A Night of Brahms Program Notes

A Night of Brahms, TMC Concert on November 9, 2011
Program Notes prepared by Rick Phillips

This all-Brahms programme deals with the theme of fate or destiny, a theme that fascinated Brahms through most of his career, ranging from desolation and isolation to resignation and acceptance. The German Requiem is the most consoling and optimistic. The Alto Rhapsody portrays a disgruntled social outcast, but resolves into a sublime prayer. In Nänie (Song of Lamentation), the gods calmly lament the passing of life and beauty. But in Gesang der Parzen (Song of the Fates), there is no way out – no resolution, no prayer – probably the most desolate piece Brahms ever composed.

Gesang der Parzen, Op. 89 was Brahms’ final work for chorus and orchestra, written in the summer of 1882. It’s based on a text from Iphigenia in Tauris by Goethe – itself a re-telling of the ancient Greek tragedy by Euripides. The story tells of King Agamemnon, his wife Clytemnestra and their children Iphigenia, Electra and Orestes – a dysfunctional, murderous family if there ever was one! The Fates were the goddesses of human destiny, called Parcae by the Romans, or Parzen in German. The work is unusually dark for Brahms, with the concept of our fate being inevitably fulfilled.

Nänie or Song of Lamentation, Op. 82 was composed the summer before, in memory of Brahms’ friend, the painter Anselm Feuerbach who had died in 1880. This time, a poem by Friedrich Schiller (the same author of the Ode To Joy that Beethoven set in his Symphony No. 9) fit the bill. To remember the painter Feuerbach, the proud lament that begins, “Even Beauty Must Die” seemed appropriate. In dealing with the passing of life, love, beauty and glory, Nänie could easily have been a dark and gloomy work, but here, death is more like a beginning than an end.

The Alto Rhapsody, Op. 53 is also to a text by Goethe – a setting of three verses from his “Harzreise im Winter” (Winter Journey through the Harz Mountains). Scored for a contralto or mezzo-soprano soloist with male choir and orchestra, the poem tells of a wandering loner, cast out from society and rejected by love. Brahms may have identified with the loner. By the time of composition in 1869, he had been frustrated in love several times. It’s possible that the aging bachelor (still in his thirties!) was beginning to realize that it would hopefully be his art that would be his comfort and companion. The first two verses are for the soloist alone with orchestra. Their darkness and despair are represented by unstable music. But a resolution occurs in the third verse with the appearance of the male chorus. The music turns more hopeful as love wins out and the lonely outcast finds comfort in the Father of Love.

Brahms was never overly religious, and remained unconvinced of the Christian belief in resurrection. But after the death of his friend and mentor Robert Schumann in 1856, he began to think of composing a Requiem. It’s possible that Schumann himself had intended to write a Requiem, and that Brahms hoped to fulfill Schumann’s dream. In any case, it is a bit unusual for a composer at the tender age of twenty-three to contemplate writing a Requiem. Then, in 1865 Brahms’ mother died, and he again turned to thoughts of a Requiem. By 1866, he had completed and performed a six movement work. Unsatisfied, Brahms then added another movement, and it’s this final seven movement version that has come to be loved around the world. It was Brahms’ first big success, and the one that made his name international. Roman Catholic Requiem Masses had been composed for centuries, and usually dealt with the Judgement Day, the payment for sins, the fear and terror of damnation, and the praying for the souls of the dead. These concepts worked against Brahms’ own views and beliefs, so instead of setting the standard Latin Mass for the Dead, he compiled his own text, chosen from the German translation of the Bible by Martin Luther. He called the work Ein Deutsches Requiem, or “A German Requiem”, although he later claimed, “As regards the title, I could easily have left out ‘German’ and substituted ‘Human.’” The German Requiem is more optimistic than other Requiems, with feelings of hope and consolation, rather than despair and fear. It’s a work that deals with comforting the living, and the resigned acceptance of death, instead of begging forgiveness for the dead. Where the Latin Requiem Mass begins with a plea for eternal rest for the dead, the Brahms Requiem begins with one of the Beatitudes: “Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted.” The living instead of the dead. Although not a religious work, as such, the Brahms Requiem is one of the most moving in its expression, emotion, strength of faith and peace of mind.

Rick Phillips is a Toronto writer, broadcaster, teacher, host and music tour guide. www.soundadvice1.com

You are welcome to use excerpts from these notes for your concert program or for educational purposes. If you do, please credit both Rick Phillips and Toronto Mendelssohn Choir. Also please advise TMC by email: marketing@tmchoir.org. Thank you.