I had a powerful—and quite unexpected—moment at the very beginning of Johannes Brahms’ German Requiem. At the risk of committing a sappy cliché, I must say that the Mendelssohn Choir sounded absolutely angelic when they sang, “Blessed are they that mourn, for they will be comforted.” I felt a tear glide down my cheek, thus establishing a new record—not even a minute into the performance and I was already searching for tissues.
Despite my initial reaction, I do not believe that the soul of Requiem is grief and sorrow; on the contrary, one who is truly attentive to the music and is mindful of the carefully selected accompanying biblical passages leaves the performance with a sense of optimism. Grief and despair are present, but they only play supporting roles in which they magnify the gloriousness of hope.
I have a “lecture” that I give to my loved ones who are grieving. It’s my personal set of beliefs that I unleash when confronted by someone who is grasping for meaning in the face of heart wrenching loss. Given the numerous layers of emotion in his Requiem, I’m sure that Brahms would have approved. Grief is experienced during any major loss in one’s life—not just following a death. Some of the most catastrophic losses that one can experience may not involve death at all. The loss of a job, a divorce, the diagnosis of a chronic illness…these all constitute losses that must be grieved. As resolutely as we try, feelings of loss cannot fit into a box that is neatly stored in a closet, only to be periodically revisited when we’re feeling nostalgic. The truth is that we drag our losses around every single day and never really “get over” them. They are constantly present and easily evoked, as evidenced by my aforementioned tears. Psychologist J. William Worden describes one of the “tasks” of mourning as the establishment of “an enduring connection” to that which has been lost. Brahms had no idea that he was so ahead of his time. His Requiem allows the listener to experience the terrible pain of grief, but also offers consolation with the gentle reminder that our loved ones have not completely departed—they have changed their form, they are at peace and they are loved.
“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).
Brahms was not a religious person and he did not believe in an afterlife; he was, however, able to find meaning in his own grief (for his mother and his mentor, Robert Schumann) which inspired him to create his stunning work. It is only from the vantage point of despair that the heights of joy and love can be actualized. This precarious balancing act is one that Brahms clearly understood and realized in the composition of Requiem. It was a brilliant attempt to rectify the incongruence between that which is known intellectually and the tangle of emotions that are experienced viscerally. As many times as I have read and have comprehended the biblical texts on a cognitive level, my emotions and feelings (and, dare I say, my heart) can never seem to synch with my rationality. In Requiem, the music provides the emotional salve, while the texts provide the intellectual comfort. The flashpoint at which intellect and emotion merge is hope.
Because, as human beings, when all else is uncertain and fleeting, hope is all we really have.