Program Notes for Ein Deutsches Requiem

Ein deutsches Requiem, nach Worten der heiligen Schrift (A German Requiem, after words of the Holy Scriptures).

Johannes Brahms was born in Hamburg, Germany, on May 7, 1833, and died in Vienna on April 3, 1897. He completed all but what is now the fifth movement of “Ein deutsches Requiem” in August 1866. Johannes Herbeck conducted the first three movements on December 1, 1867, in Vienna; the first performance of the six then-existing movements was given on Good Friday of 1868 in the Bremen cathedral; Brahms conducted, with Julius Stockhausen as baritone soloist. Brahms added the fifth movement (“Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit,” which calls for solo soprano) in May 1868, that movement first being sung on September 17 that year in Zurich. The first performance of the complete seven-movement work took place in Leipzig on February 18, 1869; Carl Reinecke conducted the Gewandhaus Orchestra and Chorus. (Jan Swafford)


Ein Deutsches Requiem is a constant presence in the choral season every year, because it speaks to all of us about life, death and mourning. It’s a transformative and wonderful work to sing. While researching for these notes I ran across much concert artwork, and I was surprised to see angels – lots of posters with angels. I find this puzzling – there are no angels in the Requiem, and in fact it is not a work about mystical heavenly beings, or the hellish lions’ mouths of the Latin Requiem Mass – it is a work centered on earth, for and about humans on earth dealing with emotions around loss and joy. And yes, there is the promise of the world to come after death, the “joys of heaven” (Pascall)…but no help is needed from extra-terrestrial beings – these are texts and music about us: “…they rest from their labors, and their works shall follow them.” Brahms said,

I confess that I would gladly omit even the word ‘German’ and instead use ‘Human.’ Also…I would dispense with places like John 3:16. On the other hand, I’ve chosen one thing or another because…I needed it, and because with my venerable authors I can’t delete or dispute anything.”
The biblical verse Brahms would dispense with is perhaps the central one in the Christian faith: “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” If Brahms was a North German Protestant by upbringing and temperament, he was also a skeptic and agnostic—in the terms of our day, a “secular humanist.” (Jan Swafford)


Brahms chose his texts carefully. Using his childhood Lutheran Bible, of which he had a comprehensive knowledge, he was able to pair different texts together beautifully. “[Brahms] read the Bible as literature, not rejecting, rather rationalizing and universalizing its import….a sustained message of hope. The movement from the trouble, sorrow and pointlessness of earthly life to the security, peace, rejoicing and fulfillment of the next offers not only comfort for the bereaved but solace for all those contemplating mortality, not just Protestants, not just Christians, but mankind.” (Robert Pascall)


Movement 1 (Matthew 5:4 and Psalm 126: 5,6)

Ein Deutsches Requiem begins with emphasis on those that mourn, not on those who have died (“Selig sind, die da Leid tragen”). The orchestration is dark, with no violins, two mournful horns, and spare use of the woodwinds. The choral opening establishes the “Selig” motive, which Brahms will manipulate throughout the Requiem: a rising third resolving up a half step (Listen for its inversion at the third choral phrase.) At the words “Die mit Tränen säen” (“They that sow in tears”) Brahms changes the key to the flatted VI chord, a characteristic progression for him, and we hear the harp for the first time. The orchestration increases and the “Freude” (“joy”) theme appears. After much activity, the voices fall to a stop (“getröstet werden”) as the harp arpeggios ascend – earth and heaven.



Movement 2 (1 Peter 1:24, James 5:7, 1 Peter 1:25 and Isaiah 35:10)

This movement is marked “Langsam, marschmässig” – slow, marching. The image is one of mourners following the casket. It had its genesis in 1854, when Brahms’ mentor, the composer Robert Schumann, threw himself into the Rhine in an abortive attempt to kill himself (Schumann was subsequently hospitalized until his death in 1856). Brahms began a major two-piano work that morphed into a symphony, never completed, of which this was the scherzo (usually the third movement, in triple meter). The first movement of it became the opening movement of the composer’s Piano Concerto No. 1 and this music became “Denn alles Fleisch es ist wie Gras” – “for all flesh is as grass” in the Requiem. The form of a scherzo movement, similar to a minuet, includes a contrasting trio section (here “So seid nun geduldig” – “be patient”), and then returns to the opening music, which is doubly poignant in its repetition.


The mood changes abruptly, with, appropriately, the word “Aber” (“But”) – and the choir launches into joy: “the word of the Lord endures for ever…and the ransomed of the Lord shall return and come to Zion with songs and everlasting joy” The eminent conductor, Robert Shaw, said,

I have a feeling that when Brahms even becomes joyful about Die Erlöseten – “The saved of the world will come rejoicing as I am” –  I think he was making a march that included God too, you know? You see he wasn’t seeking security for himself and trying to convince himself by being loud, but I think he was describing that sort of security of righteousness which is its own condition, and God and manhood, which are their own dignity. (


Movement 3 (Psalm 39:4-7 and Wisdom of Solomon 3:1) This is perhaps the most difficult movement in the Requiem, in its musical demands and its emotional commitment. The baritone soloist opens with the words “Lord, let me know mine end” (the first personal “I” statement of the Requiem) and the choir echoes him. The music becomes steadily more agitated and rhythmically complex through the metrical change at “Ach, wie gar nichts sind alle Menschen” (“Surely every man walketh in a vain show”), leading to the orchestra essentially abandoning the voices after “wess soll ich mich trösten?” (“how shall I comfort myself?”). As the choir lifts itself up with the text “Ich hoffe auf dich” (“I hope in thee”) the orchestra re-joins the texture and the combined forces launch into the “Der Gerechten Seelen” fugue.


This highly complicated fugue is made more difficult by Brahms’ decision to anchor the entire section with a pedal point (a kind of drone) on the pitch D. “Brahms felt wedded to this effect as an expression of the assurance in the text: ‘The souls of the righteous are in the hands of God and no torment shall touch them.’” (Swafford) Clara Schumann said of it, “The only really troublesome thing in [the Requiem] is the fugue with the pedal note.” After the 1867 performance of the first three movements, the critic Eduard Hanslick wrote,” During the concluding fugue of the third movement, surging above a pedal-point on D, [one] experience the sensations of a passenger rattling through a tunnel in an express train.” Part of the problem was that the timpanist at that performance played very loudly throughout –Brahms’ remedy for this was the marking he added: piano ma ben marcato (soft but well marked). The composer also lightened the orchestral texture a bit, making the interplay between voices and orchestra easier to hear. Then in the final six measures: Brahms gives the upper strings triplet rhythms; the woodwinds continue their duple eighth notes which morph into a highly syncopated figure; he brings in all the brass; and the choir goes somewhat nuts as the fugue rolls into the cadence – an express train indeed.



Movement 4 (Psalm 84:1,2,4). “Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen” is the center of the work, an oasis of seemingly-uncomplicated melodies that turn the work toward life after death: “My soul longeth and fainteth for the courts of the Lord.” The opening descending orchestral introduction is an inversion of the “Selig sind” motive from the first movement.

In April 1865 he sent Clara Schumann a draft toward a new piece, observing, “It’s probably the least offensive part of some kind of German Requiem. But since it may have vanished into thin air before you come to Baden, at least have a look at the beautiful words it begins with.” The chorus he is impugning, “How lovely is thy dwelling place, O Lord of Hosts,” of course did not vanish from Ein deutsches Requiem. In fact, it is one of the most limpidly beautiful and beloved works in the entire choral repertoire.
In later years Brahms said, “I don’t like to hear that I wrote the Requiem for my mother.” By the law of Brahmsian obliqueness, that is a tacit admission that the death of his beloved mother in 1865 was part of the inspiration. He just didn’t like people talking about it. (Jan Swafford)


Movement 5 (John 16:22, Ecclesiasticus 51:27 and Isaiah 66:13). The original version of Ein Deutsches Requiem, as premiered in 1868 in Bremen, did not include this movement. The idea of having a soprano solo in the work came from Brahms’ teacher Eduard Marxsen, and was probably helped by fact that at the premier in 1868, the program included the soprano Amalie Joachim singing Handel’s “I know that my redeemer liveth” (a nod to those who felt the Requiem was remiss in not mentioning Christ anywhere in its text). Hearing this transcendent music, one can only believe that Brahms was writing of his mother, Christiane, who died in 1865, but the composer always just huffed and snorted at the suggestion.


Here the relationship between soloist and chorus is completely different from the 3rd movement. The choir murmurs, underneath the soloist, one text: “As one whom his mother comforteth, so will I comfort you.” The soprano never sings those words; rather, she sings of the world to come: “I will see you again, and your heart shall rejoice.”


Movement 6 (Hebrews 13:14, 1 Corinthians 15:51,52,54,55 and Revelation 4:11). In this massive movement we get a taste of a more traditional Requiem setting – the mention of the “last trumpet”, the idea that “Death is swallowed up in victory” – here the work skirts as close to traditional Christian belief as it gets.


Interestingly, the relationship of the baritone and the choir is the same as in the 3rd movement: he intones “Wir werden nichat alle entschlafen” and they repeat. The music is quiet, somewhat wandering, and then the intensity increases at the text “at the last trumpet” and all the forces of orchestra and chorus erupt with “for the trumpet shall sound and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.” There’s a manic waltz at “Hölle, wo ist dein Sieg?” – “Grave, where is thy victory?” – and an amazing metrical shift to a grand, Handelian fugue (“Lord, thou art worthy to receive glory and honor”). This is a fugue that begins as a fugue and ends as a completely Brahmsian, Romantic anthem of praise, with dramatic dynamic and registral shifts.


Movement 7 (Revelations 14:13) We come to the close, the final movement symmetrical with the first, but now the text is “Selig sind die Toten”, “blessed are the dead”. We come at last to the place most requiems begin, and it feels like the right end to the journey. Brahms takes the music of the opening movement’s “they shall be comforted” and uses it for “blessed are the dead which die in the Lord.” Full circle.


Brahms’s Requiem has no trace of incense, no bowing to the altar. It reaches beyond the walls of churches to touch the eternal sources of grief and hope. It is a spiritual work in the universal language of music, addressed to all humanity, which is to say, to those that mourn and need comfort. “ Freude,” “joy,” is the word heard most often in Ein deutsches Requiem. Brahms meant “Freude” in the same sense Beethoven did in the Ninth Symphony. For a humanist, joy is the summit of life, and it is the rebirth of joy that all people hope for on the other side of mourning. (Jan Swafford)


–Anne Watson Born



  • Jan Swafford, program notes for BSO Ein Deutsches Requiem performances, fall 2016
  • Jan Swaffod, Brahms: A Biography
  • Robert Pascall, liner notes to Norrington recording