Sydney Sings…™ Brahms A German Requiem

On Sunday, 10 November, at 3.00 pm, in the Sydney Town Hall, the Sydney University Graduate Choir, conducted by its Music Director, Christopher Bowen OAM, will present, as its  Sydney Sings…™ concert for 2019,  music of Johannes Brahms, featuring his wonderful Ein Deutsches Requiem (A German Requiem), and also including an orchestral work of the composer, his Tragic Overture Op. 81.

Ein Deutsches Requiem was Brahms’s first major success with the public.  As with many of his works, it was composed over many years. At the beginning of the process, the death in tragic circumstances in 1856 of his friend and mentor, Schumann, was an important stimulus.  The loss of his mother in 1865 also left a deep impression on him.  In that year, he sent the first four movements to Clara, Schumann’s widow, remarking that he was thinking of composing “a kind of German Requiem”.

The first performance of the work in its final, seven-movement form took place in Leipzig in February 1869.  

Although Brahms called the work a “requiem”, he does not use the Catholic liturgy but takes as his text various readings from Luther’s translation of the Old and New Testaments and the Apocrypha; the “German” of the title essentially makes the linguistic contrast with the traditional Latin Requiem.  The work’s message is one of consolation for those who survive the dead , rather than emphasizing the life to come of the dead themselves.

Throughout, Brahms succeeds in finding words of uncommon emotional beauty and power.  For a century and a half, audiences have shared Clara Schumann’s enthusiasm for the work, which she expressed to Brahms in 1867: “Your Requiem is an immense piece that takes hold of a person’s whole being like very little else.  The profound seriousness, combined with all the magic of the poetry, has a wonderful, deeply moving and soothing effect”. While the music conveys a strong spiritual feeling, it seems that the composer himself did not actually believe in the after-life; he commented at one point that he would have liked to call the work a “human” requiem, and resisted pressure from friends to include any reference to the redemptive death of Christ.  Although Brahms writes passages of great drama and force, particularly in No. 6, “Denn wir haben hie, keine bleibende Statt” (“For we have here no lasting state”), when the Last Trump resounds with a truly shattering blast, the message of A German Requiem is fundamentally one of consolation and comfort for those who mourn the dead.

Ein Deutsches Requiem is a moving and profound work and a masterpiece of the choral repertoire. As with previous concerts in the Sydney Sings…™ series, the Choir will be joined by some 100 guest choristers from other choirs around Sydney and New South Wales. The soloists will be Amy Moore (soprano) and Simon Lobelson (baritone), both of whom have international experience.

Our program also includes a short orchestral work of Brahms, the Tragic Overture Op. 81.  It dates from later in the composer’s life, 1880.  The overture is not lugubrious in feeling but severe and grim and has the character of the first movement of a dramatic symphony.  Along with A German Requiem, it is a worthy example of the mature mastery of the music of Johannes Brahms.


John Bowan

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