MASTERWORKS V: Brahms' Requiem
Johannes Brahms 1833-1897
Johannes Brahms
1833-1897
Johannes Brahms
Variations on a Theme of Haydn, Op. 56a

(Variations on the St. Anthony Chorale )

Brahms’s composed this set of variations in 1873 in homage to the classical tradition as epitomized by Haydn. Despite his humble birth, Brahms was by age 40 a musical force to be reckoned with. He had a significant number of piano and chamber works under his belt, as well as the German Requiem and the First Piano Concerto in D minor. Yet, feeling himself ever in the overwhelming shadow of Beethoven, he spent 14 years, from 1862 to 1876, developing the skills and courage to produce his first symphony. The so-called “Haydn Variations” was his first purely orchestral work since the two youthful Serenades and the D minor Piano Concerto (all premiered in 1858-59) This new work demonstrated that he had reached the end of his “apprenticeship” and had completely mastered the orchestral palette.

The origin of the theme is obscure. It was brought to Brahms’s attention by organist and musicologist Carl Ferdinand Pohl, librarian of Vienna’s Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde and a Haydn biographer. Pohl had discovered it in a manuscript of six Feld-Parthien (partitas) for eight wind instruments, or Harmonie, allegedly by Haydn, but possibly by his star pupil Ignaz Pleyel. The Harmonie, or wind band, was a traditional ensemble for outdoor dinner entertainment, consisting of pairs of oboes, clarinets, bassoons and horns. In the Haydn manuscript the movement is titled “Chorale St. Antonii,” indicating that it was probably taken from a much older source. Brahms believed, however, that the theme was genuinely by Haydn; he made his own copy (the partitas were only published in 1932) and transformed an obscure melody into one of the best-known pieces in the classical repertoire. Originally, Brahms wrote the Variations for two pianos (Op. 56b). He orchestrated it immediately and published it only two months after the original piano version.

Variation forms date back to the Middle Ages and, until Beethoven, were generally bravura keyboard pieces in which, as the variations progressed, a theme collected more and more embellishments – thereby requiring faster and faster finger work. Only Johann Sebastian Bach in the Goldberg Variations provided the exception that proved the rule. One of the legacies of Beethoven was to greatly expand the ways in which a theme could be changed. No longer a matter of decorative accretions bound by a standardized repeat structure, sets of variations could stretch, distort, re-harmonize, bury the theme in an inner voice, or even disguise it. In the introduction of the theme, Brahms follows the original wind instrument scoring of the Feld-Parthie; the following two examples illustrate the original instrumentation by Haydn – or whoever – and the second part of the theme as Brahms orchestrated it. Example 1 & Example 2 Note that Brahms adds pizzicato cellos and basses to the harmony. Brahms retains the original phrase length of the theme but disguises the melody, retaining only the harmonic structure. Even in the original Feld-Parthie, Haydn re-used the harmonic chorale's structure and buried the tune in the inner voices for the Finale. Example 3

Brahms sometimes uses rhythmically distorted fragments of the theme to develop, as in Variation V. Example 4 Most often he retains only the harmonic and formal structures. Nevertheless, it is possible to hum the theme with each variation, where it will nearly always fit into the harmony. The exceptions are Variation II, Example 5 Variation IV Example 6 and VIII, which are in the minor mode.

As was his practice in other sets of variations, Brahms made the coda the climax of the work, a chaconne consisting of 24 mini-variations based on a five-measure ground bass derived from the beginning of the bass line of the original theme. Example 7 The variations become increasingly involved, using ever-changing orchestral forces, rhythmic and melodic variety, culminating in grand restatement of the complete theme by the full orchestra.
Johannes Brahms
Ein deutsches Requiem, Op. 45

Early in 1865 Johannes Brahms’ mother died of a stroke in Hamburg at the age 76. Notified of her illness, he had raced to her bedside but arrived too late. His years away in Vienna had created a distance from his parents, who were of humble, working-class origin and whose marriage had disintegrated despite his attempts to reconcile them. Left with responsibility for his mother, he nevertheless had always regarded her as a source of strength and support. Her death appears to have been a catalyst for the finalization of an idea that had been with him for several years, probably since the tragic final illness of his friend and mentor, Robert Schumann. In an entry in his diary, Schumann writes of the idea of a requiem with a more gentle, comforting text than that of the Catholic Mass for the Dead.

Nearly a decade before his mother’s death, Brahms had made sketches (lost with all his other working papers) for a four-movement funeral cantata, which finally came to fruition in the Requiem. The slow movement for a discarded symphony in D minor – which also supplied material for the First Piano Concerto – provided the basis of the Requiem’s second movement funeral march, “Denn alles Fleisch es ist wie Gras” (For all flesh is as grass). Amassing all of these earlier musical and textual ideas, Brahms formally started work on Ein deutsches Requiem, finishing it in August 1866 except for the fifth movement, “Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit” (And ye now therefore have sorrow), which he added in1868 after the premiere. The Requiem was to be his longest work and the first to garner him international recognition.

The Requiem is a personal statement of faith, intentionally distanced from institutional religion. The German of the title refers only to the language from which the texts were taken and it is meant neither to apply to a single nation nor to a specific religion. Brahms selected a group of Scriptural texts from Martin Luther’s translation of the both the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures and the Apocrypha, shaping the work in keeping with his own spiritual and musical vision. While the Catholic Mass for the Dead opens with a prayer for the eternal rest of the deceased, by far the largest portion is dominated by the sequence “Dies irae, dies illa,” a poetic depiction of the soul’s terror on the Day of Judgment. In contrast, Brahms Requiem was to be a memorial to the dead, a comfort to those left behind and the promise of eternal redemption. Far from soothing sentimentality, the Requiem, nevertheless, does address the complexities of the meaning of life, death and resurrection. The work as a whole is a grand arch of which the apex, Movement 4, is the choral description of the joy of eternal life.

Surrounding it are movements reflecting the pain of death and the search for meaning, as well as teachings on God’s cosmic order. Framing the work as a whole are Movements 1 and 7 offering peace and comfort to the living and the dead.

The first three movements of the Requiem address the concerns of all people. The opening movement presents the premise of the entire work, “Selig sind die da Leid tragen” (Blessed are they that mourn), focusing on the mourners rather than on the deceased. Example 1 The movement is in ternary, ABA, form. The middle section maintains but intensifies the original tone on the words, "Die mit Tränen säen/Werden mit Freuden ernten" (Those who sow in tears shall reap in joy). Example 2

The second movement is the darkest and longest section of the work, reminding the mourners of the inevitability of death – but not the terror of damnation. It begins with a funeral march for the orchestra, accompanied by the slow beat of the timpani, Example 3 followed by the chorus solemnly intoning, “Denn alles Fleisch es ist wie Gras” (For all flesh is as grass). Example 4 In the middle section, beginning as an a cappella chorus, “So seit nun geduldig,…bis auf die Zukunft des Herrn” (Be patient…for the coming of the Lord), Example 5 Brahms’ take on the final Judgment is redemptive, reflected in the switch to the major and an increase in tempo. Example 6 A return to the funeral march is followed by a dramatic choral fugue, “Aber des Herrn Wort bleibet in Ewigkeit” (But the Word of the Lord is eternal), promising eternal salvation. Example 7 Brahms’s use of climactic fugues – there are three in the Requiem – has its source in the tradition of fugal climaxes in Baroque and Classical settings of the Catholic Mass. In keeping with the text promising redemption, the movement ends in animated settings for each line of the text.

Movement 3, “Herr, lehre doch mich” (Lord, teach me that I must die) for baritone and chorus begins the didactic section of the work, a prayer in which the individual is instructed to acknowledge his mortality and the vain pursuit of earthly gratification, and finally to commend his soul to God. Example 8 In the first part, the baritone maintains a dialogue with the chorus. His search for understanding and hope is symbolized in a series of seemingly aimless modulations into distant keys. Example 9 Brahms continues his practice of brightening the music in parallel with those lines of the text that promise hope and comfort. The movement concludes with double fugue, one subject for the chorus, the second subject for the orchestra, portraying the return of all righteous souls to the Lord in everlasting peace, "Die gerechten Seelen sind in Gottes Hand" (The righteous souls are in God's hand). Example 10 Bearing witness to the universality of this prayer, whose text is from the Hebrew Scriptures (Psalm 39), are the arrangements of this movement sung in Reform synagogues on Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement).

The gentle “Wie lieblich sind Deine Wohnungen” (How lovely are Thy dwellings) is the central description and promise of eternal life. Example 11 It is a simple ABA song form for the chorus, whose middle section is a passionate outburst of longing for God, "Mein Leib und Seele freuet sich" (My body and soul cry out). Example 12 The movement concludes with another fugue of praise, "Die Loben dich immerdar" (They praise thy name forever). Example 13

The soprano solo that follows, "Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit" (You now are sorrowful), that promises comfort and eternal joy, for those in mourning as well as the dead. It is highly contrapuntal and is structured like a Bach organ chorale prelude – only here for soprano soloist, orchestra and chorus. Bach used this device occasionally in the cantatas. The soprano sings the chorale melody in counterpoint with the orchestra, Example 14 while the chorus periodically enters with its own contrapuntal line on the words "Ich will euch trösten, wie einen seiner Mutter tröstet" (I will comfort you, as does a mother). Example 15

The sixth movement is another dialogue between baritone soloist and chorus, celebrating the eternal kingdom of God. Brahms wrote a great deal of choral music and knew intimately the cantatas of Johann Sebastian Bach. Like the earlier composer, he made extensive use of tone painting in keeping with the text. In the sixth movement, for example, The somber choral opening, "Denn wir haben hie keine bleibende Statt, sondern die zukünftige suchen wir" (Here on earth we have no continuing place, but we seek one to come) against a plodding bass accompaniment gives both the sense of dogged searching, as well as a military tone that foreshadows the battle with Death. Example 16 The chorus sings “Denn es wird die Posaune schallen, Der Tod ist verschlungen in den Sieg” (Then the trumpet sounds and Death is swallowed up in Victory) in an outburst of hammering militaristic music Example 17 that ultimately becomes a great fugal song of praise and honor to the Lord. Like the great double fugue of the third movement, the fugue subjects are divided between the orchestra and chorus. Example 18

The final movement recalls themes – both textual and musical – from the beginning of the Requiem; this time, however, it is the dead, rather than the mourners, who are blessed. The music, however, is more passionate, since it sums up the message of eternal life that has been the principal focus of the entire work. Example 19

Despite the lukewarm reception in Vienna of the first three movements of the Requiem in 1867, the entire work – minus what is now the fifth movement for soprano and chorus – was premiered on Good Friday 1868 in the cathedral of Bremen to great acclaim. Brahms later added the fifth movement, dedicated specifically to his mother, and the entire work was performed in February of 1869.
I. Chorus
Selig sind, die da Leid tragen;
denn sie sollen getröstet werden.

Die mit Tränen säen,
werden mit Freuden ernten.
Sie gehen hin und weinen
und tragen edlen Samen
und kommen mit Freuden
und bringen ihre Garben.


II. Chorus
Denn alles Fleisch es ist wie Gras
und alle Herrlichkeit des Menschen
wie des Grases Blumen.
Das Gras ist verdorret
und die Blume abgefallen.

So seid nun geduldig, lieben Brüder,
bis auf die Zukunft des Herrn.
Siehe, ein Ackermann wartet
auf die köstliche Frucht der Erde
und ist geduldig darüber, bis er empfahe
den Morgenregen und Abendregen.
So seid geduldig.

Denn alles Fleisch es ist wie Gras
und alle Herrlichkeit des Menchen
wie des Grases Blumen.
Das Gras ist verdorret
und die Blume abgefallen.

Aber des Herrn Wort
bleibet in Ewigkeit.

Die Erlöseten des Herrn werden wieder kommen,
und gen Zion kommen mit Jauchzen;
Freude, ewige Freude
wird über ihrem Haupte sein;
Freude und Wonne werden sie ergreifen
und Schmerz und Seufzen wird weg müssen.


III. Chorus with Baritone Solo
Herr, lehre doch mich,
daß ein Ende mit mir haben muß,
und mein Leben ein Ziel hat
und ich davon muß.
Siehe, meine Tage sind
einer Hand breit vor dir,
und mein Leben ist wie nichts vor dir.
Ach, wie gar nichts sind alle Menschen,
die doch so sicher leben.
Sie gehen daher wie ein Schemen,
und machen ihnen viel vergebliche Unruhe;
sie sammeln und wissen nicht
wer es kriegen wird.
Nun, Herr, wes soll ich mich trösten?
Ich hoffe auf dich.

Der Gerechten Seelen sind in Gottes Hand
und keine Qual rühret sie an.


IV. Chorus
Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen,
Herr Zebaoth!
Meine Seele verlanget und sehnet sich
nach den Vorhöfen des Herrn;
mein Leib und Seele freuen sich
in dem lebendigen Gott.
Wohl denen, die in deinem Hause wohnen,
die loben dich immerdar.


V. Chorus with Soprano Solo
Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit;
aber ich will euch wieder sehen,
und euer Herz soll sich freuen,
und eure Freude soll niemand von euch nehmen.

Ich will euch trösten,
wie einen seine Mutter tröstet.

Ich habe eine kleine Zeit
Mühe und Arbeit gehabt,
und habe großen Trost gefunden.


VI. Chorus wit Baritone Solo
Denn wir haben hie keine bleibende Statt,
sondern die zukünftige suchen wir.

Siehe, ich sage euch ein Geheimnis:
Wir werden nicht alle entschlafen,
wir werden aber alle verwandelt werden;
und dasselbige plötzlich, in einem Augenblick,
zu der Zeit der letzten Posaune.
Denn es wird die Posaune schallen,
und die Toten werden auferstehen unverweslich,
und wir werden verwandelt werden.
Dann wird erfüllet werden das Wort,
das geschrieben steht:
Der Tod ist verschlungen in den Sieg.
Tod, wo ist dein Stachel?
Hölle, wo ist dein Sieg?

Herr, du bist würdig
zu nehmen Preis und Ehre und Kraft;
denn du hast alle Dinge erschaffen
und durch deinen Willen haben sie das Wesen
und sind geschaffen.


VII. Chorus
Selig sind die Toten,
die in dem Herrn sterben,
von nun an.
Ja der Geist spricht,
daß sie ruhen von ihrer Arbeit;
denn ihre Werke folgen ihnen nach.

Blessed are they that mourn:
for they shall be comforted. (Matthew 5:4)


They that sow in tears shall reap in joy.
Who goeth forth and weepeth,
and beareth precious seed,
shall doubtless return with rejoicing,
and bring their sheaves with him. (Psalms 126:5-6)


Behold, all flesh is as the grass,
and all the goodliness of man
is as the flower of grass.
The grass with'reth,
and the flower thereof decayeth. (I Peter 1:24)

Now, therefore, be patient, O my brethren,
unto the coming of the Lord.
See how the plowman waiteth
for the precious fruit of the earth,
and hath long patience for it,
until he receive the early and the latter rain.
So be ye patient. (James 5:7)

Behold, all flesh is as the grass,
and all the goodliness of man
is as the flower of grass.
The grass with'reth,
and the flower thereof decayeth. (I Peter 1:24)

But the word of the Lord
endureth for ever. (I Peter 1:25)

The redeemed of the Lord shall return,
and come rejoicing unto Zion;
gladness, joy everlasting,
joy, eternal joy upon their heads shall be:
joy and gladness, these shall seize them,
and pain and sighing shall flee from them. (Isaiah 35:10)


Lord, make me to know mine end
and the measure of my days on earth,
to consider my frailty,
that I must perish.
Surely, all my days here
are as an handbreath to Thee;
and my lifetime is as naught to Thee:
Verily mankind walketh in a vain show,
and their best state is vanity.
Man passeth away like a shadow,
how disquieted in vain:
he heapeth up riches,
and cannot tell who shall gather them.
Now, Lord, what do I wait for?
My hope is in Thee. (Psalms 39:5-8)

But the righteous souls are in the hand of God,
nor pain, nor grief shall nigh them come. (Wisdom 3:1)

How lovely is Thy dwelling place,
O Lord of Hosts!
For my soul longeth,
yea fainteth for the courts of the Lord:
my soul and my body crieth out,
yea, for the living God.
O blest are they that dwell within Thy house:
they praise Thy name evermore! (Psalms 84:2-3, 5)

Ye now are sorrowful:
but ye shall again behold me,
and your heart shall be joyful,
and your joy no man taketh from you. (John 16:22)

Yea, I will comfort you,
as one whom his own mother comforteth. (Isaiah 66:13)

Look upon me;
for a little time labor and sorrow were mine,
but at last I have found comfort. (Ecclesiasticus 51:35)


Here on earth we have no continuing place,
but we seek one to come. (Hebrews 13:14)

Lo, I unfold unto you a mystery;
We shall not all sleep when he cometh,
but we shall all be changed in a moment,
In a twinkling of an eye,
at the sound of the trumpet:
For the trumpet shall sound,
and the dead shall be raised incorruptible,
and all we shall be changed.
Then what of old was written,
the same shall be brought to pass.
For death shall be swallowed up in victory!
O Death where is thy sting?
Grave, where is thy victory? (I Corinthians 15:51-55)

Lord, worthy art Thou to accept praise,
honor and might;
for thou hast created all things,
and by Thy will all things have their being,
and were created. (Revelation 4:11)


Blessed are the dead
which die in the Lord
from henceforth:
Sayeth the Spirit,
that they rest from their labors;
and that their works follow after them. (Revelation 14:13)

Copyright © Elizabeth and Joseph Kahn 2018