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Ein deutsches Requiem: (Mis)conceptions of the Mass

From its first performance in Vienna in 1867, Johannes Brahms' German Requiem has been the subject of critical debate, often polemical, controversial, and even contradictory. Even the conditions surrounding the composer's choice of the Requiem form have sparked numerous debates ranging from historical and personal motivating factors to Brahms' own religious beliefs and intentions. On a musical level, the text has been praised, attacked, accepted, and reevaluated in a circular, cyclical progression: from the early debates between Brahms' and Wagner's respective supporters to the newfound acclaim from Schoenberg and other modern theorists, the only element of the Requiem's reception that has remained in any way constant is its continued popularity in concert performances. Certain key issues, most notably Brahms' use of traditional compositional elements and the enigmatic religious debates surrounding his choice of texts, can be seen to be the motivating factors throughout the reception of the work and to the present day. By examining these and other factors in greater detail, we can arrive at an appraisal of the Requiem's sometimes puzzling historical and musicological position.

As with any such musical masterpiece, much study has been devoted to reconstructing the process by which Brahms came to produce the German Requiem. It appears, by all accounts, that the idea for the piece was already well-conceived by April of 1865, when Brahms mentioned his plans in several letters to Clara Schumann. He avoided particular details, but seemed to have the basic structure of the work clearly in mind, and he had apparently already decided on the individual texts (taken from the Luther Bible) as well. The writing of the Requiem began intensively in February of 1866, and the bulk of the piece -- movements 1, 2, 3, 4, and 6 -- was complete by August of the same year. The next few months, through December of 1866, brought revisions and minor changes, which were also discussed with several of his correspondents, among them Clara Schumann and Joseph Joachim. The first two performances of the work, in Vienna and Bremen in 1867-8, led to further revisions of the existing movements [1] and the final addition of the fifth movement, written from April to June of 1868 and performed in a private concert in September.

The motivations for Brahms' composition are a complicating factor in the work's production history. Early critics, among them Max Kalbeck, Brahms' first biographer, insisted that the idea for a Requiem mass was inspired by the death of the composer's mother, in 1865. This date does coincide with the letters written to Clara Schumann, and Brahms does in fact mention that his work was spurred on by the memory of his mother; in addition, the textual excerpts from the Luther Bible refer to a motherly comfort which consoles those whom the dead have left behind: "ich will euch trösten, wie einen seine Mutter tröstet." Later critics, however, have also noted that Brahms was greatly affected by the death of his friend and benefactor Robert Schumann, and had considered, within months after Schumann's death in 1856, composing some sort of musical memorial to him. Undoubtedly, as Musgrave has concluded, "it seems unlikely that there was only one personal influence on the Requiem," [2] and that both his mother's and Schumann's death were for Brahms "a stimulus to the completion of existing ideas, rather than the source of them." [3] Indeed, on numerous later occasions Brahms was heard to insist that his Requiem was intended for all humanity, despite (or indeed because of) its title; its innate themes of melancholy and consolation are applicable to any number of occasions. Not surprisingly, some critics have searched for other possible motivating factors for the Requiem, often with quite surprising results: Erb, as cited in Evans, even claims that the Franco-Prussian War, ending in 1866, also played a role in Brahms' choice. [4] Clearly, we cannot determine with certainty whether any one event became the impetus for the work's creation, although many separate issues can be found to connect with the Requiem's textual and musical message.

The German Requiem saw its first performance in a semi-private concert in Vienna on December 1, 1867. The program was an evening concert given by the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde, and dedicated to the memory of Franz Schubert. [5] Johann von Herbeck, the conductor, had known of Brahms' composition and urged him to allow its early performance; somewhat reluctantly -- for he had his sights set on the Protestant Bremen for the true premiere -- Brahms agreed to the concert. At this point in time, Brahms was known to the Viennese concert-goers chiefly as a producer of Baroque choral works with the Wiener Singverein; as such, Herbeck believed that the program would draw only a limited and somewhat dedicated audience, and convinced Brahms to perform only the first three movements of the piece. [6] Despite these obstacles, the concert was very well-attended and immediately, according to all critics, made Brahms a widely recognized force in Vienna musical life. Although not a scandal, the performance was nonetheless the subject of hefty critical debate, and played a decisive role in the division of critics into the "Brahms vs. Wagner" camps that were becoming so fatefully significant.

Perhaps the most vociferous complaints against the piece arose not from its inherent musical structure or composition, but from an unfortunate series of problems with the evening's performance. The first two movements, Kalbeck and others report, were accepted with little hesitation; the third (and for Vienna, final) movement, however, became immediately notorious because of a percussionist's misunderstanding of the score: in the pedal fugue section of the third movement, his repeated D's were played not as the written pf, but instead as f or even ff: the effect was to completely drown out the rest of the orchestra and the vocal soloists. [7] Upon the conclusion of the movement, audience members (particularly from the conservative, old-school camp, Hanslick and others report) hissed and booed and behaved quite boorishly. Reviewers, both friend and foe alike, were quick to note this catastrophe: some, such as the Wagner supporter Hirsch, snubbed the entire work and dismissed the "heathenish noise of the percussion," [8] while Brahms' supporters such as Hanslick, although forced to admit to the performance's imperfections, attempted to defend the work's positive qualities. Hanslick in particular praised the Requiem's innovative quality and impressive construction, although he conceded that it was difficult for the listener to grasp, and was probably not destined for widespread popularity. [9] Still, he insisted on placing the Requiem in a broad and distinguished historical perspective:

 The German Requiem is a work of unusual significance and great mastery. It seems to us one of the ripest fruits to have emerged from the style of the late Beethoven in the field of sacred music. Since the masses for the dead and mourning cantatas of our classical composers the shadow of death and the seriousness of loss have scarcely been presented in music with such power. The harmonic and contrapuntal art which Brahms learnt in the school of Bach is inspired by him with the living breath of the present ... [10]

Beginning a trend which later critics were to follow to extremes, Hanslick also expressed his reservations about the Requiem's suitability for the concert-room, implying instead that its religious nature required a less secular venue. Several other critics also focused on the religious aspects of the work -- a topic which, as we shall see, was to become increasingly important in the work's reception. Theodor Billroth, for example, frankly accepted the work's avoidance of excess emotionalism, and explained that, while many critics faulted the lack of sensuality, "I think it is as much as intentional avoidance of everything sensuous as it is a fault. His Requiem is nobly spiritual and so Protestant-Bachish that it was difficult to make it go down here." [11]

Perhaps due to the religious scene in Bremen -- in the overwhelmingly Protestant northern Germany -- and also due to the composer's own connections to this region, Brahms had been in correspondence with Carl Reinthaler there, attempting to set up the Requiem's premiere as a complete work. After several delays, Reinthaler was eventually able to provide a venue, and rehearsed the orchestra himself before Brahms' arrival. The concert, given on April 10, 1868, Good Friday of that year, was in the town cathedral, and conducted by Brahms himself, with Joseph Joachim, Amalie Weiss and Clara Schumann all in attendance. The concert was extremely well-publicized and a matter of great anticipation, as Brahms' position in the Bremen musical world had consistently been highly respected; as a result, the turnout was an astounding 2500 listeners, and by all accounts a fabulous success. The program included all six of the then-composed movements (as stated, the fifth movement was added in the months following); in addition, Joachim performed excerpts of works by Bach and Schumann, and Amalie sang parts of Bach's St. Matthew Passion and Handel's Messiah, making not only for a rather lengthy concert, but also -- not at all coincidentally -- reinforcing the religious nature of the Requiem itself.

The Bremen performance was not marred by any such mistakes as had clouded the Vienna premiere, and the critical response was one of resounding approval and appreciation. Nearly all critics recognized the extraordinarily complex nature of the composition, stressing in particular the incorporation of traditional elements such as counterpoint together with a modern-sounding modulation and rhythmic structure. Even the few negative comments, usually minor, were expressed with a respect for the composer's achievements, which had been completely lacking in the Viennese diatribes. One critic remarked on a "somewhat notable unease in modulation," [12] while another lamented Brahms' "ascetic Greco-German composition" and hoped "that he will withdraw himself from this subjectivity in the course of time." [13] Just as the regional preferences of Vienna played a role in the Requiem's reception there, so too in Bremen were the responses at least in part due to the city's Protestant heritage; telling is also the criticism of the second movement, which, with its slow tempo set in 3/4 time, was seen as a rather ridiculous-sounding Ländler waltz, [14] so beloved in Austria; one critic even considered this movement an "undeniable lapse." [15] In general, however, critical and public acclaim was so positive that a second performance had to be immediately scheduled in Bremen, only two weeks later on April 28. Brahms had found his success; although Vienna would still present its own resistance, performances throughout Germany began immediately, and reception was, with a few notable exceptions, overwhelmingly respectful.

After the fifth movement had been added and performed in a special private performance in September of 1868, the Requiem began to be performed in nearly all the major cities of Germany. Cologne and Leipzig were the first to experience the entire seven-movement work in its final form: Cologne on February 16, 1869 under the conducting of Ferdinand Hiller, and Leipzig two days later, on the 18th of February, under Karl Reinecke. Cologne, like Bremen, was overwhelmingly supportive and immediately accepted the work into its regular repertoire -- another performance occurred there in 1870, yet another the next year, and several in the following decade. Leipzig, however, proved harder to conquer. As in Vienna and later Munich, the greatest stumbling block appeared to be not the musical qualities of the Requiem, but its Protestant religious text. Although the region was primarily Protestant, many critics objected to the Requiem's "mystical" and "contemplative" tone, which they found at odds with the straightforward Protestantism of Bach, Schütz, and other composers of religious music. This seeming contradiction in reception -- as we recall, critics in both Vienna and Bremen had found the work to be lacking in emotion and sensuality, not overflowing with fervent appeal -- may perhaps, however, be explained by the earlier resistance of Leipzig to Brahms' works: his first performances there, a few years earlier, had been met with marked hostility, and the Leipzig premiere of his first major orchestral work, the D minor piano concerto, had been disastrous. [16] The critical reception of the Requiem, however, seemed, at least in comparison to earlier voices, to consist of much less serious complaints: the work was seen to be weak because of its "lengths" and "empty passages," rather than because of any inherent compositional offense. Even the editor of the local music paper found these complaints to be superficial, and by the time of the Requiem's second performance in Leipzig in 1878, Brahms' standing had improved immeasurably; he had been accepted, if grudgingly, into the musical canon, and even his "mystical" Requiem had reached the status of a classic in the repertoire. [17]

Indeed, the reactions of Leipzig and Bremen seem to mark the two possible paths which the Requiem was to follow throughout Germany. In many cities, nearly all of them Protestant and/or northern towns, reception was immediately positive, and the work encountered little, if any resistance. In Catholic and southern towns, however, the initial performances of the Requiem were more often than not met with critical scorn: opposition was expressed both in terms of textual and emotional issues -- the foreign Protestant fervour being quite untenable -- or in rather vague resistance to the heavy-handed, academic nature of Brahms' composition. Generally critics recognized the craftsmanship involved in writing such a monumental and interconnected work; what they objected to was the constructed nature of the counterpoint and fugal passages, which stood at odds with their conception of `modern' music. Both friend and foe alike devoted extensive attention to the use of older traditions in the Requiem; in addition, nearly everyone was able to recognize its importance as a new or reinvented model for religious orchestral music. The `modern' qualities of the work -- the harmonic ambivalences and certain nearly untonal passages -- became the foci of either praise or attack, depending on the particular critic's affinities. One reviewer, Adolf Schubring in the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung, unfailingly praised the Requiem's "organic melody" and structural subtleties, while at the same time despairing over the "ascetic modern colouring" of the instrumentation. [18]

Despite or even because of the critical attention paid to the Requiem, it continued to enjoy great success in the concert hall. In the year 1869 alone there were at least eleven performances besides Leipzig and Cologne: Basel, Hamburg, Karlsruhe, Münster, Zürich, Dessau, and Weimar all produced the work for public concerts. 1870 saw several additions to this list, as well as many repeat performances, particularly in Hamburg, Bremen, and Cologne, the strongest Brahms supporters. 1871, besides encores in the northern towns, brought the return of the Requiem to Vienna; reviews were certainly better than for the premiere four years earlier, but still fairly cool and reserved. Similarly, when the Requiem finally came to Munich in Catholic Bavaria -- not until 1872 -- reviews were decidedly negative: Brahms was described as "scarcely more than a name" by one critic, and his Requiem was seen on a par with Franz Lachner's [19] -- hardly the same critical acclaim as he had won in Hamburg or Bremen. As with Leipzig and Vienna, however, the critics softened with time, and by the 1880's the protests and polemicism to be heard against the Requiem came almost entirely from the Wagnerian school; among the greater concert-going public, the Requiem had been embraced, and was to remain, as a `standard' and `classic' masterpiece.

Wagner's reception of and attitude toward Brahms is well-documented, and can only be touched on here. Clearly, he had nothing positive to say about the Requiem: not only did he abhor the Protestant-bourgeois musical ethics which the piece embodied, but he was also outraged by Brahms' claim to have written a piece for all of Germany, a truly German work -- a claim reflected only, as far as I can determine, in the title Ein deutsches Requiem. (The historical moment of the Requiem's conception, shortly before German unity in 1871, surely played a role in this view as well.) Wagner's contempt for the piece extended to sarcastic comments in letters and essays; in one, he scornfully remarks that when the present generation (his own) dies, "we will want no German Requiem to be played to our ashes." [20] The importance of Wagner's stance toward Brahms cannot be overemphasized: many critics echoed Wagner's sentiments, and while some devoted serious attention to an analysis of what they considered to be the work's particular flaws, others continued with vague polemicisms and ad hominem attacks against the composer, his beliefs and religion, and above all his `academic' attitude toward music. Not all analysts, however, found Brahms to be the conservative schoolmaster he was made out to be: Kleinert, for example, in a direct reference to Wagner's own claims, calmly declared that "the music of the future, for others a vogue, is for Brahms already a music of the past." [21] As Kross and others have documented, critical opposition to the Requiem, mostly on dogmatic grounds, continued through the end of the 19th century; by 1900 however, it had mostly disappeared, and the work had been accepted not only into the concert-hall repertoire, but was receiving increased favorable critical and analytical attention, both within Germany and abroad.

Following the paradigm of reception that we have set up for Germany -- the fact that Catholic towns were far more resistant to the Requiem than their Protestant counterparts -- it comes as no surprise to learn that the Requiem was considerably better received in England and the United States than in Catholic countries such as France and Italy. Indeed, we have little documentation of any reception whatsoever in these countries; in England, on the other hand, reviews, commentary, and performances were abundant from 1871 onwards. There is some statistical disagreement about the number of performances of the Requiem in Europe during Brahms' lifetime: while Musgrave cites the figure of 79 performances outside Germany between 1869 and 1876, Kalbeck reports 85 performances between 1867 and 1876 [22]; in any event, the work was most certainly performed in most major European cities, and subject to repeats on demand on several occasions. In Britain, which had by far the strongest and most positive reception (as was typical for choral and religious music, Musgrave notes), the Requiem premiered in a private performance in London in July 1871, conducted by Julius Stockhausen himself, on one of his frequent visits to Sir Henry Thompson. The public premiere, also in London, was in April of 1873, and was the subject of great critical attention -- most of it quite positive. The work was immediately recognized as difficult, but esteemed at the same time as a work of a great composer, already seen as the successor in the German tradition of Bach and Beethoven. The only major criticism came from those who felt, like Hanslick's original commentary, that the concert hall was the wrong place for such a religious funeral service; others also echoed their Continental counterparts and claimed, alternately, that the work was either too "contemplative" or that it was "unemotional." The second public performance in Britain, in 1876, was similarly received: critics remarked in glowing terms of the great masterpiece, and the only major flaw, they felt, was that English singers were not well-trained to sing the contrapuntal German passages. Not surprisingly, when the London Bach Choir began performing the Requiem on a semi-regular basis, the reviewers raved: vocalists trained for Bach, they agreed, were by far the best-equipped to handle Brahms' difficult demands.

In the United States, critical reception generally seemed to follow the leads of the European critics, although a tendency to dismiss the work as "difficult" and overly "academic" can also be discerned. American concert-hall performance records for the 1870-1900 period are sketchy at best, but the Requiem seems to have enjoyed modest popularity until shortly after 1930, when its performances (and those of Brahms' other works as well) skyrocketed, as we shall see. The earliest documented performances were the partial performance of several movements by the New York Liederkranz Society in January 1875, and the full premiere of the entire work, together with a Bach Cantata and excerpts from Gluck's Orpheus, by the New York Oratorio Society in March 1877. Critics were tame in their enthusiasm, but appreciated the grandeur and earnestness of the work. One rather amusing review came from the New York Times, claiming that "it is exceedingly scholarly, but its length and monotonousness are such that it is scarcely likely to impress any but students." [23] Milwaukee, owing perhaps to its German heritage, saw an early premiere of movements 5 and 6 only in October of 1875, and Cincinnati produced a partial performance in 1878, but had to wait until 1884 for the entire work. 1888 marked the full performance of the Requiem in both Boston and Chicago, thus guaranteeing a greater audience as well as more critical attention. Again, contradiction was the rule: while the Boston Transcript, echoing Hanslick's historical contextualization, emotes that in order to find the Requiem's equal, we must "go back to the soulful conventionality of Handel and Haydn ... the inspired technique of Mozart's Masses and Requiem ... and the works of the preacher of the musical gospel, Sebastian Bach," [24] another reviewer of the same concert writes in the Boston Herald that "while it shows the hand of a skilled musician, its vagueness and fragmentary themes do not offer much satisfaction." [25]

As we have seen, critical attitudes in Germany slowly consolidated themselves during the latter years of the 19th century: where at first there had been sharp divisions in judgment, a consensus was reached by 1900 which acclaimed the Requiem for its technical as well as aesthetic appeal in combining older traditions such as counterpoint with new or "modern" tonal and harmonic structures. A delayed but similar consensus was also reached in England and America, not surprisingly: while concert-hall acceptance was never in question, music journalists and critics did express some distaste towards the academic nature of Brahms' use, but these voices were gradually replaced by a more appreciative younger generation, who recognized the innovative and even "progressive" qualities in Brahms' compositional style. In Britain, for example, Bernard Shaw, a staunch Wagnerian, had disparaged the Requiem in no uncertain terms, comparing it unfavorably to Mozart's Requiem and lamenting the "Bachian" fugues and tedium in glib statements such as: "I do not deny that the Requiem is a solid piece of musical manufacture. You feel at once as though it could only have come from the establishment of a first-class undertaker. But I object to requiems altogether." [26] Later critics such as Britten and Tippet were slightly more lenient, objecting not to the traditional elements but to what they considered its aesthetic failings: Tippet wrote that Brahms had tried to fill the "Beethovenian mould without realising its inherently dramatic nature." [27] Gradually, however, in England as well as in the United States, negative criticisms disappeared, to be replaced by serious academic studies of the Requiem's origins and construction. Spurred perhaps by the continued public interest in hearing the piece performed, more and more critics began to analyze the so-called "Bachian" elements of the counterpoint, the textual and musical connections to earlier German masses, and, eventually, the compositional form and structure as well. In the eyes of the critics and the public alike, Musgrave concludes, Brahms' standing "changed imperceptibly from the context of `modern' to that of `classic.'" [28]

Perhaps the greatest reevaluation of the Requiem and indeed all of Brahms' oeuvre came with the 1950 publication of Schoenberg's essay "Brahms the Progressive." Here, refuting the Wagnerian image of Brahms as an unfruitful conservative, as "the classicist, the academician," [29] Schoenberg acclaimed Brahms' more progressive musical moments and praised his innovative qualities. This essay, not originally published in German, coincided with a dramatic increase in the number of Brahms' performances in the post-war period, among which the Requiem was well represented. In essence, then, the image of Brahms had come full-circle: from the 1860's view of his work as "modern" and "difficult" through a sort of controversy and critical disparagement in the 1880's, to a newfound appreciation and reevaluation of his progressive, modern compositions.

Generally, symphony orchestra performances of Brahms have peaked at a fairly high level during the twentieth century, but it is interesting to examine the changing place of the Requiem in the concert repertoire. Unfortunately, it is difficult to document the performance history of the Requiem in Europe in the 20th century, not least because of the intervening war years and the lack of adequate recordkeeping materials. Nonetheless, Döbertin mentions the lasting popularity of the work in Germany today: nearly every city in Germany, he writes, performs the Requiem at least once a year; traditional favorite places such as Hamburg and Bremen often do so several times each year. [30] Its position in the German concert repertoire seems assured; as Kross points out, the number of performances has changed little since 1900. The situation in the United States is similar, but again, like the views of critics, indicates a delayed reaction. Between 1897 and 1969, there were at least 52 performances of the Requiem in the United States; nearly every major symphony orchestra performed it more than once, especially in the post-war period. Particularly strong were the years 1946-1960, in which there were over 24 performances. In her extensive collection of data on symphony orchestra performances, Mueller notes that performances of Brahms' works, rather surprisingly, exceeded those of Beethoven's in the 1940-45 years; particularly favorably disposed towards the Requiem were Chicago, Los Angeles, and St. Louis. The following chart, based on data from Mueller, [31] helps to demonstrate the surge in popularity of the Requiem during the post-war years.

US Performances: 1890-1969
1900-1930  = 6
1930-1945  = 4
1946-1960  = 24
1961-1969  = 18

1897  Chicago
1911  New York Symphony
1920  Philadelphia
1925  Cleveland
1926  New York Philharmonic
1929  Chicago
1934  New York Philharmonic
1935  Los Angeles
1940  Minneapolis
1945  Chicago
1946  Dallas, Pittsburgh
1947  Los Angeles
1949  Chicago
1951  Kansas City, New York Philharmonic
1952  Washington, Philadelphia
1953  Los Angeles, Rochester, San Francisco
1954  Cincinnati, Cleveland, Denver, New York Philharmonic
1956  Chicago
1958  Dallas, Detroit
1959  Atlanta, Chicago, Houston
1960  Cleveland, St. Louis, Utah
1961  New Orleans
1962  Boston, Minneapolis, St. Louis
1963  Kansas City, Philadelphia
1964  Chicago
1965  Baltimore, Rochester
1966  Atlanta, Buffalo
1967  Detroit
1968  Cincinnati, Cleveland, Dallas, Pittsburgh, Seattle
1969  Utah

Modern criticism and analysis of the Requiem is extensive, as even a short glance at bibliographical materials will indicate. Particularly popular seem to be examinations of the traditional elements of the composition -- folk songs, older choral music, relation to other German masses -- and, quite significantly, religious analyses of the texts and themes of the work. Noticeably lacking, however, as Krummacher and a few others lament, are serious attempts to discuss the compositional structure -- sonata form, motet, harmonic modulations, and so forth -- of the Requiem. Such analyses are undoubtedly forthcoming, and recent years have seen a number of new approaches to the work, as well.

The religious aspects, however, seem to provide extremely fruitful ground in looking both at Brahms' own viewpoints toward his work, and at the traditional elements he incorporated. We have seen that religion played an important role in the early reception of the Requiem; thus it should not come as a surprise to discover than even modern analysts are subject to this fascination with the spiritual issues of Brahms and his work. Still today, reviewers of modern concert performances remark on the heavy-handed religious issues surrounding the Requiem: Hadow has claimed, echoing and at the same time reversing the commentary of numerous predecessors, that the work is "less suited to the church than to the concert room," [32] while others have again attempted to explain the Requiem's identity: it is "not a requiem mass; it is rather a cantata," claims Dickenson, while another reviewer considers it to be "the great funeral chant of modern music." [33]

Above all, analysts are taken with the textual choices Brahms made in producing the Requiem, and with its identity and categorization. Brahms himself was aware of these issues: even early on, considerations of the work prompted inquiries as to the composer's own religious beliefs and examinations of the spiritual message of the text. Brahms, however, seemed to care little for such questions: as we have stated, he considered the work to be a "human" requiem. His choice of texts can be ascribed less to religious inspiration and more to personal choice and cultural identity [34]: he referred to the Bible as "ein echt menschliches Buch," [35] or, in Krummacher's words, "ein Dokument tiefer menschlicher Sehnsüchte und hoher ethnischer Gesinnung," [36] i.e. not a dogmatic interpretation of religious commandments, but a cultural and emotional repository of views and values. In choosing certain texts from Luther's translation of the Bible -- taking excerpts from both the Old Testament, the New Testament, as well as the Apocrypha -- Brahms avoided any specific mention of Christ or even a final redemption at the hands of God: instead, he focuses on the very human sentiments which surround the death of a loved one. The Requiem, like many other vocal works of Brahms, deals with the transience of life, the need for comfort, the hope of a final resolution, and a reward for effort. [37] This annoyed Reinthaler, an orthodox Lutheran, who cautioned Brahms against such omissions and requested more "specifically Christian content," [38] but Brahms remained adamant in the preservation of his artistic freedom.

Several recent critics have produced thorough analyses not of later reception of Brahms, but of Brahms' own reception of earlier religious and vocal music. Parallels are numerous and interesting: rather than following the Latin mass on the order of Mozart, Beethoven or even Schubert (who had written a German Requiem, the Deutsche Trauermesse, for his brother's personal use in 1818), Brahms instead picks up on the Protestant German masses of Bach and Schütz. Schütz, in particular, has been the subject of several recent studies, which note the significant relations between a work such as the Teutsche Begräbnismissa of 1636 and Brahms' Requiem. In part, Brahms' avoidance of the Latin Mass can be understood from a purely confessional view: as one critic writes, "the Catholic Mass, with its tenets of purgatory, salvation, and resurrection was utterly aesthenic and alien for him, and impossible to set" because of his Lutheran upbringing and later agnosticism. [39] More importantly, however, may be the very message of Brahms' text: it is clearly not intended to be performed as a mass for the dead, but rather as a comfort and consolation about the dead, for the living.

Why, then, did Brahms entitle his work a Requiem? Surely a more descriptive and less categorically strict title might have prevented much of the critical debate that has surrounded this issue. Some critics, forced into the role of apologist for Brahms' choice of title, have attempted to justify it: after all, they claim, the scope and magnitude of Brahms' work are equal to, if not greater than, most traditional Requiems; even the structure of the movements has certain parallels in the Latin liturgy, using a framed structure with a common beginning and end ("selig sind ...") and progressing toward a center focused on blessedness (the fourth movement) and a type of Dies Irae (the sixth). In addition, critics claim, surely the term "requiem" has lost its strict identity and come into common parlance, thus `allowing' Brahms to use it as his title. Such strained justifications strike me as unnecessary, although interesting enough in their own right. One critic, however, takes the religious controversy to an even further extreme, and seems very concerned with defending Brahms' own religious beliefs and "honesty" in writing the Requiem. Only if, he claims, Brahms honestly believed in the hope of eternal life and the reality of an existential comfort for the living, only then can we "accept" his honest intentions in choosing such unusual textual matter for his Mass. [40] Although such a claim was not uncommon in the late 19th century, I find it telling that modern critics have taken up these themes yet again in their attempts to analyze the Requiem: yet another instance, perhaps, of the circular nature of Brahms' reception, an indication of a recurring turn in Brahms scholarship.

There is no doubt that Brahms' Requiem enjoys great popularity in the concert hall today, as well as critical acclaim and academic interest from nearly all sides. Interestingly, this position has not changed dramatically since the early years of this century; the 1940's saw a boost in popularity due in part, surely, to the reevaluated view of Brahms' progressive nature sparked by Schoenberg, but even before this, critical and public attention had centered on Brahms' Requiem as a masterful fusion of new and old techniques. Perhaps the most significant and puzzling debates have arisen over the religious issues which surround and cloud the work: the textual choices and themes have prompted some to search for the composer's own religious views, or forced others to become apologists for his appropriation of the term Requiem. All in all, the critical appraisal of Brahms has undergone a cyclical turn: from his early controversial stance as both `modern' and `academic,' Brahms was seen to fulfill Schumann's prophesy of opening new doors in composition. Similarly, the Requiem itself, after a period of hefty debate and some disparagement, rose again to critical acclaim as an innovative and progressive work. Today its stature seems assured, given the overwhelming popularity of the work in concert. However, as any historian will admit, a careful examination of historical trends and processes may help indicate future directions. For Brahms and the Requiem, a return to certain critical modes of thought may be a mere anomaly, but it may also indicate yet another reevaluation of the work is in the process of forming.

Works Consulted:

Bell, A. Craig. Brahms: The Vocal Music. Madison, NJ: Farleigh Dickinson University Press, 1996.
Beller-McKenna, Daniel. Brahms, the Bible, and post-Romanticism: Cultural Issues in Johannes Brahms's Later Settings of Biblical Texts, 1877-1896. Diss. Harvard University, 1994. Ann Arbor: UMI, 1995.
Beuerle, Hans Michael. "Brahms' Verhältnis zum Chor und Chormusik." In Brahms-Studien 5. Hamburg: Karl Dieter Wagner, 1983. 91-114.
Blum, Klaus. Hundert Jahre Ein Deutsches Requiem von Johannes Brahms. Tutzing: Hans Schneider, 1971.
Döbertin, Winfried. "Johannes Brahms' Deutsches Requiem als religiöses Kunstwerk." In Brahms-Studien 8. Ed. Kurt and Renate Hofmann. Hamburg: Patriotische Gesellschaft, 1990. 9-30.
Evans, Edwin. Handbook to the Vocal Works of Brahms. New York: B. Franklin, 1970.
Fellinger, Imogen. "Brahms' Bedeutung in heutiger Zeit." In Brahms-Studien 6. Ed. Kurt Hofmann and Karl Dieter Wagner. Hamburg: Karl Dieter Wagner, 1985. 9-30.
Frisch, Walter, ed. Brahms and His World. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990.
Gardner, John. "A Note on Brahms's Requiem." The Musical Times 95 (Dec 1954): 649-659.
Hettrich, Ernst. "Brahms-Aufführungen in Wien: Rezensionen und Materialien." In Brahms-Kongreß Wien 1983: Kongreßbericht. Ed. Susanne Antonicek and Otto Biba. Tutzing: Hans Schneider, 1988. 229-246.
Johnson, H. Earle. First Performances in America to 1900: Works with Orchestra. Bibliographies in American Music 4. Detroit: College Music Society, 1979.
Kross, Siegfried. Die Chorwerke von Johannes Brahms. Berlin: Max Hesses Verlag, 1958.
-----. "The Establishment of a Brahms Repertoire 1890-1902." In Brahms 2: Biographical, Documentary and Analytical Studies. Ed. Michael Musgrave. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987. 21-38.
-----. Johannes Brahms: Versuch einer kritischen Dokumentar-Biographie. Bonn: Bouvier Verlag, 1997.
Krummacher, Friedhelm. "Symphonie und Motette: Überlegungen zum Deutschen Requiem." In Brahms-Analysen: Referate der Kieler Tagung 1983. Ed. Friedhelm Krummacher and Wolfram Steinbeck. Kassel: Bärenreiter, 1984. 183-200.
McCorkle, Margit L. "The Role of Trial Performances for Brahms's Orchestral and Large Choral Works: Sources and Circumstances." In Brahms Studies: Analytical and Historical Perspectives. Ed. George S. Bozarth. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990. 295-328.
Mueller, Kate Hevner. Twenty-seven Major American Symphony Orchestras: A History and Analysis of Their Repertories, Season 1842-43 through 1969-70. Bloomington: Indiana University Studies, nd.
Musgrave, Michael. Brahms: A German Requiem. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.
-----. "Historical Influences in the Growth of Brahms's Requiem." Music and Letters 53/1 (Jan 1972): 3-17.
-----. "Brahms and England."In Brahms 2: Biographical, Documentary and Analytical Studies. Ed. Michael Musgrave. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987. 1-20.
Newman, William S. "A `Basic Motive' in Brahms' German Requiem." Music Review 24 (1963): 190-194.
Niemann, Walter. Brahms. Trans. C. A. Phillips. New York: Knopf, 1929.
Nowak, Adolf. "Ein deutsches Requiem im Traditionszusammenhang." In Brahms-Analysen: Referate der Kieler Tagung 1983. Ed. Friedhelm Krummacher and Wolfram Steinbeck. Kassel: Bärenreiter, 1984. 201-209.
Reynolds, Christopher. "A Choral Symphony by Brahms?" Nineteenth Century Music 9/1 (1985): 3-25.
Robertson, Alec. Requiem: Music of Mourning and Consolation. London: Cassel, 1967.
Schoenberg, Arnold. "Brahms the Progressive." In Style and Idea in Music. Ed. Leonard Stein. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975. 398-442.


(1)  The changes brought about in particular by the Bremen performance are analyzed thoroughly in Margit L. McCorkle, "The Role of Trial Performances for Brahms's Orchestral and Large Choral Works: Sources and Circumstances," in Brahms Studies: Analytical and Historical Perspectives, ed. George S. Bozarth (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990), 295-328. [return to text]
(2)  Musgrave, Brahms: A German Requiem, 12. [return to text]
(3)  Musgrave, Brahms: A German Requiem, 12. [return to text]
(4)  Edwin, Evans, Handbook to the Vocal Works of Brahms (New York: B. Franklin, 1970), 167. [return to text]
(5)  Evans, 166. [return to text]
(6)  Musgrave, Brahms: A German Requiem, 60. [return to text]
(7)  Musgrave, Brahms: A German Requiem, 60. [return to text]
(8)  Evans, 166. [return to text]
(9)  Musgrave, Brahms: A German Requiem, 60-61. [return to text]
(10)  Eduard Hanslick, Die neue freie Presse, Vienna, December 3, 1867, quoted in Musgrave, Brahms: A German Requiem, 61. [return to text]
(11)  Theodor Billroth, Briefe von Theodor Billroth (Hannover and Leipzig, 1906), 88, quoted in Musgrave, Brahms: A German Requiem, 61. [return to text]
(12)  Bremer Courier, April 10, 1868, quoted in Klaus Blum, Hundert Jahre Ein deutsches Requiem von Johannes Brahms (Tutzing: Hans Schneider, 1971), 60. [return to text]
(13)  Neue Zeitschrift für Musik 35 (April 10, 1868), 35, quoted in Musgrave, Brahms: A German Requiem, 63. [return to text]
(14)  A. Craig Bell, Brahms: The Vocal Music (Madison, NJ: Farleigh Dickinson University Press, 1996), 205. [return to text]
(15)  Bell, 207. [return to text]
(16)  Musgrave, Brahms: A German Requiem, 63. [return to text]
(17)  The Leipzig reaction is explained in more detail in Musgrave, Brahms: A German Requiem, 63. [return to text]
(18)  Musgrave, Brahms: A German Requiem, 66. [return to text]
(19)  Musgrave, Brahms: A German Requiem, 64. [return to text]
(20)  Richard Wagner, The Prose Works of Richard Wagner, trans. W.A. Ellis, (London, 1892), vol. VI, Religion and Art, 21, quoted in Musgrave, Brahms: A German Requiem, 67. [return to text]
(21)  P. Kleinert, "Ein deutsches Requiem," Neue evangelische Kirchenzeitung, 13 March 1869, quoted in Musgrave, Brahms: A German Requiem, 67. [return to text]
(22)  Winfried Döbertin, "Johannes Brahms' Deutsches Requiem als religiöses Kunstwerk," in Brahms-Studien 8, ed. Kurt and Renate Hofmann (Hamburg: Patriotische Gesellschaft, 1990), 9. [return to text]
(23)  New York Times, March 16, 1877, quoted in H. Earle Johnson, First Performances in America to 1900: Works with Orchestra (Detroit: College Music Society, 1979), 86. [return to text]
(24)  Apthorp, Boston Transcript, Dec. 5, 1888, quoted in Johnson, 87. [return to text]
(25)  Boston Herald, Feb. 12, 1888, quoted in Johnson, 87. [return to text]
(26)  Bernard Shaw, quoted in Musgrave, Brahms: A German Requiem, 70. [return to text]
(27)  Michael Musgrave, "Brahms and England," in Brahms 2: Biographical, Documentary and Analytical Studies, ed. Michael Musgrave (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 18. [return to text]
(28)  Musgrave, "Brahms and England," 19. [return to text]
(29)  Arnold Schoenberg, "Brahms the Progressive," in Style and Idea in Music, ed. Leonard Stein (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975), 401. [return to text]
(30)  Döbertin, 9. [return to text]
(31)  Data collated from Kate Hevner Mueller, Twenty-seven Major American Symphony Orchestras: A History and Analysis of Their Repertories, Season 1842-43 through 1969-70 (Bloomington: Indiana University Studies). [return to text]
(32)  Evans, 164. [return to text]
(33)  Evans, 164. [return to text]
(34)  Musgrave, Brahms: A German Requiem, 2. [return to text]
(35)  Döbertin, 11. [return to text]
(36)  Döbertin, 17. [return to text]
(37)  Musgrave, Brahms: A German Requiem, 2. [return to text]
(38)  Musgrave, Brahms: A German Requiem, 1. [return to text]
(39)  Bell, 203. [return to text]
(40)  Döbertin, 20. [return to text]

Written and © Nancy Thuleen in 1998 for Music 415 at the University of Wisconsin - Madison.

If needed, cite using something like the following:
Thuleen, Nancy. "Ein deutsches Requiem: (Mis)conceptions of the Mass." Website Article. 2 April 1998. <http://www.nthuleen.com/papers/415brahms.html>.