Brahms’ German Requiem

First impulse

It is thought by some that Brahms was first prompted to compose a requiem by the death of his friend Robert Schumann in 1856. There is little likelihood that he could have undertaken this at the time since he had been supporting Schumann’s wife Clara during her husband’s last two years of illness and, when Schumann died, Brahms was in the middle of a crisis in the creativity department. The idea of an unfulfilled desire to write a requiem seems quite plausible, though.

Choice of text

Since his early years Brahms had been an avid reader and deeply interested in literature. So he was in the habit of choosing works of literary weight to set to music, rather than more obvious lyric poetry (which would have been easier to set).

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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