Death, Brahms And Our All Too-Human Grief

It is a fact of life that we all mourn and yet we also must accept the fact that we all mourn differently – a strange paradox that while grief is impersonally universal it’s also oddly unique.  For example, my own father passed away 4 years ago and while I still feel (and will always feel) that quiet grey hollow of his absence, the exact contours can mean little to anyone else – apart from the fact that they’re there.  The details of your grief are different from mine and yet the one thing (perhaps the only thing) we will always have in common is that we both grieve.

Nor can we escape this fate as each of us has had to or will have to make our final good byes to our parents, friends and loved ones.  Eventually other friends and loved ones will have to make their final good byes to us.

It’s a fact of life.  Death is always present and it’s always very sad.  That’s a lot of sad.

Let’s talk Johannes Brahms Op. 45.

Premiered in 1868, Ein deutsches Requiem breaks with the Requiem Mass tradition that goes back at least as far as Johannes Ockeghem (d. 1497) in the mid to late quatrocento.  The title “Requiem Mass” comes from its the first line text “Requiem æternam dona eis, Domine” (“Grant them eternal rest, O Lord”),  and from it we can see that the Mass is a prayer to God for the souls of dead.  On the other hand, Brahms opened his Requiem with “Selig sind, die da Leid tragen, denn sie sollen getröstet werden”(“Blessed are they that mourn; for they shall be comforted.” – Matthew 5:4).  And from that we can see what the program notes meant when it quoted Karl Geiringer who said:

The Latin Requiem is a prayer for the dead, threatened with the horrors of the Last Judgment; Brahms’ Requiem, on the contrary, utters words of consolation, designed to reconcile the living with the idea of suffering and death. In the liturgical text whole sentences are filled with the darkest menace; in Brahms’ Requiem, each of the seven sections closes in a mood of cheerful confidence or loving promise.

While the text is from the Lutheran Bible, Brahms eschewed any specific Christian dogma regarding death and redemption.  No cross is mentioned, nor is there any mention of punishment for sin.  Or any sin for that matter.

Instead there’s comfort for those in mourning.

The 5th movement comes especially to mind.  The Requiem was written, in part, in response to the death of the composer’s mother in 1865 (when Brahms would have been about 32) and in an interview with the P-G’s Andrew Druckenbrod:

You will find a deep love expressed for Brahms’ mother, says [PSO conductor Manfred] Honeck. “The fifth movement is the only place that a soprano sings, and I believe it is his mother saying the text.”

Here’s the text:

Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit; aber ich will euch wiedersehen, und euer Herz soll sich freuen, und eure Freude soll niemand von euch nehmen. (“Ye now have sorrow; but I will see you again, and your heart shall rejoice, and your joy no man shall take from you.” – John 16:22)

Sehet mich an; ich habe eine kleine Zeit Mühe und Arbeit gehabt, und habe großen Trost gefunden. (“I will comfort you as one comforted by his mother” – Isaiah 66:13)

Ich will euch trösten, wie einen seine Mutter tröstet. (” Behold with your eyes, how that I labored but a little, and found for myself much rest.” – Ecclesiastices 51:35)

Given the context, it’s difficult to disagree with Honeck and it must’ve been great comfort to Brahms to imagine his mother singing these words to him.

One needn’t be Christian to find some comfort in these words.  One could even be a non-believer like me to have found the piece (and the performance) just so beautiful I cried.

Die mit Tränen säen, werden mit Freuden ernten. (“They that sow in tears shall reap in joy.” – Psalm 126).

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