The press attested in 2009 to “narcotic potential” and a “goose-pimple factor” when Christian Thielemann performed choral works by Johannes Brahms with the Berliner Philharmoniker and the Rundfunkchor Berlin. This is now followed by the composer’s most famous vocal work: the “Deutsches Requiem”. Despite its monumental structure, the work’s message is humane: the focus is not on otherworldly salvation, but rather on temporal solace for us who are bereaved.
A German Requiem
Johannes Brahms, the great symphonist of the 19th century, established his reputation not with an orchestral work but with a choral work: his Deutsches Requiem brought him triumphant success after the complete version premiered in 1869, making him one of the leading composers of his time virtually overnight. Brahms’s many years of experience as a choral conductor and his thorough study of the a cappella movements of old masters benefited him during the composition process. He congenially joins various vocal genres such as fugue, motet, chorale and lied to form a coherent whole. Brahms, the Protestant, addresses the Catholic rite of the requiem with the work. Nonetheless, he did not set the Latin words of the liturgy to music, but rather arranged German texts from the Old and New Testaments. The theme is not otherworldly salvation, but rather temporal solace for the bereaved. He finds a musical language full of dramatic power and touching intimacy for their grief, their pain.
The list of conductors who have conducted Brahms’s masterpiece with the Berliner Philharmoniker since Herbert von Karajan’s death is remarkable: Carlo Maria Giulini, Claudio Abbado, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Bernard Haitink, Simon Rattle and lastly Donald Runnicles. This time Christian Thielemann will conduct the Deutsches Requiem. He already established that he possesses the right touch for the composer’s choral-symphonic works at the philharmonic concerts in 2009, where he conducted performances of Nänie, Song of the Fates and the Song of Destiny and received unanimous praise: his interpretations had “narcotic potential” and a “goose-pimple factor”.
The Good Friday music in Bremen Cathedral has probably seldom been as well attended as it was in 1868. Some 2500 people assembled on the evening of 10 April to hear the first performance of Ein deutsches Requiem, conducted by its composer Johannes Brahms, not yet 35 years old. Among the numerous music lovers who had come to Bremen for the event was Clara Schumann, who wrote the next day in her diary: “The Requiem has affected me like no other church music before. As I saw Johannes standing there, baton in hand, I could not help but think of my dear Robert’s prophecy, ‘Let him but once grasp the magic wand and work with orchestra and chorus’, which is fulfilled today. The baton really was a magic wand, and its spell was upon all present, even upon his bitterest enemies.”
We don’t know what Brahms himself made of the acclaimed premiere. It seems quite probable, however, that he saw the success of his first large-scale work for chorus and orchestra as a kind of liberation. On 30 September 1853, the then completely unknown young musician had met the Schumanns for the first time. Barely a month later, in an article with the programmatic title “Neue Bahnen” (New Paths), Robert hailed the 20-year-old composer hyperbolically as art history’s new messiah: “It seemed to me ... that there would and indeed must suddenly appear one man who would be singled out to articulate and give the ideal expression to the tendencies of our time ... And he has come, a young man over whose cradle Graces and Heroes stood guard. His name is Johannes Brahms.” Not unpredictably, this introduction was more of a hindrance than a help to Brahms over the next couple of decades. For one thing, Schumann’s encomium increased pressure on the self-critical composer’s inner expectations; for another it became a yardstick used by friends and foes alike to judge Brahms’s published works.
It is remarkable that Brahms made his breakthrough in 1868 with a composition having multiple connections with Schumann. One can find numerous similarities between Schumann’s own oratorio-like works such as the Scenes from “Faust” or the Requiem for Mignon and the German Requiem. But the Brahms is also closely linked to Schumann the man. The work’s musical roots go back to 1854, when Brahms was living in Schumann’s house and working on a Sonata in D minor for two pianos that remained unpublished. He developed its two outer movements into the first and third movements of his First Piano Concerto, while the saraband-like scherzo became the basis of the funeral march “Denn alles Fleisch es ist wie Gras” (For all flesh is as grass) of the German Requiem. The plans for a requiem composition became more concrete in the fifth anniversary year of Schumann’s death: on the reverse of a completed song manuscript from July 1861, Brahms noted down the texts of the German Requiem.
Another important date in the work’s genesis was the death of Brahms’s mother at the beginning of February 1865. In the months that followed, while suffering under a sense of great personal loss, he created the movement “Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen, Herr Zebaoth!” (How lovely is thy dwelling place, Lord of Hosts). The German Requiem was completed in “the fateful summer of 1866” – initially in a version with six movements (No. 5 “Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit” was not added until after the 1868 Bremen premiere). Brahms, who had by then settled in Vienna, spent that summer in Switzerland while the war raging between Austria, Prussia and their respective allies left thousands dead or wounded. The various passages in the German Requiem dealing with the transience and vulnerability of all human life had acquired unforeseen topicality in the final phase of composition.
Among the listeners in Bremen Cathedral in 1868 there will have been more than a few who were bewildered by the German Requiem’s peculiar textual foundation. It is not based – as the title would suggest – on a German-language version of the Latin Mass for the Dead, but rather on short extracts from the Old and New Testaments: from the Psalms, Isaiah, Ecclesiasticus and Wisdom, the gospels of Matthew and John, the Epistles and Revelation. In almost every movement, the composer, who was deeply knowledgeable about the Bible, combines several passages from different books. Often the relationship between these excerpts is antithetical – a procedure that proves fruitful compositionally as well as theologically. For example, the third movement, “Herr, lehre doch mich” (Lord, make to know mine end), begins with a meditation in D minor on the transience of all human life, which develops in elegiac alternation with the solo baritone and chorus. The concluding choral fugue in radiant D major, by contrast, centres on God’s deliverance of the souls of the righteous.
The conceptual juxtaposition of transience with hope of consolation and the hereafter is a recurring theme of the entire work. Brahms’s choice of texts notably shifts the emphasis from redemption of the departed – the heart of the traditional Mass for the Dead – to consolation of the bereaved. After completing his score, he wrote: “I have now laid down my mourning and it has been taken from me. I have completed my music of mourning as a beatitude of the bereaved. I have now found solace in setting it as a gesture to the bereaved.”
Many early reports of the German Requiem stress the music’s expressive richness and emotional impact. After playing through the piano score, Clara Schumann wrote to Brahms: “Grave solemnity combined with all the magic of poetry has a completely wonderful effect, upsetting and soothing. As you know, I can’t quite put it into words, but the experience of this work with all its rich treasures fills my entire being...” Despite this emotional power, this “modern masterpiece” also occasioned some frustration. Following a performance of the first three movements of the Requiem in Vienna in December 1867, the critic Eduard Hanslick, otherwise favourably disposed towards Brahms, complained: “The D minor Andante finally gives way to D major and a four-voice, figural passage above a tonic pedal: ‘Der Gerechten Seelen sind in Gottes Hand’ (The souls of the righteous are in the hands of God). This pedal has the merciless length of 72 common-time bars (tempo moderato), sustained by double basses (tuned down to D), horns, trombones and timpani articulating unbroken sextuplets (not rolling). The passage looks impressive in the score, but the composer misjudged its audible effect. At one point the booming pedal becomes entwined in the tangle of singers’ voices ... And the incessant hammering of the timpani puts the listener in a state of nervous agitation that throttles all aesthetic appreciation. One listener compared the effect of this pedal to the disconcerting feeling one gets on a train journey through a very long tunnel.”
Brahms seems to have been unperturbed by this criticism of his compositional device, which can be interpreted as a musical sign of God’s constancy. In a letter to the German Requiem’s publisher in May 1868, he wrote ironically: “I cannot yet reckon up the boots I wore out in Winterthur and Baden trying to find the notorious pedal point.”
Christian Thielemann has been principal conductor of the Staatskapelle Dresden since autumn 2012 and artistic director of the Salzburg Easter Festival since 2013. He previously was general music director of the Munich Philharmonic from 2004 to 2011. Thielemann studied at the Hochschule der Künste (Academy of Arts) in his native Berlin before gaining a thorough grounding in conducting at smaller theatres in Germany. His first major appointment was as principal conductor at the Deutsche Oper am Rhein, where he spent three seasons prior to his appointment as general music director of Nuremberg Opera. He held a similar post with the Deutsche Oper in Berlin from 1997 to 2004. Thielemann has built up an international reputation for himself, appearing with many of the world’s most prestigious orchestras and with opera companies throughout Europe, North America and Japan. As a guest conductor he is particularly closely associated with the Vienna Philharmonic. He has been a regular conductor at the Bayreuth Festival since his debut in the summer of 2000 (Die Meistersinger), and was named musical adviser of the festival in 2010. The principal pillars of Christian Thielemann’s repertoire are the works of the Classical and Romantic periods as well as the music of Hans Werner Henze. Made an honorary member of the Royal Academy of Music in London in 2011, he has also been awarded honorary doctorates by the Franz Liszt College of Music in Weimar and the Catholic University of Leuven (Belgium). Thielemann first appeared with the Berliner Philharmoniker in 1996 and has returned many times since then, most recently only a few days ago, when he conducted works by Liszt, Henze and Beethoven.
Siobhan Stagg hails from Australia and graduated from the University of Melbourne and the Wales International Academy of Voice in Cardiff. Her studies were supported by several scholarships including the Australian International Opera Award. She is already a regular guest with the leading orchestras in Australia. Siobhan has had notable success in several major singing competitions, most recently in the International Mozart Competition in Salzburg. In 2013 she joined the Salzburg Festival’s Young Singers Project and performed with the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra and conductor Manfred Honeck. For 2013/14 Siobhan Stagg joined the Deutsche Oper Berlin as a young artist, performing the Woodbird (Siegfried) with conductor Sir Simon Rattle as well as Pamina, Woglinde and Sophie. She made her debut at the Hamburg State Opera in May 2014 singing the role of Cordelia in Aribert Reimann‘s Lear with conductor Simone Young. Siobhan Stagg now appears for the first time in concert with the Berliner Philharmoniker.
Christian Gerhaher studied not only singing but also philosophy and medicine. His lieder teachers include Helmut Deutsch, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf. He has appeared both at home and abroad both as a lieder recitalist and as a concert soloist with such leading orchestras as the Vienna, Munich and Berlin Philharmonics, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, the NHK Symphony Orchestra, the Boston Symphony and the Cleveland Orchestra. In addition to his busy schedule in the world’s recital rooms and concert halls, he has also taken part in a carefully selected number of opera productions that have included the title role in Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo and Wolfram in Wagner’s Tannhäuser. The magazine Opernwelt voted him “Singer of the year” in 2010 for his performance of the title role in Henze’s Prinz von Homburg. Among the conductors with whom he has worked are Pierre Boulez, Riccardo Chailly, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Mariss Jansons and Sir Simon Rattle. Christian Gerhaher has appeared several times with the Berliner Philharmoniker since his debut in December 2003, when he took the part of the baritone soloist in Britten’s War Requiem under the direction of Donald Runnicles. As artist in residence in the 2013/14 season, the baritone gave several chamber concerts. With the orchestra he was last heard in Berlin in the staged performances of Bach’s St John Passion in February 2014. Christian Gerhaher holds an honorary professorship in lieder interpretation at the Academy of Music and Theatre in Munich and has also given masterclasses at Yale University, the Amsterdam Concertgebouw and elsewhere. His lieder recordings with Gerold Huber as his accompanist have won many prizes, including a Gramophone Award in 2006 and the German Record Critics’ Annual Award in 2010.
The Rundfunkchor Berlinis a sought-after partner of leading orchestras and conductors all over the world, including long-standing partnerships with the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin, the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester and the Berliner Philharmoniker. In around 50 concerts per year the chorus displays an exceptional breadth of repertoire and stylistic versatility. With it’s experimental series, “Broadening the Scope of Choral Music”, in collaboration with artists from diverse disciplines, the Rundfunkchor Berlin is breaking down the classical concert format and adopting new modes of choral music for a new audience: In 2012 an interactive scenic version of Brahms’s Ein deutsches Requiem staged by Jochen Sandig / Sasha Waltz & Guests attracted great attention. Founded in 1925 and shaped by conductors including Helmut Koch, Dietrich Knothe and Robin Gritton, the Rundfunkchor Berlin has been directed since 2001 by Simon Halsey. Their work together is documented by many recordings and awards, including three Grammy Awards. Simon Halsey, who was awarded the “Bundesverdienstkreuz” (Cross of the Order of Merit) in January 2011, has also initiated many of the choir’s education and outreach projects, such as the annual Sing-along Concert and the “Liederbörse” (Song Exchange) for children and young people. The Rundfunkchor last appeared with the Berliner Philharmoniker in November 2014 in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, conducted by Sir Simon Rattle.