On October 14-16, I (along with other members of the Dallas Symphony Chorus and the Dallas Symphony), will perform the Brahms Requiem at the Meyerson Symphony Center. (I think tickets are still available, check here: dallassymphony.com
I love this piece. It’s Number Two on my list of all-time favorites. The Verdi Requiem edged it out solely on the basis of its “Dies Irae.” Any piece that requires two gongs . . . but I digress.
There’s a lot to love about the Brahms. A requiem is, by nature, a service of remembrance. They tend to all have the same sections and the same words because they’re based on the Requiem Mass. Requiems are almost invariably in Latin.
Brahms’ Requiem, by contrast, doesn’t and isn’t. Brahms chose the text himself from the German Luther Bible and it is, therefore, in German. It’s actually titled “A German Requiem.” But that’s not what I love about it.
It opens with a whisper, as if afraid to intrude on one’s grief, with Matthew 5:4, “Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted.” Later, in movement two, there’s a sense of the inevitability of loss (for all flesh is as grass . . . the grass withers . . .) before proclaiming “But the word of the Lord endureth for ever.” (I Peter 1:25) with a moment of optimism about the “everlasting joy.” Still not my favorite part.
Movement three ponders the brevity of life on earth and the inevitability of death: Lord, make me to know mine end, and the measure of my days. Not exactly cheery, but lovely music nonetheless.
Movement four must surely be one of the most comforting pieces of music ever written. It’s often performed at funerals, reminding those left behind that “Blessed are they that dwell in thy house: they will always be praising thee.” Members of the DSC sang this at my mother’s memorial service, so I can personally attest to its soul-soothing qualities. I neglected to warn my extended family that it would be in German, which left them terribly confused as to why they couldn’t understand the words.
And no, that’s still not my favorite part.
Movement five, more comforting text and music. Good stuff. But not my favorite.
Movement six, however . . . this is the moment I wait for all night. This is the movement where we kick butt and take names. The text is 1 Corinthians 15:51-55; it’s the passage about how we shall not all sleep but shall all be changed “in the twinkling of an eye.” And the absolute best part (in my opinion) is the triumphant shout that demands to know, “Death, where is your sting? Grave, where is your victory?” In German it’s “Tod, wo ist dein Stachel? Hölle, wo ist dein Sieg?” We repeat the “Wo” (Where?) several times and there’s often a tiny rest after the question, as if waiting for an answer that never comes. Each time I get the mental image of the risen Savior grabbing Death by the shirt front, lifting him off the ground, and giving him a good shake. “Death! I’m talking to YOU. Grave? You got something to say? I DON’T THINK SO!”
Honestly, at that point everyone else may be at a concert but I’m my own little worship service up there on the top row of the choral terrace.
Once we get through slapping around death a vocal dance party breaks out, Brahms-style. I like to think of it as a warmup for what we’ll someday sing around the Throne of heaven, “Thou art worthy, O Lord, to receive glory and honor and power.”
We’re not done yet, though. There’s one more movement to settle down all those heightened emotions and send everyone on their way in peace. It reminds us once again that “Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord…” and it’s so beautiful that surely it’s the sort of thing Shakespeare had in mind when he penned these words for Horatio to say to his dying friend Hamlet, “Good night, sweet Prince. And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.”
But don’t take my word for it: come hear it for yourself. And if you’re not in the Dallas area, fear not—we’re recording this concert for future release, so you’ll eventually be able to experience it, too.