Digging up the Zeitgeist on Brahms’ Requiem

Written on November 6, 2007 by Rolf Strom-Olsen in Arts & Cultures & Societies, Philosophy

Rolf Strom-Olsen

I am posting this rather late (i.e. today, instead of last week). This delay was provoked by (among other rather more serious commitments) fulfilling a promise I had made to provide some programme notes for a performance this week of Brahms’ ponderous and lengthy "German Requiem." As that description may suggest, I have never been a fan of Brahms’ Requiem, his longest composition written when he was in his early thirties between 1865 and 1867. George Bernard Shaw remarked "There are some experiences in life which should not be demanded twice from any man, and one of them is listening to the Brahms Requiem." I was not quite of that opinion, but I understood the sentiment.

436pxjohannes_brahms_1853 Or at least I thought I did. One of the interesting things about writing on a topic is, of course, one acquires more than a passing familiarity with it. Having never really bothered with the piece, I was astonished to learn certain facts about the work, most of which I now understand to be elementary. Some were technical, such as the almost promiscuous use of neo-Baroque fugal writing. Others were of a more basic nature. Like the German Requiem is not, in the liturgical sense, a Requiem. Who knew? Well, plenty of folks apparently, but never underestimate one’s own cultural ignorance. There’s just too much damn culture out there to know it all!

Anyway, As I slogged through the score and digested various scholarly articles, I started to acquire a newfound respect for the composition. First off, it’s good music. Better than I had earlier thought. But I also took a much closer look at the text and its context and discovered some interesting things.

Brahms rejected the liturgical (latin) requiem ("Requiem æternam dona eis, domine, &c…)  and instead culled through scripture (using Luther’s translation no less) to work up his own material. Brahms was a convinced agnostic (who knew…? Well, plenty of folks apparently, but moving on) and he found the liturgical mass, with its emphasis on begging forgiveness, judgment and redemption, distasteful. Denn alles Fleisch es ist wie Gras (1 Peter 1:24) bellows the choir in the second movement. So really: what’s to forgive?

Instead, Brahms shifts the emphasis, broadly speaking, from God to man. It might be more precise to say that he shifts it from the Christian God of liturgy to a Deist God, untroubled by theology. Where the former sits in judgment over humanity, the latter is innately part of the human condition. And this is what Brahms’ Requiem is about: remembering the dead and offering comfort to the living. Although it is still a scripturally-grounded work, the sentiment nonetheless reminded me of Feuerbach’s famous borrowing: "homo homini deus est!"

Brahms, in other words, was very much of his time and place. Directly perhaps he was influenced by the ideas of Schopenhauer, in whose aesthetic elaboration music enjoyed a privileged position. More generally, the Zeitgeist of Brahms’ intellectual world was the inheritor to three generations of German aesthetic and philosophical enquiry starting with Kant and Goethe, which had deeply (if entirely inadvertently) destabilised the theological foundations of Christian teaching by asking uncomfortable ontological questions about reason, history, society and man.

I know that sounds like the kind of breezy, overarching, dilettantish commentary one might expect to find in, say, programme notes. But there is nonetheless something remarkable and quite surprisingly vital about the image that all this conveys: a 32-year old budding composer, thumbing through scripture to invent in text and express in music a new sense of the sacred. And all this because he deeply believed that an earlier communion had been lost and was no longer capable of memorialising the dead nor comforting the living. The philosophical discourse of the past can often come across as so much elevated abstraction. It is indeed refreshing to stumble across moments when it becomes unexpectedly real.


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