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Program Notes: Brahms' German Requiem

Saturday, March 9, 2019 at 8:00pm

Sunday, March 10, 2019 at 3:00pm

Nathalie Stutzmann, conductor

Siobhan Stagg, soprano

Stephen Powell, baritone

St. Louis Symphony Chorus

Amy Kaiser, director

STRAVINSKY Funeral Song, op. 5

BRAHMS Ein deutsches Requiem, op. 45

By Tim Munro

In the 21st century, we have tried to eliminate death from our lives.

Morgues and funeral homes keep us at arms’ length from the dead; public displays of grief are frowned upon; and those mourning are expected to return to “normal” in days. Modern inventions, like gene therapy and cryogenics, come with the promise that we can live forever.

And yet, we still die, we still mourn, we still need comfort.

This program opens in pain. Funeral Song was written after the death of a close friend and mentor. Stravinsky releases his suffering into orchestral groans and cries, but also into the respite of memory, as if Stravinsky was leafing through an album of musical snapshots of his old teacher.

After pain, comfort. Brahms’ music traces a journey of grief: there is sorrow, anger, and pain, but also warmth, brightness, and calm. The texts he chose for Ein deutsches Requiem (A German Requiem) seem intended to soothe those who mourn. We start in darkness, find a hazy light, and end in a sort of acceptance.



Born: June 17, 1882, Oranienbaum (now Lomonosov), Russia

Died: April 6, 1971, New York City, New York

Funeral Song, op. 5

On the trail

Rarely does the classical music world get its own page-turning mystery. But when a major work by Igor Stravinsky was unearthed, a century after its first and only performance, the story made headlines across the world.

In 1960, Stravinsky himself laid down breadcrumbs. Funeral Song was “the best of my works before The Firebird,” he wrote. It “must have been preserved in one of the St. Petersburg orchestra libraries.”

Musicologists dug into every nook and cranny. Emerging empty-handed, they assumed the work had been destroyed in 50 years of revolution and war. When Stravinsky died 11 years later, Funeral Song seemed lost to the mists of history.

In 2015, there was a break. A renovation of the aging St. Petersburg Conservatory led to the relocation of the contents of its library. Amidst the dust and chaos a pile of dusty scores turned up in a corner.

The Conservatory’s librarian carefully paged through these aging manuscripts. One score caught her eye. Its title? Pogrebal’naya Pesnya (Funeral Song in Russian).

Its composer? Igor Stravinsky.

Ode to a giant

Let’s rewind to before Stravinsky’s death; to before his self-imposed exile from Russia; to before his worldwide fame. To 1908.

Stravinsky was stricken by the death of the composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. This giant of Russian music had been a teacher, mentor, and even surrogate parent after the death of Stravinsky’s father. Stravinsky poured all of his feelings about his teacher’s death into Funeral Song, which was performed a single time, at a concert in Rimsky-Korsakov’s memory.

The Stravinsky of Funeral Song is a Stravinsky in transition. The work provides a missing link between his youthful works, rich with the sound of Rimsky-Korsakov’s intricate orchestral tapestries, and his ballet scores, soon to make him an international sensation.

Funeral Song opens in desolation. Low instruments groan; strings tremble and sigh; anticipation builds. Strings and French horns sing a funeral hymn, a quiet threnody that dominates the rest of the work.

There are moments of beauty, even awe, in the prevailing darkness. Stravinsky, recalling the work many years later, used the image of “all the solo instruments of the orchestra [filing] past the tomb of the master in succession, each laying down its own melody as its wreath.”

First Performance: January 17, 1909, Felix Blumenfeld conducting

First SLSO Performance: this week

Scoring: 3 flutes (3rd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 3 clarinets (3rd doubling bass clarinet), 3 bassoons (3rd doubling contrabassoon), 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, and tam tam), 2 harps, and strings

Performance Time: approximately 12 minutes



Born: May 7, 1833, Hamburg, Germany

Died: April 3, 1897, Vienna, Austria

Ein deutsches Requiem, op. 45


“If you want to see our mother once again,” Johannes Brahms’ brother wrote, “come immediately.”

Brahms had a complicated relationship with his mother. His childhood, in a rough part of Hamburg, was difficult; he rarely spoke of it later. But after his mother’s death, he worked to complete an ambitious work that may have helped him confront feelings of loss, of pain: Ein deutsches Requiem (A German Requiem).

Brahms feared death. Late in life he would refuse to sign his own will, and he wrote many songs that contemplate mortality. In the Four Serious Songs, a baritone sings, “O death, how bitter you are!” Brahms refused to hear a public performance of the work.

A decade before his mother’s death, Brahms was deeply affected by the suicide of composer Robert Schumann. With Schumann’s death, Brahms lost a mentor, and in some ways a surrogate parent. The Requiem’s first sketches date to this time.

Later, Brahms wrote to a friend, “you ought to know how much a work like the Requiem belongs to Schumann. I felt in my inmost heart that it should be sung for him.”

What’s in a title?

“Requiem” is the first word of the Catholic Mass of the Dead. Although long associated with musical settings of this text, by Brahms’ time a “requiem” had come to refer to any work that took death as its subject.

Brahms’ use of the word “German” is often taken to imply a deeper cultural or nationalist message. But there is no evidence that Brahms intended this reading; he simply wished to signify that the Requiem was composed to a German language text.

But why “A” German requiem, and not “The” German requiem? By using the indefinite article Brahms humbly pays homage to composers who had blazed the trail for him, having written requiems in their native German tongue.


The Catholic Mass of the Dead helps to ferry souls of the dead. Its traditional text asks that the dead be given eternal rest, that they be absolved of sins, that they be transported to heaven.

But Brahms chose very different texts for A German Requiem. His texts soothe those who are left behind, those who grieve. For example, those who “mourn” will be “comforted”; “tears” will reap “joy”; those who “weepeth” will experience “rejoicing.”

Unlike the standard Latin requiem, Brahms allows for no vengeance, no judgment. The word “comfort” occurs three times, and “joy” four, while the word “death” is sung once. In the sixth movement the choir even seems to taunt death: “O death, where is thy sting?”

Foregrounding human suffering, Brahms’ text omits some religious imagery. “I will admit,” wrote Brahms to a friend, “that I could happily omit the ‘German’ [from the work’s title] and simply say ‘Human’.”

Christ’s words open A German Requiem, but Jesus’ name is not mentioned in the work. Verses from Revelation are cleaned of their apocalyptic imagery. In the fifth movement, a mother and child relationship is just that: the love of a mother for a child.

Sometimes a work can reveal something its author otherwise might try to keep hidden. “I speak through my music,” Brahms wrote.

Brahms was a Christian in an increasingly secular age. Born in the most conservative part of Germany, he was a baptized and confirmed Lutheran. He knew his Bible well: handwritten notes cover his well-thumbed copy, whose verses he drew on for many hours of choral music.

But it is impossible to know how deep his beliefs went. Brahms was reluctant to reveal himself, discarding anything that exposed himself to the light of day. In person he was guarded, declaring himself “free but alone,” and fled complicated personal and professional commitments.

Looking back

Brahms was one of the first true music historians. He piled his library high with volumes of past composers, taking inspiration from dusty, outmoded techniques.

A German Requiem is both very new and very old. Brahms shuttles us between centuries, sometimes jarringly: at one moment we might be listening to a 16th century choral work; at another a 18th century cantata; at another a 19th century opera.

Shadows of two older German composers are long. Bach’s music was Brahms’ lifetime companion, and Bach’s fastidiously-constructed musical lines are matched by Brahms’ own master craftsmanship.

But casting the longest shadow is another German baroque composer. Heinrich Schütz had previously set several of the texts in A German Requiem, and Brahms seems to have learned from his ability to balance heart and head: to touch the emotions without lapsing into sentimentality, to write choral textures that allow the words to be intelligible.

A chorus of equals

We often associate Brahms with his instrumental works: grand symphonies, dramatic piano concertos, epic chamber works. But A German Requiem represented the culmination of a decade of work for a very different sort of ensemble: amateur choir.

Brahms had conducted choruses for a decade. He may have found working with amateur musicians to be less stressful than working with professionals. Choirs also proved to be the perfect laboratory for his musical experiments.

Brahms’ choral world is an idealized democracy. He allows each vocal line to have its own viewpoint; these independent lines work together in perfect harmony. Perhaps Brahms, always awkward in the company of people, was able to find greater empathy for this gathering of musical souls.

An orchestral dusk

By the time he wrote A German Requiem, Brahms had mostly written vocal, piano, and chamber works. The orchestra was still a somewhat unfamiliar continent. But in the Requiem he dives into the unknown, using the orchestra with subtlety and variety.

Brahms enlarges his palette: he adds complexity by dividing strings into multiple parts, and by asking the players to use mutes; he brightens the orchestra by adding two harps; he experiments with using the woodwind section as its own independent band.

Brahms is the master of the musical dusk. At the very opening of the work, for instance, cellos and basses pulse on a low note while four string parts weave a close-harmony tapestry, capturing the rich purples and blues of the setting sun.

First Performance: The first three movements were premiered on December 1, 1867 in Vienna. The premiere of the complete work was given on February 18, 1869 in Leipzig.

First SLSO Performance: December 10, 1960, Edouard van Remoortel conducting

Most Recent SLSO Performance: October 5, 2014, Markus Stenz conducting

Scoring: solo soprano, solo baritone, chorus, 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, 2 harps, organ, and strings

Performance Time: approximately 1 hour and 8 minutes


Listening guide

Brahms the craftsman has built a symmetrical structure for A German Requiem.

The first, last, and central movements set texts of consolation: in the first, we are comforted with joy; in the fourth, we dwell in God’s house; in the fifth, we are given a mother’s support; in the seventh, we rest from our labors.

In the requiem’s other movements, the biblical texts are more varied, confronting questions of life’s transience, of fear for the future. Brahms’ music matches textual variety with musical drama.

English text from the King James Bible.

Movement 1

The opening words communicate the essence of Brahms’ Requiem. We do not just mourn the dead, but also comfort those who remain. Dark tones prevail: low strings pulse at the opening; violins are removed; cellos are divided, adding richness.

The first text is from Christ’s Sermon on the Mount. The second comes from the Psalms, which are central to A German Requiem. Brahms set Psalms texts throughout his life, perhaps drawn to the book’s bewitching poetry and emotional range.

I. Blessed are they that mourn

Blessed are they that mourn,

for they shall be comforted.

Matthew 5:4

They that sow in tears

shall reap in joy.

He that goeth forth and weepeth,

bearing precious seed,

shall doubtless come again with rejoicing,

bringing his sheaves with him.

Psalm 126:5-6

Movement 2

The drama begins. Low instruments set up the tread of a funeral march, approaching from afar. The choir sings of the transience of life, at first with quiet anxiety, later with defiance. On the word aber (“but”) the music pivots, brightness bursting as the choir promises “joy and gladness.”

II. For all flesh is as grass

For all flesh is as grass,

and all the glory of man

as the flower of grass.

The grass withereth,

and the flower thereof falleth away.

1 Peter 1:24

Be patient therefore, brethren,

unto the coming of the Lord.

Behold, the husbandsman waiteth

for the precious fruit of the earth,

and hath long patience for it,

until he receive

the early and the latter rain.

James 5:7

But the word of the Lord endureth for ever.

1 Peter 1:25

And the ransomed of the Lord shall return,

and come to Zion with songs

and everlasting joy upon their heads:

they shall obtain joy and gladness,

and sorry and sighing shall flee away.

Isaiah 35:10

Movement 3

The curtain opens onto a 19th century opera. We zoom in on a single protagonist, a hesitant baritone, filled with desperation and fear. The orchestra is colored by the dark sounds of violas, cellos, and timpani. Fear is answered by confidence: above a heavy low note the choir builds an awe-inspiring musical cathedral.

III. Lord, make me to know mine end

Lord, make me to know mine end,

and the measure of my days, what it is;

that I may know how frail I am.

Behold, thou hast made my days as an handbreadth; and mine age is as nothing before thee: verily every man at his best state is altogether vanity.

Surely every man walketh in a vain shew:

surely they are disquieted in vain:

he heapeth up riches, and knoweth not who shall gather them.

And now, Lord, what wait I for?

My hope is in thee.

Psalm 39:4-7

But the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God and there shall no torment touch them.

Wisdom 3:1

Movement 4

The still center of the requiem. Warmed by the soft glow of woodwinds, the choir sings of the warmth and comfort of home. Brahms’ tempo may be slow, but the music retains a dance-like quality, as if we spin in slow pirouettes far above, in the Lord’s home.

IV. How lovely are thy tabernacles

How lovely are thy tabernacles, O Lord of hosts!

My soul longeth, yea, even fainteth

for the courts of the Lord:

my heart and my flesh crieth out

for the living God.

Blessed are they that dwell in thy house:

they will be still praising thee.

Psalm 84:1,2,4

Movement 5

The summit of the Requiem. The solo soprano evokes the image of a mother comforting her child. In contrast to the darkness of earlier movements, the music here hangs in a hazy stratosphere, the soprano haloed by high woodwinds.

V. And ye now therefore have sorrow

And ye now therefore have sorrow;

but I will see you again,

and your heart shall rejoice,

and your joy no man taketh from you.

John 16:22

Ye see how for a little while I labor

and toil,

yet have I found much rest.

Ecclesiasticus 51:27

As one whom his mother comforteth,

so will I comfort you.

Isaiah 66:13

Movement 6

The day of judgement arrives. Fury and fire culminate in a moment that chills the spine: death having been “swallowed up,” the choir lets out an apocalyptic outburst: “O death, where is thy sting?” But ambiguity remains: are these words sung with fear, lamentation, or provocation?

VI. For here have we no continuing city

For here have we no continuing city,

but we seek one to come.

Hebrews 13:14

Behold, I shew you a mystery;

we shall not all sleep,

but we shall all be changed.

In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye,

at the last trump.

For the trumpet shall sound,

and the dead shall be raised incorruptible,

and we shall be changed.

Then shall be brought to pass the saying

that is written:

Death is swallowed up in victory.

O death, where is thy sting?

O grave, where is thy victory?

1 Corinthians 15:51-52, 54-55

Thou art worthy, O Lord,

to receive glory and honour and power:

for thou hast created all things,

and for thy pleasure

they are and were created.

Revelation 4:11

Movement 7

After a long journey, rest. Brahms’ chosen text from Revelation echoes the words of the requiem’s opening: “Blessed are they that mourn” becomes “Blessed are the dead.” Our labors have ended, our achievements have survived; we accept death with peace and tranquility.

VII. Blessed are the dead

Blessed are the dead

which die in the Lord from henceforth:

Yea, saith the Spirit,

that they may rest from their labours;

and their works do follow them.

Revelation 14:13


Natalia Braginskaya, Dean of the Musicology Department at the St. Petersburg State Conservatory, on the Moment that She Saw Funeral Song for the First Time

from a Decca Classics interview

[The Conservatory librarian Irina Sidorenko] called me and said:

“Natalia, did you look for Pogrebal’naya Pesnya [Funeral Song]?”

“Yes,” I answered. “Why are you asking me about [this]?”

“It is [by] Stravinsky?”

“Yes, what happened? Tell me please!”

“I have this music in my hand!”

I was deeply shocked. [It was] an unbelievable moment in the whole of my professional life. I ran to the library where there were boxes and boxes from floor to ceiling. I found a way to Irina and she showed me that manuscript, and when I saw the name of the composer and the name of the piece in old-fashioned orthography…it was…[she is speechless]

I understood that [there] would be a period of full silence. It was absolutely a top-secret process. It was a very, very small circle of people who knew about this event.

This manuscript survived by chance, because all manuscripts, when they were written off, they would be destroyed, in fire or garbage or other awful things.

It was very dangerous for those people [who saved scores like Stravinksy’s]. [Stravinsky had decided to permanently leave Russia after the Revolution, and his music was spurned by the Soviets.]

I think some of them risked their lives, because the consequences of [saving Stravinsky’s scores] would be very serious.

Tim Munro is the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra Creative Partner


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