Brahms A German Requiem

Saturday 27 April 2013, 7.30pm

Brahms A German Requiem (Ein deutsches Requiem)
R. Strauss Tod und Verklärung

Sofia Niklassonsoprano
Charles Ricebass
Richard Cooke, conductor
Canterbury Choral Society
Canterbury Choral Society Youth Choir
Canterbury Philharmonic Orchestra

VENUE: Canterbury Cathedral

PRICES: £25, £20, £16, £12, £8

This concert was generously sponsored by Sir Ronald McIntosh

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Brahms’s Requiem is one of the towering choral works of all time, loved equally by those who perform it and those who listen. Its sweeping lines and soaring melodies are carried by choir and orchestra alike. A work of power, profundity and soul-searching beauty. It will be preceded by Richard Strauss’s overwhelming orchestra Tone Poem Tod und Verklärung (Death and Transfiguration), a fitting and intense companion to Brahms’s Requiem.

Kentish Gazette review of our last Brahms’s Requiem concert
‘The numerous full-sound high climaxes were thrillingly and securely achieved. In contrast, at other times more lyrical and restrained passages were well conveyed with a sense of joy… This was a triumphant evening for Canterbury Choral Society…’

Programme Note

Both the works in this evening’s performance are concerned with death, yet both put forward optimistic views – Brahms one of consolation for those left behind and Strauss one of the ultimate attainment of joy.

Instrumental music composed to convey non-musical ideas (programme music) has a history extending back to its beginnings, but became more sophisticated during the nineteenth century at the hands of Liszt with his symphonic poems and reached a climax in the works of Richard Strauss. For many of the earlier of such compositions, The Four Seasons of Vivaldi for example, or Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, the titles of the movements alone were all that the listener needed to understand the import of the music, but for these works of Strauss, most of which are in one continuous movement, programme notes are necessary in order to understand his narratives or his more complex ideas.

He wrote some half-dozen such works three of which are portraits of colourful characters – Don Juan, Till Eulenspiegel and Don Quixote. His second such work, Tod und Verklärung, however, is very different. It was inspired by the Liebestod from Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde which Strauss had come to know when acting as a rehearsal coach at Bayreuth. It portrays the last hours of a dying man, and was described by von Ritter, a close friend of Strauss, in a poem which closely followed the music, divided into four sections as follows:

1. Largo. “In a small bare room, dimly lit by a candle stump, a sick man lies on his pallet. Exhausted by a violent struggle with death, he lies asleep. In the ghastly stillness of the room, like a portent of impending death, only the quiet ticking of a clock is heard. A melancholy smile lights the invalid’s pale face: does he dream of a golden childhood as he lingers on the border of life?”

2. Allegro con molto agitato. “But death grants him little sleep or time for dreams. He shakes his prey brutally to begin the battle afresh. The drive to live, the might of death! What a terrifying contest!” (We hear briefly the motif of ‘Transfiguration’) “Neither wins the victory and once more silence reigns.”

3. Meno mosso, ma sempre alla breve. “Exhausted from the battle, sleepless, as in a delirium, the sick man now sees his life pass before him, step by step, scene by scene. First the rosy dawn of childhood, radiant, innocent; then the boy’s aggressive games, testing, building his strength, and so maturing for the battles of manhood, to strive with burning passion for the highest goals of life: to transfigure all that seems to him most noble, giving it still more exalted form – this alone has been the high aim of his whole existence. Coldly, scornfully, the world set obstacle upon obstacle in his way. When he believed himself near his goal, a thunderous voice cried: ‘Hold!’ But a voice within him still urged him on, crying: ‘Make each hindrance a new rung in your upward climb.’ Undaunted he followed the exalted quest. Still in his death agony he seeks the unreached goal of his ceaseless striving, seeks it, but alas, still in vain. Though it grows closer, clearer, grander, it can never be grasped entire or perfected in his soul. The final iron hammerblow of death rings out, breaks his earthly frame, covers his eyes with eternal night.”

4. Moderato. “But from the endless realms of heavenly space a mighty resonance returns to him bearing what he longed for here below and sought in vain: Redemption, Transfiguration.”

“Such a man, such a soul–” Dvořák once said of Brahms “and he doesn’t believe in anything, he doesn’t believe in anything.” Dvořák was a Catholic with a sincere and almost child-like faith and his Requiem was the customary setting of the Latin requiem mass. Brahms could not have written a work with this text. He was an agnostic but had been brought up as a Lutheran and had a deep knowledge of Luther’s German Bible, from which he himself selected the words for Ein Deutsches Requiem, but Brahms’ response to criticism was “As regards the title I will confess I should gladly have left out ‘German’ and substituted ‘Human’.”

His Requiem offers no prayer for the dead but is addressed to the living; comfort for the bereaved, reminders of our mortality and of our need to make best use of our short time on earth, together with assurances of ultimate joy. Only when we reach the sixth movement do we hear of the resurrection of the dead, and in the seventh that they rest from their labours and will not be forgotten.

For whom was it written? Brahms’ mother had died in February 1865 shortly before he began work on it; Robert Schumann had died following an attempted suicide in 1856. That Schumann’s loss is remembered in the Requiem is suggested by a letter Brahms wrote to Joachim expressing his hurt feelings at the latter’s failure to include a performance of the work in a commemorative Schumann Festival, pointing out “how completely and inevitably such a work as the Requiem belonged to Schumann…” It bears no dedication, however, and is probably therefore best regarded as a more general expression of his feelings on human mortality.

Brahms was a thinker on musical matters as on religion. Although living among Romantics in a Romantic age and inevitably having acquired elements of Romanticism himself, he was by temperament a Classical composer. He made serious studies, perhaps more than any other 19th century composer, of the music of his predecessors, and was particularly influenced by Bach, Schubert and, above all, Beethoven. There are two big fugues in the Requiem, but fugues are actually rather unusual elements in Brahms’ work and these probably owe as much to Beethoven as to Bach, while from Bach himself comes the contrapuntal quality of his writing as a whole. From Schubert he acquired vocal lyricism and his harmonic thought, and from Beethoven an early desire to compose symphonies. He was, however, reluctant to embark on that form. He was in awe of Beethoven’s symphonies and was perhaps anxious not to make the mistake of Dvořák who had composed his early unsuccessful symphonies before Brahms had even written his first. Of two early studies for symphonic movements, one became the first movement of the Piano Concerto in D minor and another the second movement of the Requiem.