5th July 2019 – Orff: Carmina Burana
St John’s Smith Square, London SW1P 3HA
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Johannes Brahms (1833-97) was reticent about what, if anything, inspired the composition of his Requiem. Fourteen years (1854-68) in gestation, it may have been given impetus by the deaths of his friend and mentor Robert Schumann in 1856 and of his mother in 1865; but it is perhaps best described as a meditation on death rather than a memorial to anyone. Premiered in his middle years, and preceding all his symphonies and most of his concertos, it was his first large-scale success and marked his arrival on the international stage.
In retrospect Brahms remarked that he should perhaps have substituted ‘human’ for ‘German’ in the work’s title, which referred simply to its language; he saw it as transcending creeds and addressing all humanity. In contrast to the traditional Roman Catholic Latin requiem the text, assembled by the composer, draws on passages – from Old and New Testaments and the Apocrypha – from the Lutheran bible (though not religious in any conventional sense, Brahms knew his scripture). The tone is set with the opening words ‘Blessed are they that mourn’, contrasted with the Latin requiem’s ‘Grant them eternal rest’: the piece is concerned with consoling the living while commemorating the dead, as opposed to the traditional emphasis on support for the souls of the departed. Perhaps unexpected in a requiem, one of the most frequently used words in the text is ‘Freude’ – joy.
The structure of the seven movements of the Requiem has been likened to a pyramid, with a symmetry between them: the first and seventh at the outer edges, both reflecting on the ‘blessed’ theme; the second, describing the transitory nature of life, balanced by the sixth’s joyous expectation of the life to come; the third and fifth each featuring solo parts, for baritone and soprano respectively; and at the apex of the pyramid and the heart of the work, the fourth movement describing the joys and happiness of heaven. Most of the movements contain within them some element of transition from anxiety to comfort, a transition also conveyed at the level of the work as a whole, with the solemnity of the first three movements countered by the fervour of the last three.
The chorus opens the work in hushed tones, with the passage ‘Selig sind …’ (text from the Sermon on the Mount) describing the blessedness of mourners; but becomes more animated as that mourning is transformed (‘They that sow in tears shall reap in joy…’).
In the second movement, based initially on a heavy funeral march, the chorus sings of Man’s fate ‘All flesh is as the grass…’; moderating somewhat before the mood changes dramatically with ‘But the word of the Lord endures for ever…’.
The third movement introduces the baritone soloist, pondering with the chorus the meaning of life. After he asks ‘Now Lord, what do I wait for?’ the chorus answers ‘My hope is in you’, before breaking into a dramatic fugue on the theme ‘The souls of the righteous are in the hands of the Lord…’.
The fourth movement is the best-known and loved, often performed on its own in concerts and memorials: the chorus contemplates the beauty and joy of the house of the Lord.
The soprano soloist dominates the fifth movement, accompanied by the chorus, singing of current sorrow and future comfort, similar to maternal comfort – perhaps an oblique reference to the recent death of Brahms’ mother.
The sixth movement is the most dramatic of the piece, and the only one where there is any reference to the Last Judgement. A reflection by the baritone soloist, accompanied by the chorus, on the nature of transformation is broken as the chorus sings of the sound of the Last Trumpet, and of victory over death (‘Where is thy sting?’), followed by another dramatic fugue.
The final movement has the chorus again singing ‘Selig sind…’, this time for the deceased, with a reworking of the opening music; and the work ends as it began, on the word ‘Blessed’.