began anew. Out were the Wunderhorn texts, the singers to sing them, and his fascination with innocence. In was a return to instrumental music, a more coherent formal design, and a leaner, cleaner orchestral sound. His new style featured a dramatic increase in counterpoint—he had just acquired the complete Bach edition and was inspired by its contents—and Mahler’s counterpoint was devilishly hard to pull off. (While walking at a fair with his dear friend, conductor Bruno Walter, he pointed out the cacophony of noises: military bands, hurdy-gurdys, singing, carnival barkers, shooting galleries. “Do you hear that?” he asked. “That’s polyphony!”) He saw his job as combining the uncombinable, and the orchestral texture had to be utterly clear. It caused him no end of trouble. Mahler conducted the work many times, and revised the score after nearly every performance. Ultimately he wrote: “I have finished the Fifth. I was forced to re-orchestrate it completely. I do not understand how I could have composed so much like a beginner. Clearly, the routines I had established with the first four symphonies were inadequate for this one—as though a wholly new style demanded a new technique.”

Mahler divides his symphony into three parts. Part I consists of the first two movements, Part II is the central Scherzo, and Part III the Adagietto and Rondo-Finale. The musical momentum seems to flow towards the Scherzo—which Mahler composed first—and then away from it.

The ominous trumpet call that opens the symphony is one of the most memorable moments in Western music, every bit as distinctive as the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth. The funeral march that follows is a relentless tragedy, harrowing and inconsolable. The faster middle section is even more anguished. The trumpet call returns from time to time until the end, where it fades away as the movement disintegrates.

The second movement is the ferocious musical and emotional reaction to the first: it shares themes with the first movement and feels much like the sonata to which the funeral march was the slow introduction. Somehow, out of all this fury comes a glorious D-major brass chorale, a glimmer of hope amid the crushing despair. It cannot triumph—at least not yet—and it slips away like an apparition.
Part II is the symphony’s Scherzo, and it brings us into another world entirely. It has a sweet and bucolic character suggestive of Mahler’s beloved ländler. “There is nothing romantic or mystical about it,” he said, “It is simply the expression of incredible energy. It is the human being in the full light of day in the prime of his life.” Where the first part had been a march of death, the Scherzo is a dance of life.

The Adagietto that begins Part III has been misinterpreted as being mournful, even funereal music—you often hear it at memorial services. Actually, Mahler wrote it as a love letter to his wife-to-be Alma Schindler. He sent the score to her without so much as a note, and she, a composer herself, grasped its meaning immediately.

The Rondo-Finale is the longest movement of continuous good cheer Mahler had ever written. The second movement’s brass chorale reappears, now fully accepted and expanded as the destination of the entire symphony. From there Mahler gets out right smartly, without the endless leave-taking of some of his other symphonies.

Mahler’s music could express the depths of despair and the exhilaration of joy—often simultaneously. But there doesn’t seem to be a direct connection between the two in the Fifth Symphony. Despair exists; joy exists. The one is not the goal of the other. By the time Mahler wrote his Fifth he had had it with programs—the more he tried to explain his music, the more people misunderstood it. He never divulged a program for his Fifth Symphony. It may well have been impossible. As Bruno Walter said, “It is music—passionate, wild, pathetic, buoyant, solemn, tender, full of all the sentiments of which the human heart is capable—but still ‘only’ music, and no metaphysical questioning, not even from very far off, interferes with its purely musical course.”

—Mark Rohr
Questions or comments?

Jean Sibelius
Symphony No. 7 in C Major, Op. 105

Jean Sibelius was born in Tavestehus, Finland in 1865 and died in Järvenpää in 1957. He composed this work in 1924 and led the first performance in Stockholm the same year. The score calls for 2 flutes, 2 piccolos, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, and strings.

Most composers reached their last symphony when death intervened to deprive them of another. Not long after he issued his Seventh, however, Sibelius simply stopped composing altogether until he died some thirty years later; despite the ample opportunity, he never succumbed to the temptation to create another grand symphonic statement. There were rumors of an Eighth but one never appeared; perhaps during its undertaking Sibelius realized he had already said all he meant to say. He was content to retire on the government stipend that supported him for most of his adult life, and to continue to receive the deeply felt veneration of the Finnish people.

Actually, the count of Sibelius’ symphonies might easily have ended at six: when he composed the present work he called it Fantasia Sinfonica, and it was under that title that he conducted its premiere in 1924. By the time it was published in the following year, however, he decided to call it the Seventh Symphony.

The question of how the composer defined his work has particular application here, for Sibelius mostly confined himself to largish one-movement tone poems and more traditional multi-movement symphonies. When Sibelius planned the Opus 105 he had in mind the latter, but ended up with something like the former. His plans were not sacrosanct: “As usual, I am a slave to my themes and submit to their demands.” Though a symphony is usually defined according to its structure, for Sibelius it had more to do with the “style and severity of form and the profound logic that create an inner connection between all the motives.” According to these criteria, the Seventh was much more a symphony than a fantasia, despite its one-movement form.

There was nothing particularly new about a one-movement symphony; the trend away from the rigidity of multi-movement structure had begun long before. One may simply eliminate the pauses between movements, as Schumann had done, or compose transitions between them as Beethoven had done in his Fifth. Liszt softened the transitions further in works such as his Second Piano Concerto, and Franck had inserted a “scherzo” into the middle movement of his ostensibly three-movement Symphony in D-minor. The logical outgrowth of this trend was the symphony in one movement.

Even though there are subdivisions in Sibelius’ Seventh—“movements” within the movement—it is much more difficult to establish where one leaves off and the other begins. Several formal analyses have been attempted, but since they all rest on matters of opinion, they are all equally valid and none definitive.

The rising scale that begins the symphony introduces a broad, elegiac section. This “movement” reaches its peak at the trombone solo, after which it subsides. A return of the initial scale signals the onset of a seamless transition between this and what might be called a “scherzo,” though where this actually begins is debatable. Out of the scampering figures evolves a most stunning effect, as the strings wind a sinewy unison beneath a brass and wind chorale based on the trombone motive. The “scherzo” returns, then yields to a gentler triple-meter section with a fanfare-like motto. At the end of the piece most of the previous material returns; most prominent now are the opening scale, the reverent string passage that had preceded the trombone solo, and the music of the trombone solo itself.

The reason that the piece coheres, perhaps the reason why this is a symphony and not a fantasia, is that all of these figures have been derived from that incredibly simple opening scale. This is symphonic thinking taken to its highest degree. As if to make the point clear even to those without a score, Sibelius finishes the work with the very same three notes with which it began, wrapping everything in between with the motive that engendered it all.

Johannes Brahms
Ein Deutsches Requiem, Op. 45

Johannes Brahms was born in Hamburg, Germany in 1833 and died in Vienna, Austria in 1897. Though he began his requiem in 1856, he used some material he had composed two years previously. He did not consider it finished until he composed what is now the fifth movement, in 1868. The first performance of the final, seven-movement work was given in Leipzig the following year. The score of Ein Deutsches Requiem calls for soprano and baritone soloists, chorus, 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, organ, harp, and strings.

The word “requiem” comes from the first line of text of the Catholic Mass for the Dead: “Requiem aeternam dona eis domine” (“Grant them eternal rest, Lord”). The liturgy is primarily a plea from Man to God to accept the soul of the departed into Heaven, and it has been set to music many times. When the young Brahms decided to compose a requiem, prompted by the death of his friend and mentor Robert Schumann, he had a different idea: he would address neither the dead nor God, but the living.

Brahms avoided the text of the Catholic mass entirely, instead drawing from the Lutheran Bible words from the Psalms, Peter, James, Isaiah, John, Hebrews, Ecclesiasticus, Apocrypha, and Revelation. (Brahms was not an overtly religious man, but he read the Bible daily and knew just where to go for the words he wanted.)

Ein Deutsches Requiem had a long gestation period, even for Brahms. After Schumann’s death Brahms worked out the text and composed the music for a four-movement cantata, which then lay dormant for four years. The death of his mother returned him to his subject; her passing affected him deeply, especially since she died before he could arrive at her sickbed. He renewed his work, expanding the cantata into a requiem of six movements. After it was performed, however, Brahms was still dissatisfied. Soon after the premiere (and just after visiting his mother’s grave, it is said) he began what became the fifth movement, with soprano solo; the text is clearly a memorial to his mother. The seven-movement Ein Deutsches Requiem became instantly popular, and has remained so to this day.

Musically, the Requiem is of enormous breadth, subtle musicianship, and almost fanatical devotion to the text. The work opens with a somber tone, the highest instruments absent and violas and cellos divided. The chorus’ first words proclaim that this is a work for the living, not the dead: “Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted.” The first three notes contain a tiny motive that will appear many times, but most tellingly in the last movement.

The second movement begins as a slow march underlined by ominous timpani strokes. First the chorus whispers “For all flesh is as grass,” then it roars. When “Be patient, therefore, brethren” is reached, the clouds part and the music is drenched in light. The march returns, but this time the text continues with great affirmation, “But the word of the Lord endureth forever.” With the words “And the ransomed of the Lord,” the music becomes ecstatic.

In the third movement the baritone and the chorus speak of the shortness of life and the vanity of Man. After the question “And now, Lord, what is my hope?” the music slowly comes to a stop. The answer wells up from nothingness to fervent intensity: “My hope is in Thee.” The last word of that line becomes the downbeat of a colossal double-fugue (the orchestra has one, the chorus the other), with the words “The souls of the righteous are in the hands of God.” The entire fugue plays over a constant pedal-point on the note D, as if to signify an omnipresent, immutable force.

As befits its text (“How lovely are Thy dwelling places”), the fourth movement is innocent, happy, and flowing with faith. The fifth movement is the “afterthought” Brahms wrote for his mother. It is achingly tender, as Brahms gives us and himself the message “I will see you again, and your heart will rejoice.”

The mysteries to ponder in the sixth movement are accompanied by radical harmonic mysteries in the music. It is only when “The trumpet shall sound” that the music organizes itself, becoming defiant in “O Death, where is thy sting?” In one of the most miraculous transformations in music, a broad and glorious fugue ensues on “Thou art worthy, Lord, to receive glory.” Far from its mysterious opening, the movement ends as tonally-centered as can be.

A beatitude opened Ein Deutsches Requiem, and another closes it. “Blessed are they that mourn” began a first movement full of doubt; “Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord” is the last movement’s affirmation of faith. The long journey from bereavement to consolation proceeds with a force of logic that is overpowering. Brahms had to compose the “extra” movement for his mother, for it gave the work its symmetry. The Requiem forms a great arch with “How lovely are Thy dwelling places” as its central, beatific keystone; the third and fifth movements, for the soloists, balance each other; the biggest movements come second and sixth; and the last movement returns to the F major that began the first.

Some have suggested that what Brahms composed amounts to a “Protestant” Requiem, but the composer wasn’t thinking that way: he wrote a requiem for a different purpose, not a different church. The title, he said, merely indicates the language spoken: “As regards the title, I confess I should gladly have left out ‘German’ and substituted ‘Human.’” He sought a universal response to Man’s universal problem, and as a believer he knew that a solution was not attainable on this earth. His goal was consolation—his own, and that of others. “Now I am consoled,” he wrote. “I have surmounted obstacles that I thought I could never overcome, and I feel like an eagle, soaring ever higher and higher.”

—Mark Rohr
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© Mark Rohr 2016-17