Before, Brahms, and Beyond

Sunday November 08, 2009
Before, Brahms, and Beyond

Featuring Schütz, Selig Sind die Toten; Brahms, Ein Deutches Requiem; and Whitacre, Sleep. Musica Sacra’s Gala Concert with The Boston Cecilia, Dana Whiteside, Baritone, and Soprano soloist.

Musica Sacra begins its 50th anniversary season with three works marking the occasion with a look to our past, to our future, and a glorious celebration of the moment at hand. We are honored to be joined by The Boston Cecilia for this festive event.

Notes on the Performance

From Director Mary Beekman
Mary Beekman, Director

Welcome to the first concert in Musica Sacra’s celebration of its fiftieth anniversary, thirty years of them under my direction. We are so honored to have the assistance of The Boston Cecilia in presenting Brahms’s Ein deutsches Requiem; its grand scale demands larger choral forces than our thirty voices offer.

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We provide a context for the Requiem by pairing it with the performance of two choral works reflecting the past and future of the great tradition of choral music. One of them, Selig sind die Toten was published in 1648 by Heinrich Schütz. Schütz has been a seminal influence on composers of choral music for almost 400 years, and Brahms admired and emulated him. The other, a contemporary work, Sleep, was written at the dawn of the 21st century by Eric Whitacre, a composer giving new expression to the choral medium with his use of luminous sonorities that only the human voice can produce.

As for the title, I must admit I should like to leave out the word ‘German’ and refer instead to ‘Humanity.’ — Johannes Brahms

Brahms was ahead of his time in his desire to name Ein deutsches Requiem a Human Requiem, for this concept of inclusiveness is one we associate more with the late twentieth century than the mid-nineteenth century of his composition. Unlike most Requiems, which use the Mass for the Dead from the Catholic missal, Brahms’s composition makes use of various texts he culled from the Lutheran Bible, and it had several versions before it became the seven-movement work you will hear today. As such, it already has a wider appeal than other Requiems; Brahms furthered that appeal by omitting any overt references to Jesus Christ. In using texts from the Bible, Brahms underscored one of Martin Luther’s principal tenets: that the Bible be written and heard in the vernacular so that Christians could read and interpret it for themselves. He followed the example of a Lutheran composer who lived more than two hundred years before him, Heinrich Schütz, who set his Musakalisches Exequien with many of the same texts Brahms used. Both composers ended their works with the text Selig sind die Toten, but Schütz’s setting of this text in today’s concert is taken from a collection of sacred choral music published in 1648. I find it most impressive that Schütz was able to write not one but two extremely moving settings of this text.

The placidity of the opening to Schütz’s motet, achieved through slowly-changing harmonies and long note values, conveys beautifully the peaceful rest of the dead. After this languid exposition, Schütz sets the same text again with shorter note values and more closely imitated lines. This expresses both the activity of the living in contrast to the dead, as well as a breathless excitement about the idea that death is not a dreaded state but one to be desired. The next section, to my taste, is one of the most sublimely beautiful in music. Setting the text, Ja, der Geist spricht—Yea, the Spirit speaks—Schütz uses homophony, in which all voices move as one, as they would in a hymn, for the first time. However, he has the second tenors anticipate that homophony by a half measure, setting up a call and response between the tenor and the other five parts. The dramatic effect, however, is far more than this explanation would account for. The tenors’ anticipation of the rest of the voices suggests unbridled joy and irrepressible excitement. Perhaps the joy represents the essence of the Holy Ghost; certainly the excitement derives from the fact that the living go to eternal rest from their labors. Schütz sets the final phrase, and their works follow them, as an extended section of imitative counterpoint, in which the voices utter the same melodic phrase starting on different pitches in close succession. It is a wonderful musical depiction of their works “following” those who, in their lives, accomplished them.

The shimmering miasma of choral sound created by the clusters of sonorities in Eric Whitacre’s Sleep evokes the luxurious sense of the relaxation one glimpses in the final moments before falling asleep. The steady movement of all the vocal parts declaiming each syllable on quarter notes in largely stepwise motion enhances the sense of heaviness; these quarter notes lengthen to a longer note value at the end of each phrase and then resume. One notable exception early on provides a charming musical illustration of the word resting: Whitacre elongates the note value for its second syllable to a half note. As the piece progresses, subtle shifts occur. A series of shorter phrases with wider intervals to open each one, as well as more dissonance among the voices, depicts the things that may inspire fear at sleep’s edge. The shortness of the phrases conveys the breathlessness symptomatic of fear and anxiety. Then the pace of the opening resumes as the fear passes. The music setting As I surrender unto sleep repeats three times in the upper voices, bridged each time by the low voices singing a melisma, or succession of notes, on the word dark. At the final iteration, the chord with which Whitacre sets unto becomes a springboard for a gloriously expansive melisma setting the word sleep, and, since this is the last word of the poem, the remainder of the piece contains only successively quieter melismatic settings of it.

The dramatic structure of the poem, written retroactively for Whitacre’s music after the estate of Robert Frost refused to grant permission for the use of the poem Stopping by woods on a snowy evening, and its music call to my mind the child’s prayer Now I lay me down to sleep. Because of that prayer’s line, If I should die before I wake, and because of the common use of sleep as a metaphor for death, the listener cannot help but interpret this work as a commentary on the approach of death. The quarter note movement of the beginning suggests the succession of days, weeks, and years in a life. The anxious middle section evokes the trials one encounters during the course of a life and the obstacles that interrupt the otherwise smooth unfolding of a life over time. In this metaphoric interpretation, the first two of the three statements as I surrender unto sleep embody the apprehension we all feel about death as the end of life, while the resplendent melisma encourages us to believe that the state of death will be more glorious than anything life has to offer. At the very least, it will be the restful sleep depicted in the final measures that bring the piece to a close.

Johannes Brahms was motivated to write Ein deutsches Requiem during the 1860s by the deaths of his mother and of his friend, Robert Schumann. Those familiar with other 19th century Requiems, such as those of Hector Berlioz, composed in 1839, and of Giuseppe Verdi, finished in 1874, know how the composers of the Romantic era loved to play up the drama intrinsic to the traditional texts. Within the Catholic Mass for the Dead, those texts are the Dies irae and the Libera me. In the former, the Day of Judgment, when Jesus will separate the sinners from the elect, is described in great detail. In the latter, the sinner, sure of damnation, entreats God to save him from eternal death. Verdi and Berlioz seized the opportunity inherent to these texts to write powerfully apocalyptic music they obviously felt would scare us all into amending our evil ways.

Brahms allowed a different sensibility to inspire him. Rather than creating music to warn the listener, much like the gory depictions of Hell in the visual art of the Renaissance, Brahms chose instead to write a work that would offer solace to those mourning the departed by assuring them that their beloved was safely in God’s Heaven experiencing eternal rest. To offer this comfort, he selected texts that emphasize reassurance. At the same time, his use of unexpected changes of tempo, dynamic, and tonality throughout the work allude to St. Paul’s assertion, in Corinthians 13, that we cannot know what the afterlife will be because our earthly experience cannot prepare us for it: For now we see through a glass darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. In addition, these sudden and unpredictable changes can be heard both as an attempt by Brahms to jolt us into hearing the truth, and as musical metaphors for seeing things in a new way.

One such harmonic jolt occurs in the first movement. The first progression Brahms employs, which sets the opening phrase Selig sind, involves a dominant seventh chord built on the tonic of F major, which resolves to the tonic’s subdominant of B flat major, as we would expect in traditional harmonic practice. The second time we hear this phrase, however, the dominant seventh chord, instead of resolving to its relative tonic of G flat major, resolves to a major chord built on the seventh degree of the G flat major scale. The resolution therefore is totally unanticipated by the ear, and yet it returns us to the movement’s original tonic of F major. It is, as the former Harvard professor Luise Vosgerchian used to say, a moment of whoa! that becomes a moment of aah!. In so doing, it illustrates how unknowable and yet fulfilling the afterlife will be.

In this first movement Brahms uses orchestration as well to underscore this new way of seeing things. The chorus has a dialogue with the winds, again on the phrase selig sind. Early in the movement the chorus calls and the winds respond; however, towards the end of the movement, we hear the exact same musical material, but this time with the chorus answering the winds.

The orchestration of the first movement is unusual for its time. Brahms subdivides the lower strings into six different parts, while omitting the upper tessitura of the violins. The resulting dark timbre is ambiguous: does it represent melancholy and resignation, consolation to the mourner, or—with its repeated quarter notes representing a heart beat—human existence? Regardless, Brahms relieves its somber mood with his imitative leaping line to set they…will come with joy. The imitation of this line among all of the parts not only captures the ebullience in the text, but also calls to my mind the image of scythes, appearing for brief moments above the blades of grain, as the reapers swing them in their work in the field.

Another way in which Brahms uses his music to startle us is through texture, an example of which occurs in the next movement. The opening musical material, despite the chorus singing the old chorale melody If thou but suffer God to guide thee, evokes, through its slow tempo, low tessitura, and repetitive bass line, music that might accompany a funeral cortège. Brahms’s extended treatment of this material emphasizes the remorseless reality that life and everything in existence is finite, even though the music’s ponderous B flat minor tonality is briefly interrupted by a lighter and faster G flat major tonality to admonish us to be patient for the coming of the last day. After the re-expression of the initial thematic material in B flat minor, however, the mood abruptly changes. The chorus and orchestra move together in the newly major B flat tonality as the chorus declaims But the Lord’s word endures. Brahms’s homophony on the B flat chord has grabbed us by the lapels to say, “Wake up from your shuffling through this mortal life; the Lord’s word is eternal!”

In the third movement, Brahms has a fugal subject that is the antithesis of the words it sets, rather than the placid material one might expect in illustration of the text there shall no torment touch them. It climbs arpeggios of over an octave at the start, upsets the regularity of rhythm by anticipating its most dissonant note, and ends with a falling diminished ninth chord. It’s not exactly a depiction of being safe in the hands of the Lord; instead it sounds as though the singers are navigating an obstacle course. However, one can interpret the activity and grotesque nature of the line to depict that tranquil life in God’s hands by showing us what it is not. And throughout the 35-measure segment, an underlying low pedal tone of D persists to represent the hand of God holding the souls of the righteous. It is another masterful example of Brahms’s causing us to see things differently.

The final way in which Brahms shocks us is through sudden and unexpected changes in dynamics. The most notable of these occurs at the end of the sixth movement, which is another fugue. The most prevalent dynamic of the fugue is, appropriately for its text, forte. As the section draws to a close, however, Brahms defies our expectations during the avowal Lord, Thou art worthy to receive glory and honor and power by having the voices drop from a forte to a subito piano as they simultaneously drop down to a low tessitura. It is a strange way to musically depict honor and power. Movement six provides the dramatic climax for the entire work as well. By selecting his own texts, Brahms could place the movement of utmost drama near the end of the work, where it has much more effect, rather than near the beginning, which is where the Dies irae appears in the Mass for the Dead. And, instead of using his most dramatic music to describe how we will, on the day of judgment, be found wanting and cast into eternal Hell, he uses it to represent God’s power in consigning death and Hell to oblivion.

If the sixth movement represents the climax of the Requiem, the fourth and fifth movements embody calm and serenity. Brahms wrote the fifth movement explicitly for his mother, and its addition completed the work as we know it today. Of all the movements, only it remains constant in its tone of placidity. Because the text compares God’s comfort to that of a mother for her child, Brahms employs a soprano soloist for the only time in the work. The chorus maintains a dynamic of piano throughout, as though crooning a child to sleep. This resemblance to a lullaby is enhanced by the two note slurs in stepwise motion, which call to mind the lulling motion of a gently rocked cradle.

The fourth movement is probably Brahms’s most-performed work in church, not surprisingly, since it is often used at funerals and memorial services; it was sung this summer at the funeral service for Ted Kennedy. The charming opening, in which the orchestral line falls in an arpeggiated dominant seventh chord, introduces the opening line of the chorus, which rises in apposition to balance it. I hear the orchestral line as the fountain of living water which nourishes the human spirit, represented by the choral line. Throughout the movement, the chorus sings as though in a reverie of imagining the loveliness of God’s dwelling place. Towards the end of the movement, Brahms interrupts the homophonic texture to have the voices enter in imitation for My soul longeth, yea fainteth, and he sets the word fainteth on a falling fifth as a musical representation of the word. This falling fifth is balanced by the rising motif on they will be still praising thee. Here also Brahms uses contrapuntal imitation, but in this instance one hears it as the praises echoing throughout time and generations.

Whereas the fourth movement begins with a falling orchestral figure and a rising choral one, the final movement starts with an orchestral figure of rising seconds in groups of two, which the sopranos answer with a line that starts high in their tessitura and descends before ascending to even greater heights. The slurred rising seconds of the strings seem to represent hope and aspiration to grace, while the soprano line embodies the assurance of that grace. Once again, Brahms startles us with an unexpected harmonic shift in his second setting of Yea, the spirit speaks. After expressing the thematic material in the key of E flat, he unexpectedly brings it back to the key of F. In his final surprise for us, Brahms brings back his original statement with which he set Blessed are they that mourn in the first movement to set Blessed are the dead, and, after returning the tonality from E flat major to F major, he ends the work exactly as he ended the first movement. With this he gives his final benediction: we all mourn those we love who die, we ourselves must die, but we are all assured of God’s everlasting life.

© 2009 Mary Beekman. All rights reserved. No portion of this document may be quoted or reproduced without the author’s permission.