This Week's Music Notes:
Music Notes for September 24, 2023
Johannes Brahms was not a religious man. In fact, he freely admitted to his biographer that he did not necessarily believe in the concept of life after death. The combination of these facts seems paradoxical for composing a Requiem, or a Mass for the Dead. But Brahms was a man full of contradictions, so for his Requiem, he redefined the genre and instead of creating a Mass for the Dead, created one for the mourners left behind on Earth, and in so doing, created something extraordinary. He often stated that he could have replaced the word “German” with “Human” and be left with a more accurate title for his groundbreaking work. Brahms never explicitly stated if he was inspired to write his Requiem for anyone in particular, but his mother who died in 1865 is certainly a possibility, as is the composer Robert Schumann, Brahms’s close friend and mentor, who died in 1856 after a long struggle with mental illness. Instead of the traditional Latin Mass, Brahms chose to use the Lutheran Bible as his source (thus the word “German” in the title), and pieced together the text with selections from both the Old and New Testaments, as well as from the Apocrypha. The second movement we sing today sets the famous passage “For all flesh is as the grass,” reminding us of our mortality, in a relentlessly forward-moving unison choral melody accompanied by a menacing sarabande in the organ.