How Brahms' ' ‘A German Requiem’ became an anthem for our time

Saturday, Might 13, 2017|12:05 a.m.

NEW YORK– The New york city show season waning was more or less bookended by performances of Brahms’ “A German Requiem,” meant to set the work in broader contexts. In October, Lincoln Center presented “human requiem,” including Simon Halsey and the Berlin Radio Choir in an immersive staging, with 2 pianists changing Brahms’ orchestra, and choristers in street clothes roaming amongst the audience members.

Skip forward to last Saturday, when Mark Shapiro conducted the Cecilia Chorus of New york city in Brahms’ requiem at Carnegie Hall, setting it alongside “A Garden Among the Flames,” a brand-new work by Syrian-born composer Zaid Jabri, based upon a Sufi text by 13th-century poet Ibn Arabi. And on Sunday, Alejandro Hernandez-Valdez led Musica Viva NY in “An Elegy for all Mankind,” at All Souls Church on the upper East Side, matching the requiem with Seymour Bernstein’s “Tune of Nature,” based on an essay by Ralph Waldo Emerson.

“A German Requiem,” it appears, has ended up being something of an anthem for our time, with grand social and political reverberations. Yet, for its author, the work developed from deeply personal motives. The idea of a requiem appears to have actually struck the young artist in 1854, after a suicide attempt by his newly found compositional daddy figure, Robert Schumann, who passed away in 1856. According to an early biographer, Max Kalbeck, Brahms discovered the title “Ein Deutsches Requiem” among manuscripts left by Schumann.

A false start on this work resulted instead in Brahms’ First Piano Concerto, of 1857-58, and the requiem concept pertained to fulfillment just after the death of his mother in 1865. “A German Requiem,” in 6 movements for baritone soloist, chorus and orchestra, had its best in 1868, however even then, Brahms went back to the work, including a seventh motion, for soprano, with the words “I will comfort you as one whom his own mother comforteth.”

Brahms assembled the texts himself from Luther’s German translation of the Bible, bypassing the basic liturgical requiem text, with its terrifying Passes away Irae, so clearly set by other composers. Instead of house on the judgment of the deceased, he seemed intent on consoling those left behind. It was Brahms who came from the term “human requiem,” in a letter to Clara Schumann, Robert’s widow and, already, Brahms’ intimate. This human focus, in addition to the work’s liberty from angry spiritual judgment, makes it simple to seize on in our more slightly spiritual time.

For its performance Saturday, the Cecilia Chorus commissioned a brand-new piece that– as Shapiro, Cecilia’s music director, composed in a program note– “may be considered beginning, spiritually and philosophically, where Brahms ended.” Jabri– like Brahms, utilizing soprano and baritone musicians– sets a libretto by South African-born poet Yvette Christianse, based on the ancient Arabi text, ending “I proclaim the religion of Love;/ Wherever its caravan turns along the way,/ That is my belief,/ My faith.”

Christianse includes text of her own, reflecting on the Syrian refugee crisis: “We left our gardens,/ even the worms./ We turned our faces to the roadway,/ and the road snarled.”

On the chorus’ site, Chelsea Shephard, the soprano soloist, described the desired impact: “After hearing ‘A Garden Amongst the Flames,’ who can pay attention to the Brahms Requiem without hearing it as a requiem for Syria?” With a full intermission following the Jabri work, it was simple adequate to lose the connection.

Jabri’s music was striking, but the work lost much of its result, with the English text mostly garbled in the hubbub of a chorus of 178, abetted by a kids’s chorus of 28, the Every Voice Show Choir.

Musica Viva was even more ambitious in scope with its “Elegy” on Sunday. In a program note, Hernandez-Valdez, the group’s creative director, called it “a concert designed to make a difference in today’s conflicted world,” reflecting on “our death and our planet.” As a companion to the requiem, it provided “Tune of Nature,” a 1996 work by Bernstein, who was the subject of Ethan Hawke’s 2014 documentary film, “Seymour: An Intro.”

“Tune of Nature” takes its text from Emerson’s essay “Nature”: “The happiest male is he who learns from nature the lesson of praise. As a plant upon the earth, so a man rests upon the bosom of God.”

In Hernandez-Valdez’s arrangement, “Tune of Nature” runs a crowded 10 minutes approximately. The music traverses the dynamic gamut, soft to loud, a number of times, however the message, generalized as it was, was effectively communicated by the exceptional chorus of 35 and the storyteller, David Rockefeller Jr.

. For the requiem, Musica Viva released 11 gamers in Joachim Linckelmann’s plan for chamber ensemble to great effect, and again, the chorus came through . With Devony Smith and Joseph Beutel as fine singing musicians in the Brahms, and Shabnam Abedi in the Bernstein, this was undoubtedly a stirring show, though what distinction it might make in the bigger world was far from evident.

Surely the impulse to mine a masterwork for all its significances is praiseworthy, and the unexpected style for “A German Requiem” is welcome, whatever it might state about our time. And the Cecilia Chorus’ commissioning of a brand-new work for the occasion is entirely exceptional, however much you might have wanted a more powerful performance.

But all of this added significance is a heavy concern for Brahms’ elegant goodbye to his mentor and his mother. Possibly the contexts require more in-depth discussion and advancement to bring such presentations beyond the worlds of novelty and good objectives.

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