Brahms’ German Requiem

Brahms composed the German Requiem between 1865 and 1868, when he was in his mid-30s and in full flow with works such as the Piano Quintet, String Sextets, the Horn Trio, the Handel-and Paganini Variations. It was a time of passionate involvement with a number of young ladies, at one point almost ending in marriage. But in February 1865 he was devastated by the death of his mother, an event which triggered the composition of the Requiem.

For his text he turned to Luther’s wonderful, resonant translation of the Bible, choosing parts which had things to say to the grieving living, rather than being focused on the dead (as in the Catholic Mass for the Dead). The result is a work with deeply dark moments, but which is ultimately comforting and greatly uplifting. His careful naming of it as ‘A German Requiem’ signals the fact that it has nothing to do with the Christian liturgy. It is written specifically for the concert hall, and Brahms commented that it could be called a Human Requiem.

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Mendelssohn’s Elijah

Elijah was commissioned for Birmingham’s Triennial Music Festival

That an eminent German composer should receive a commission from a provincial English music festival may seem remarkable. But Mendelssohn was extremely popular both socially and as a musician; so he was in great demand across Europe, particularly in Britain where he definitely had the status of a celebrity, popular in royal circles. Birmingham at this time being industrially one of the most lively and prosperous centres in the country, had cultural ambitions. By the 1830s it had become a major centre for music, so it was only natural that the festival committee should be interested in inviting such a celebrity to perform in Birmingham’s brand new Town Hall.

Mendelssohn first performed in Birmingham in September 1837 playing his newly composed 2nd Piano Concerto and conducting a performance of St. Paul, which he had composed the previous year. He was such a success that he was invited to return as the Director of the next festival, in 1840. This he duly did, (no doubt arriving by the newly built railway) which led to the Festival commissioning an oratorio from him..

He received the commission in July 1845 for the festival in August 1846. Mendelssohn had started to plan the composition of an oratorio based on the life of Elijah in London in back August 1837. Now his idea was to be realised as a bilingual piece (like Haydn’s Creation), composed to a German text, but to receive its first performance in English.

While working on Elijah, Mendelssohn’s schedule was very busy: he was, after all, Director of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, which was for six months in the year a full-time job. He also had to find time to compose his cantata Lauda Sion for the Liege Festival. In May, 14 weeks before the premiere, he sent the first part of Elijah to London for the text to be translated into English. Then he departed to perform in festivals in Aachen, Liege and Cologne. He returned in June (10 weeks to go) to Leipzig to his usual hectic social round. Nevertheless – having added an Overture as an afterthought – he completed Elijah, on August 11th.

A week later he was in London for intensive rehearsals. On the 23rd the orchestra, soloists, chorus and press travelled by a special train to Birmingham. The first performance of Elijah was on 26th August in the Town Hall. It was an instant success.


Mendelssohn’s Lauda Sion

Felix Mendelssohn

Mendelssohn was commissioned to write his setting of this text by the authorities in Liège to mark the 600th anniversary of the Feast of Corpus Christi on June 11th 1846.

At the time of this commission, Mendelssohn was working on his oratorio Elijah for the 1846 Birmingham Festival, which was in August. He interrupted his work on that to compose Lauda Sion and to conduct the first performance in St. Martin’s Church, Liège. He must have worked at great speed, because in May and June 1846 he was also directing music festivals in Aachen and Cologne. Elijah was of course completed on time, but with such work-pressure it is not surprising that a year hence he would be recovering from a nervous break-down; indeed thereafter he had only a few months to live.

Beethoven’s Mass in C, op 86

The Mass in C was composed in 1807, a period of prodigious output when Beethoven was in his mid-30s.

He had slowly become adjusted to his deafness, and a protracted, unhappy love-affair had been finished and buried. In 1806, Beethoven composed his 4th Piano Concerto, the 4th symphony, the violin concerto, the Appassionata Sonata and the 3 Rasumovsky quartets. Nearly all his music was received ecstatically and his fame and reputation blossomed across Europe.

On the strength of this, Prince Nicolaus Esterhazy commissioned Beethoven to write a Mass for his wife’s name’s-day on 13th September 1807. Given that Haydn had written six masterpieces marking this occasion in previous years, and Beethoven had not written a single mass until now, this caused him some consternation. Beethoven’s friend Johann Nepomuk Hummel had succeeded Haydn as the Esterhazys’ Kappellmeister and had written slightly less distinguished works for the occasion, but Beethoven was, rightly, nervous of comparison with Haydn.

The Mass he produced proved inventive, novel and striking – quite different from anything Haydn or Hummel could have written. Although Beethoven was pleased with his work it did not find favour with the Prince. The Prince, indeed made a barbed comment about it; to make matters worse, Hummel laughed, so ending a long friendship. But there was no stopping the flow of masterpieces from Beethoven’s pen: his next work was to complete the 5th Symphony.

Bach’s Christmas Oratorio

The music for the Christmas Oratorio was not originally written for the Church but for  the name-day of Friedrich August II, the new Elector of Saxony – 3rd August,1733.

Bach, in his position as Director of the Leipzig Collegium Musicum, began a series of celebratory secular cantatas to mark the occasion.

Three of these are lost, including 215a (for the Elector’s coronation as King of Poland on 19th February 1734), but cantata no. 213, written for the Elector’s heir, does remain, along with 214 (for the Electress) and 215 (for the Elector). The music is festive and virtuosic; most was performed al fresco to complement the fireworks!

The Christmas Oratorio is a parody work based on these secular cantatas. It consists of six cantatas, the first of which was performed on Christmas Day 1734, and the last at Epiphany 1735.

Telemann’s Allein Gott in die Hoeh sei Ehre

Telemann appears to have composed the cantata Allein Gott in die Höh sei Ehre (sung by the angels at Christ’s birth) in about 1735.

It was composed to be sung at Christmas in the principal Lutheran churches of Hamburg, one imagines with the congregation joining in, since it begins with the first verse of a popular German hymn (written by Nicolaus Decius and Martin Luther). It continues with a setting of verses on the significance of Christ’s birth. Who wrote these words is not clear but they could be by Telemann himself. The cantata concludes with a verse from another popular hymn.

Benjamin Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols

Britten composed A Ceremony of Carols while crossing the North Atlantic in 1942 – in convoy HX183. He and his partner Peter Pears had been in North America since April 1939; but when America declared war after Pearl Harbor they felt they must leave for home, setting sail from New York in March 1942, in the Swedish merchant ship Axel Johnson, for the perilous return journey.

At that time the North Atlantic was being patrolled by German U-boats (3,500 allied merchant vessels were lost crossing the Atlantic). Because of this threat, merchant vessels sailed in convoy, escorted by warships.

So the Axel Johnson sailed first to Halifax, Nova Scotia to join its convoy. While waiting in Halifax, Britten found an anthology of medieval verse in a bookshop: The English Galaxy of Shorter Poems. He set 5 of the poems, plus 2 extra, for boys’ voices and harp during the Atlantic Crossing (two of the settings have surprisingly war-like overtones). These he later expanded to give us A Ceremony of Carols, which he completed in 1943.

The Atlantic crossing was calm and uneventful.