ABOUT THIS WORK This body of work illuminates the multi-movement Ein Deutsches Requiem by Johannes Brahms. Having premiered in 1868, the Brahms Requiem was the first work of its kind in German, breaking the mold of the musical genre of the Requiem Mass, a liturgical funeral service that is traditionally associated with Catholicism. What makes the Brahms Requiem unique is the absence of traditional Latin texts and the movements of the mass and the use, instead, of texts that Brahms hand-picked from Martin Luther’s translation of the Bible.
Brahms deliberately chose his texts so the work never makes direct mention of Jesus, which became a point of contention for many people when it premiered. Brahms composed during the Romantic era, firmly situated in a post-enlightenment world, and he could be quite ambiguous and even evasive when discussing his religious beliefs. Most scholars believe he was agnostic, and therefore the Brahms Requiem, though set to Christian texts, has often been viewed as a humanist rather than Christian work, lifting high the idea of good works and obtaining our own sense of peace and healing. Through my own research, I am not convinced that for Brahms this text was fully divorced from its intended meaning. Either way, the truth of God echoes through the word of God and the genius work that Brahms created. My inspiration came from the work as a whole, including its context in Brahms' life, the musical structures, the biblical texts, and my visceral reactions to the music itself. It is my hope that those who view this work will have the chance to engage its many themes, particularly those that address the inevitability of death and human life's fleeting nature. Meditation on this solemn theme is practiced in the Christian church across denominations all over the world during the forty day Lenten season. Beyond the solemnity of the season, the Brahms Requiem reveals glimmers of hope amid suffering, the promise of comfort in sorrow, adoration of God and meditation on his promises, and finally, the powerful idea of a God who would enter into the world to defeat death, one of the few things that mankind, in all its proclaimed self-sufficiency, is unable to conquer.
A BIT ABOUT JOHANNES BRAHMS To dig deeper in to the prismatic fabric that is this magnificent work, it is important to understand a bit about Brahms’ life and character.
Brahms, like most human beings, had experienced his share of suffering by the time he completed the first version of Ein Deutsches Requiem in 1868, when he was thirty-five years old. Brahms grew up in what was essentially the red-light district of Hamburg in extreme poverty. He had to earn his keep by playing the piano in waterfront bars from the age of twelve (or as Brahms suggested later in life, perhaps as early as the age of nine). These locales were bars, dance halls, and brothels rolled into one, where sailors would come straight from sea to quench all of their pent-up desires. It is well documented that Brahms both saw and experienced things that in his own words, “left a dark shadow” on his consciousness that he carried with him well into adulthood. Modern scholarship, namely that of Brahms biographer Jan Swafford, suggests that Brahms may have been sexually abused at this time by both the prostitutes and the sailors, an experience that he carried around for the rest of his life.
Two of the most formative relationships of his life were with Robert and Clara Schumann, both composers (Clara was the most famous virtuoso pianist of her day among men and women, apart from Franz Liszt) and two of the most influential thinkers in the European music scene at the time. To Robert, Brahms owed the start of his fame and career, which came in the form of an article that labeled him the Messiah of German music, a label that would simultaneously give him instant fame and hang heavily over his head for the rest of his life.
Brahms had been working on the Requiem since he watched Robert, who became a true friend and mentor, dissolve into madness. Robert Schumann jumped off of a bridge and into the Rhine in an attempt to commit suicide in 1854 and was committed to an asylum, leaving his pregnant wife and six children to fend for themselves. Brahms sketched the opening melody to movement two sometime in this period of time, intending it for a symphony. Clara was not allowed to see Robert for the two years he spent in the asylum, until the day before he died. In 1856, Schumann died at only forty-six years of age. While Schumann wasted away in the asylum, Brahms, only twenty years old, stayed with Clara, serving as an emotional bulwark while also helping to care for the seven Schumann children when she departed for concert tours. During this time, he and Clara fell in love with one another. We have no record that either acted on their feelings, apart from speaking of them generally in letters, out of deep respect for Robert. To imagine the suffering, guilt, mourning, euphoria, and even shame from this time period in Brahms’ life is difficult.
Brahms never married Clara, and it is plain to see in their letters that he broke her heart. The two remained extremely close for the rest of their lives, however, even dying within a year of each other. He didn’t marry any other woman. He kept women at arm’s length, though he fell in love and even got engaged a couple of times after Clara. While he had many close friendships throughout his life, he was famous for having a terrible temper and lashing out at those closest to him. His friends knew this about him and generally accepted him despite his shortcomings. Brahms was also famous for rooting for the underdog and being perpetually generous and supportive. There is a wonderful story about him finding out one of his neighbors, a woodworker, had a fire in his shop. Brahms rushed away from his desk where he was putting the finishing touches on his fourth symphony and joined the bucket line to help put out the fire. A friend saw him and asked if his symphony was safe. Brahms waved him off, and his friend wrestled his keys from him and went to save his symphony in case the fire spread to his apartment (it did not). Brahms later remarked that it was his duty to help the poor, and he quietly paid to rebuild the woodworker’s shop anonymously.
A HUMAN REQUIEM Brahms buried his mother Christiane, another of the closest relationships of his life, in 1865, when he was thirty-one. This is what propelled him to finish the composition of Ein Deutsches Requiem. In the context of music history, when we talk about Requiems we traditionally think of the Catholic Requiem mass. The primary aim of such a mass is to bless the dead, to pray for them and their safe passage from purgatory to heaven. This is accomplished through a narrative of traditional Latin texts focusing on prayers for the dead, wrath on the final day of judgement, and the sacrifice of the Lamb of God to wash away the sins of the world. Certainly a Requiem mass could also serve to comfort the living, though that is not its primary aim.
Brahms’ Requiem is much different in that it uses biblical texts from Brahms’ vernacular, the Luther Bible. He was inspired by Heinrich Schütz, whose composition, The Seven Words of Christ on the Cross, was a predecessor to the Ein Deutsches Requiem. For his Requiem, Brahms picked the texts himself, weaving his own narrative of suffering and comfort. This narrative relies heavily on the poetic texts of Isaiah, the Psalms, and a couple of apocryphal poetic texts from Ecclesiasticus and The Wisdom of Solomon. Brahms also sources the New Testament through the words of Jesus from the Gospels of Matthew and John, parts of the epistles of Paul, and excerpts from Revelation. He never mentions Jesus by name, which was a massive point of controversy with religious contemporaries and those advising him as he composed, though he completely ignored all of them and stuck to his chosen scriptures. There is strong evidence Brahms himself wasn’t a believer and therefore was bending scripture to his own purposes, namely to comfort himself after the loss of his mother by weaving together his own humanist narrative. This exchange shows Brahms’ motivations:
From Carl Martin Reinthaler, director of music at Bremen Cathedral, where the Requiem premiered, on the subject of the Requiem (prior to the premiere):
Forgive me, but I wondered if it might not be possible to extend the work in some way that would bring it closer to a Good Friday service…In this composition you stand not only on religious but also certainly on Christian ground. The second movement, for example, touches on the prophecy of the Lord’s return, and in the penultimate [now the sixth] movement the mystery of the resurrection of the dead…But what is lacking, at least for the Christian consciousness, is the pivotal point: the salvation in the death of our Lord. “If Christ is not raised, your faith is in vain,” said St. Paul in connection with a passage you used. Now it would be easy to find, near “O death where is thy sting,” a suitable place…
Brahms wrote back:
As far as the text is concerned, I confess that I would gladly omit even the word German and instead use Human; also with my vast knowledge and will I would dispense with places like John 3:16. On the other hand, I have chosen one thing or another because I am a musician, because I needed it, and because with my venerable authors I can’t delete or dispute anything. But I had better stop before I say too much.
It seems Brahms had said all that he needed to say. If it were up to him, he would strike John 3:16 – “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life”—from the Bible entirely. Brahms still recognized that his chosen texts pointed to Jesus; this is why he said that there were things he wanted to delete but could not, out of respect. While it seems obvious that Brahms was seeking to comfort himself rather than tell some grand biblical narrative, the texts themselves are biblical, and the narrative still speaks through them to anyone who is familiar enough with scripture to know the Bible ’s overarching themes. To say that Brahms’ Requiem cannot be viewed through a spiritual lens because of his intentions is like saying that because scholars speculate Da Vinci valued reason and philosophy over Christianity his “Madonna and Child” is not a religious work and therefore has no value in the context of Christianity. I submit that this is a ridiculous notion and grossly limits the potential and power of art to speak to the viewer or listener beyond any boundaries or ideas that the artist might possess. In Ein Deutsches Requiem, we are invited into a sweeping story of mourning, sadness, and suffering, which is an essentially human story, a story that we all inhabit regardless of our spiritual beliefs. We are confronted by death, the fleeting nature of man, and the promises of hope in God throughout. This is where transferring Brahms’ beliefs into a label that calls the work “humanist” becomes problematic; Brahms chose texts that relate to hope in God: not the power of man to enlighten himself or to be a rock unto himself. He did not choose secular poetry. Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra and The Joyful Science had not yet been written: it would have been an entirely different work if composed to a text like that. Instead, Brahms chose specific verses from the Bible. The climactic moment of the Requiem deals with the resurrection of the dead, and hope in the Lord.
But these are my responses to the work—one of my favorite things about this work is the conversation it creates. It can be a space where many people of all beliefs come together and ask questions about life, death, suffering, and hope. Music is universal, and it unites us, much like suffering, which is also universal, possessing power to unite. Brahms drew textures, forms, and ideas from centuries of liturgical music that preceded him, exhibiting mastery of old forms as well as the ingenuity of new ideas, making this work one that stands without equal in the genre of choral and orchestral music.
Ein Deutsches Requiem premiered in Vienna in April of 1868 on Good Friday. Clara was there, as well as all of Brahms’ closest friends and musical inspirations. It is said that Clara wept, even sobbed, through much of the performance. It was as if Robert’s prediction from fifteen years prior that Brahms would be the Messiah of German music had begun to come true (though it wouldn’t fully be realized until Brahms’ first symphony premiered). It is an enduring work that is probably one of Brahms’ most popular and famous. It is the grandest work in terms of scale that he composed, and the longest. The narrative that Brahms wove together appeals to those who do not believe in God as much as to those who do believe, and so it seems that Brahms achieved his desire to compose a Requiem that was universal—a Human Requiem. It remains today one of the most beloved of Requiems in the classical repertoire.
MAJOR THEMES of the REQUIEM SUFFERING A large portion of the work deals with suffering. The Requiem opens with the words of Jesus from his famous Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” There are excerpts from James, Psalm 126, and Psalm 39 that all deal with suffering and waiting on the Lord.
THE FRAIL NATURE OF HUMAN LIFE Brahms begins movement two with text from Isaiah 40 that compares human life to the flowers of the field: they bloom for such a short while and then wither and fall away. In movement three, he uses Psalm 39 to illustrate the futility and smallness of mankind when our life is compared to God’s.
COMFORT There are glimmers of hope offered in the first movement (Psalm 126), the second movement (James), the third movement, and most notably in the fifth movement, which is a construct of Jesus’ words to his disciples saying “Though you will mourn the loss of me and be sad, we will be reunited again soon,” and Isaiah’s comparison of God to a mother who comforts her child.
RECONCILIATION Movement six begins with acknowledgement that we have no enduring place on earth. Brahms then uses the words of Paul to proclaim, in the most powerful part of the whole work, the great mystery of the resurrection of the dead. Though Jesus is not mentioned by name here, the meaning cannot be stripped away from Paul’s words, for it we are reconciled to God in Christ’s blood and this movement rings out as a great victorious battle hymn heralding that death has been conquered and is no more.
PEACE Finally, as foreshadowed in the fourth and most popular movement, the final movement bookends Brahms work by illuminating the beauty of Shalom, or the peace of dwelling with the Lord in his tabernacles.
THEMATIC ARC Mvt 1: Prologue. Grief; hope that our tears will not be in vain. Mvt 2: The problem of death, hope amid the inevitability of death, and our debt (ransom) is payed Mvt 3: The shortness of human life, the futility of man’s existence; hope in God Mvt 4: Pure adoration of God, a longing for living with him in his house. Mvt 5: Comfort after loss. Mvt 6: Everything will eventually pass away; the mystery of death conquered, God gets the praise. Mvt. 7: Postlude. Peace.
THE AUDIO GUIDE & LISTENING You will find an audio walkthrough of the Brahms Requiem available for streaming for the duration of this show. If you go to www.kellykrusecreative.com/brahmslistening you can hear a simple guide that walks you through the basics of the text, themes, and what’s happening in the music of each movement. This is a great starting place if you aren’t familiar with this work. The whole walkthrough takes a little over thirty minutes. If you prefer to hear the work on its own, there are links to YouTube and Spotify through that link as well. The whole work takes about 67 minutes.
There is WiFi available as well as headphones in a basket near the moveable wall. Please return these headphones when you are finished using them.
SPIRITUAL ESSAYS & FURTHER QUESTIONS A work like this, when pressed into, can raise a lot of questions in the hearts of those who listen, no matter what their spiritual beliefs. Suffering, death, and hope are all concepts that we must grapple with. I have compiled the translations and a few essays that I wrote on each movement, followed by a series of questions. Try answering these questions on your own or in groups. Look to those wiser than you for their struggle with the questions. Don’t expect black and white answers. If you are a Christian, look in the word for God’s character, promises, and truths, leaving some room for the tense mystery of the already-but-not-yet.
MOVEMENT ONE Matthew 5:4 - Selig Sind, die da Lied tragen, denn sie sollen getröstet werden.Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
This is not a Requiem for the dead, but for the living. Traditional Requiem masses start with an Introit. The first words uttered bless the dead: Grant them eternal rest, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them. In contrast, Brahms addresses those of us still on earth. Selig sind. Blessed are. It is as if these words are conjured from the shadows of grief. It seems like Brahms hardly dares to believe them. These are words uttered by Christ in the famous, counter-cultural Sermon on the Mount, taken from Matthew Chapter 5. When the first full phrase, Selig sind, die da Leid tragen, is uttered, the musical line deflects upward, creeping toward the light. In the biblical life, those who wear sorrow are promised hope.
Christ is not calling out to the strong, for the strong can support themselves and suppress their weeping. Here, Brahms presents a clear pondering of the inevitable weeping, suffering, and pain that defines human life. This music does not speak only to the dead, nor does it limit itself to those grieving the death of a loved one. Brahms’ music, in marriage with Christ's words, calls out to all of those who wear sorrow now, in the land of the living. They call out to the marginalized, the jobless, the depressed, the poor, the lonely, the oppressed, the sick, and the bereaved. We all wear sorrow, but the good news that Christ preached on the mount is that we shall be comforted.
A fair response to this text is to ask what this comfort looks like. Is it the removal of suffering entirely? Is it a dream of being reunited with those we love in heaven, disregarding our experience here on earth? A biblical understanding of suffering does not teach us that God will remove all of our suffering here on earth. In fact, it promises the opposite, saying that we will suffer. Nor does it teach us that we are to ignore injustice, pain, and those who suffer right now. Throughout scripture we see promises of God’s blessings and comfort much like the second text that Brahms sets in this movement:
Psalm 126: 5, 6 - Die mit Tränen säen, werden mit Freuden ernten. Sie gehen hin und weinen und tragen edlen Samen, und kommen mit Freuden und bringen ihre Garben. They that sow in tears shall reap in joy. He that goeth forth and weepeth, bearing precious seed, shall doubtless come again with rejoicing, bringing his sheaves with him.
The tension of the Christian life is that we acknowledge and inhabit the suffering of a fallen world and bring our tears, wailing, and anger to God’s feet. He already knows us, and he is threatened by none of them. Our comfort is not necessarily found in receiving better circumstances, better health, or even that God would delay our death as long as possible, though we can ask God for these things. Our comfort, ultimately, is in the person and presence of God himself. It is our separation from God (Genesis 3), from our true selves, and from each other that is at the root of all suffering. If we try to know God and seek him continually, we will find joy. This is the kind of comfort that Jesus promises, and the kind that enables us to experience suffering and joy simultaneously.
Questions: What does it mean to wear sorrow? – What are the many faces of grief? Where does suffering come from? – Did God do this? Is Satan responsible? Is man fully responsible? What is the solution to suffering? – Can we remove suffering entirely from our lives? What do we do while we wait? – Where is true comfort found? Is there a final solution?
MOVEMENT TWO 1 Peter 24: Denn alles Fleisch es ist wie Gras und alle Herrlichkeit des Menschen wie des Grases Blumen. Das Gras ist verdorret und die Blume abgefallen. For all flesh is as grass, and all the glory of man as the flower of grass. The grass withereth, and the flower thereof falleth away.
The Brahms Requiem changed forever for me when I woke up one morning in the summer of 2014 after a gut-wrenching nightmare about the death of a close family member. It was one of those dreams where I woke up and felt the physical sickness of grief and stress because my body was releasing the same chemicals and having the same reactions as I would experience in waking life. I drug myself out of bed to go for my morning walk on a trail near my home, eyes straining in the darkness of a 6:00am late summer dawn. That summer I spent most of my four-mile walks listening to sermons, podcasts, and Proverbs, but on this particular day I was still shaken by the grief of my subconscious, and melancholy lingered. I skimmed my Spotify playlists and saw the Brahms Requiem. I felt the desire to press into the feeling of melancholy, so I clicked on it. Of course, the shuffle feature pulled up movement two first. It was like I heard that movement for the first time that day, even though I had obsessively listened to it on repeat when I was a music student years before. I looked up the translation and read it as I walked. I let the power of the music overtake me like I used to, but I was a different woman than I was the first time I had heard it. I had stood in the valley of the shadow of death at the funerals of friends too young to die. I had made a transition from a spiritual seeker to a woman captivated by God. I had battled deep depression, crippling anxiety, and disillusionment with my life. I had walked with those close to me through battles with mental health and addiction. I had watched friends divorce, have miscarriages, die of cancer, and bury their children, and I had yet to turn thirty. My eyes were wide open to the brokenness of a world that is not functioning the way it was meant to.
Completely disarmed and vulnerable from my dream, I felt the tears well up as the choir began its muted declaration of Isaiah’s words. By the time it reached its first great and terrible climax, I was sobbing. It was the only reaction I could have to the powerful reality of death that Brahms set with unabashed darkness. I think Brahms desired to create a sense of hopelessness in the listener, to create an irresistible wave of death that pulls us under and makes it hard to breathe. He wanted us to see the world through a clear lens as a thing whose most shimmering heights will inevitably be overcome by the ash of death. Though our beauty is as delicate and matchless as the most precious flower, we are ultimately just like that flower and will wither, all color will drain from us, and we will eventually be swallowed by the earth. Thankfully, Brahms gives us a glimpse into the hope that God provides us.
James 5:4 - So seid nun geduldig, lieben Brüder, bis auf die Zukunft des Herrn. Siehe, ein Ackermann wartet auf die köstliche Frucht der Erde und ist geduldig darüber, bis er empfahe den Morgenregen und Abendregen.Be patient therefore, brethren, unto the coming of the Lord. Behold, the husbandmen waiteth for the precious fruit of the earth, and hath long patience for it, until he receive the early and latter rain.
We are asked to wait patiently for the coming of the Lord, the way the farmer waits for the early rains to make the earth pliable enough to plow and plant. He also asks us to wait for the late rains to help the crop to spring to life, and beyond that, we must wait for the precious fruit of the earth. His music lightens and lilts, though at the ends of the two musical sections of this interlude we feel some underlying music pulling at the ends of this hope, attempting to unravel it. Brahms does successfully unravel it eventually, dragging us back into the dark beauty of his setting of All flesh is as grass, but this time the music, though we've already heard it, seems to sting more, and it almost feels cruel. I often think of Lazarus here, the great miracle of Jesus. Lazarus, raised from the dead! But how often do we stop to think about the fact that though Lazarus was raised, he still died a physical death again? If he didn’t outlive his sisters, they had to mourn him again. And if we are healed from sickness, eventually we will have to mourn the loss of our health again. So where is the hope in that?
The crescendo into Brahms’ repeated climax of the death march theme nearly crushed me the second time I heard it. Still sobbing, I stopped walking, overcome by even deeper hopelessness. Not only was I feeling residual sadness from my dream, I was also flooded with real memories of burying loved ones. I was overcome by a deeper mourning as this music exposed something more painful—if I live long enough, I will one day bury my parents and countless others who are close to me. This is a cruel reality for all of us and one that we hold at a distance, something our logical minds recognize but that is kept carefully walled off, inaccessible, so that it will not crush us. Brahms’ music had exposed this truth in me and I could not bury it fast enough.
It occurred to me that day that Brahms, through his chosen texts and the way he sets them, brutally and masterfully reveals the realities we face, whether in the past, present, or future. So many of the themes we see in Christian art, worship, and music are so saccharin and sentimental that, when conditioned to be as cynical as we are, feel flimsy and transparent to us. If we buy into the conventionally beautiful and comfortable side of our faith only, denying the existence of death, when we are hit with the reality of it in our face, we crumble irreparably; it is not uncommon for our faith to crumble in tandem. I'm not saying we should spend our time only dwelling on sin, brokenness, and death. Our fragile human souls are not built to carry that kind of weight. We must partake in the transforming joy that God offers us, or all we have left is the reality of this world’s passing, whether it is delayed, put off, or sentimentalized. No matter which of those three methods we choose, we aren’t really capable of dealing fully with the ramifications of death. We can attempt to numb the feelings of grief or anger by religious or irreligious means.
The fact remains: regardless of our individual belief systems or cultural constructs, we all must deal with death. As the voices decrescendo and fade off with the music at the end of this second statement of Isaiah 40, there is a sliver of silence and pause - just enough that you almost think it ends there, in death and despair. That morning I spent on the walking trail, my soul felt like it did end there. I forgot what came next.
1 Peter 1: 25 - Aber des Herrn Wort bleibet in Ewigkeit.But the word of the Lord endureth forever. Brahms does not leave us with the heaviness of death crushing our hearts, because God doesn’t leave us there, either. A unison "ABER!" broke into the dawn and my earphones, and I heard something I hadn't heard before. The gospel offers a 'but.' You all must suffer, and there will be death, BUT! The Glory of the Lord endures forever.
Jesus is called the Word Made Flesh. Jesus endured. His body was put in the tomb to rot. But!—Aber!—he rose from the dead. He conquered death, not just for his own human body, but for mine, too. According to scripture, Jesus lived the life that we should have lived, and in his human flesh, died the death that we should have died (completely forsaken by God, pained, humiliated, and alone). God entered the world to be what we could not be to do what we could not do. Suddenly I found myself crying for a different reason. Tears of joy were replacing the tears of sorrow, my own Psalm 126.
I think what weighed on me so heavily that morning after I woke up was not necessarily the dream itself, but the reality it pressed onto my heart. One day, I will bury that family member. Or if I die before them, they will bury me, and someone else will bury them. I will have to say goodbye, and it will hurt. Not a temporary pain, not an "it gets better" sort of pain. Anyone who has endured the death of a loved one knows that this sort of pain never gets better—it is an agony that will change us forever. But. Yes, there is an "Aber." But, Christ conquered death, and though we presently suffer, Christ has paid our ransom to the great captor—death. He has set us free. In a world where we are bound by chains both inherited and chosen, with hearts by nature inclined toward a confusing concoction of goodness and sin, we are incapable of saving ourselves, of solving the problem of death.
Isaiah 35: 10 - Die Erlöseten des Herrn werden wieder kommen, und gen Zion kommen mit Jauchzen; ewige Freude wird über ihrem Haupte sein; Freude und Wonne werden sie ergreifen und Schmerz und Seufzen wird weg müssen. And the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with songs and everlasting joy upon their heads: they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away. If we cannot escape the penalty of death and brokenness by ourselves, then the only way we could do it is to be ransomed. The good news is that we have been ransomed. My weeping can truly be converted to songs of joy, as is promised in Psalm 126, a text from Brahms' first movement. That day on the trail, as Brahms' almost-fugue raced triumphantly to the close of movement two, I found myself sobbing tears of joy. This is the power of music. It softens and disarms us, and it left me open to the power and truth of God’s word.
Questions: Is death inevitable? How do we work to delay, escape, or sentimentalize it? What kinds of portraits of death does the Bible give us? What does it look like to wait on the Lord? What does it mean to be ransomed? Can we ransom ourselves? If death has been conquered, why do we still die? What other questions surrounding death come up for me?
MOVEMENT THREE Psalm 39: 4-7: Herr, lehre doch mich, daß ein Ende mit mir haben muß, und mein Leben ein Ziel hat, und ich davon muß. Siehe, meine Tage sind einer Handbreit vor dir, und mein Leben ist wie nichts vor dir. Ach, wie gar nichts sind alle Menschen, die doch so sicher leben. Sie gehen daher wie ein Schemen, und machen ihnen viel vergebliche Unruhe; sie sammeln und wissen nicht wer es kriegen vird. Nun Herr, wess soll ich mich trösten? Ich hoffe auf dich. Lord, make me to know mine end, and the measure of my days, what it is: that I may know how frail I am. Behold, thou hast made my days as a handbreadth; and mine age is as nothing before thee. Surely every man walketh in a vain show: surely they are disquieted in vain: he heapeth up riches, and knoweth not who shall gather them. And now, Lord, what wait I for? My hope is in thee.
I recently saw a stunning film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s play, The Sunset Limited, on HBO. Tommy Lee Jones and Samuel L. Jackson play the characters, White and Black, respectively, representing two poles in all things. Tommy Lee Jones plays a nihilist; he is a highly educated professor who just attempted suicide, and Samuel L. Jackson plays a Christian who is also an ex-con; he is a convicted murderer who lives a life among the poor and who has just kept Jones from jumping in front of a train. This brilliant play-turned-film presents the ideas of nihilism and Christianity in contrast in the form of one continuous conversation between the two men. Though reviews often declare the film gives nihilism the victory, I would counter that by saying it gives both worldviews an honest and fair space. It creates true tension by it shows how the meetings of these philosophies, like the meeting of men from different ways of life, do not always have smooth edges and clear victories.
When I read David’s gorgeous Psalm 39, I often hear shades of nihilism. Life is futile, we are insignificant, all things pass, surely my existence doesn’t mean anything. Brahms didn’t set the first part of the Psalm, where David gives voice to his fears that his own doubts will be a stumbling block to other believers. In his Psalm he confesses that he held his discouragement and fears in until the weight of them nearly crushed him. This shows believers that they must bring their honest feelings before God, that even if they seem contrary to Christian belief, they are still real, and we need help resolving them.
One key difference between David acknowledging his insignificance and the philosophical viewpoint of nihilism is that David’s insignificance is relative to the significance of God. Brahms creates a solemn and powerful meditation on this by creating a sort of call and response between the soloist and the chorus. The commanding baritone begs to know his frailty, and the choir echoes him. This is not some hollow religious pandering, an attempt to ingratiate himself before God so that he can make himself feel better.
David, though a wealthy King, endured great suffering in his lifetime, much of it brought on by his own choices. One of David’s sons, Amnon, raped his half-sister, Tamar, which lead to him being murdered by David’s other son Absalom. David refused to bring punishment to his sons in connection with any of these crimes. Absalom ended up trying to usurp David’s throne and was subsequently murdered. David was in despair over this, just one of the crises of his life. David had a clear understanding that the legacy one creates through family, riches, and wealth is not lasting. He also had a clear picture of his own sinfulness. Though his hope was in God, he had worked hard to build a family and a Kingdom, and he was still in despair. But David presents the solution to his own problem. O Lord, for whom do I wait? My hope is in you.
The Wisdom of Solomon 3:1 - Der Gerechten Seelen sind in Gottes Hand und keine Qual rühret sie an. But the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and there shall no torment touch them. Brahms chooses an apocryphal text for the end of the movement, creating a fugue that builds and builds over a driving D pedal tone in the timpani. The D clashes with Brahms’ harmonic developments, almost limiting the scope of this section. All of his friends advised him to revise this, but he loved it, calling it “The Eternal D.” It represents for the listener the relentlessness of hope that oscillates beneath a text that urges reliance on God through the discord of a life that feels so small and insignificant. I love the choice of this text because it helps to reinforce the idea that though we have doubts and we are often discouraged, God’s righteousness covers us. It is up to us to bring even our darkest musings to the foot of his throne. Though David did not write the second text of the movement, it points to an incredible pattern that we see in the Psalms and the life of David. He makes mistakes, he has sadness, anxiety, fear, depression, and is regularly faced with his own depravity, but he always circles back to God for his strength and as the solution to his greatest longings.
Questions: What fears or ideas do you have that are afraid to bring to God (or to say out loud)? When life feels empty or you feel insignificant, what do you do to make yourself feel better? Does it work? Sometimes the idea of our insignificance can lead us to feel that our life and choices don’t actually matter. How can this idea be harmful to us, our communities, and our culture?
MOVEMENT FOUR Psalm 84: 1, 2, 4 - Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen, Herr Zebaoth! Meine seele verlanget und sehnet sich nach den Vorhöfen des Herrn; mein Leib und Seele freuen sich in dem lebendigen Gott. Wohl denen, die in deinem Hause wohnen, die loben dich immerdar.How lovely are thy dwellings, O Lord of hosts! My soul longeth, yea, even fainteth for the courts of the Lord: my heart and my flesh crieth out for the living God. Blessed are they that dwell in thy house: they will be still praising thee.
This movement offers a gorgeous contrast and a moment of mediation in the midst of suffering. Brahms employs soaring melodies to bring us into a musically imagined, cavernous house of God. When I give artist talks, I always focus for a few minutes on the German word Sehnsucht. Often translated simply as “longing,” Sehnsucht actually refers to an experience of homesickness for a place we have not yet seen. It is a very bittersweet sensation. I believe this is a universal human experience, and it often brought about when we behold great beauty in art, music, relationships, or nature. The experience of that beauty ignites a longing in us for something that rests just beyond that beauty. In the experience of Brahms’ music, for instance, I see a shadow of a place, or a part of myself, that feels intense, true, and perfect.
I believe that that experience of Sehnsucht is actually a longing for God himself. Christians believe that in the beginning, Adam and Eve lived in perfect shalom with one another and had complete access to God. As a result of the fall, we are now cut off from that communion (both with each other and with God) and from that place of Shalom. It only makes sense that beauty gives us a glimpse of the shadow of that experience. It is why it is both painful and beautiful to behold.
C.S. Lewis has frequently written about the sensation of Sehnsucht, though he has never used that word. Here is an example from his book, The Problem of Pain. In this passage, he talks about how each soul experiences that longing in different ways:
Are not all lifelong friendships born at the moment when at last you meet another human being who has some inkling (but faint and uncertain even in the best) of that something which you were born desiring, and which, beneath the flux of other desires and in all the momentary silences between the louder passions, night and day, year by year, from childhood to old age, you are looking for, watching for, listening for? You have never had it. All the things that have ever deeply possessed your soul have been but hints of it—tantalizing glimpses, promises never quite fulfilled, echoes that died away just as they caught your ear…We cannot tell each other about it. It is the secret signature of each soul, the incommunicable and unappeasable want, the thing we desired before we met our wives or made our friends or chose our work, and which we shall still desire on our deathbeds, when the mind no longer knows wife or friend or work. While we are, this is. If we lose this, we lose all.
Brahms presses into this longing so sweetly in this movement, reminding us to see the beauty in our own longing toward fullness, healing, and completion.
Questions: Can you name some experiences of Sehnsucht in your life? What are they? Do you enjoy that feeling of longing toward something larger or more beautiful than yourself? How do you think the church has historically been afraid of beauty? Do you think with this new term, the function of beauty in faith could be reimagined? How could a pressing into true beauty (the thing that we truly long for) change our culture and our experience of what is beautiful?
MOVEMENT FIVE John 16:22 - Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit; aber ich will euch wieder sehen und euer Herz soll sich freuen und eure Freude soll neimand von euch nehmen. And ye now therefore have sorrow; but I will see you again, and your heart shall rejoice, and your joy no man taketh from you. As a compromise with Reinthaler, the conductor at the first performance, Brahms agreed to let his good friend’s wife sing I Know that my Redeemer Liveth from Handel’s Messiah. Reinthaler felt that this addition, which overtly expressed salvation in Christ, made the Good Friday performance more appropriate. It may have helped push Brahms toward his childhood teacher Eduard Marxen’s suggestion to write a movement for soprano solo. This movement was added after the premiere of the work.
Though the movement starts with the words of Jesus, it could not be more different from I Know that my Redeemer Liveth. In Brahms’ mind, the text of this movement is heard in the voice of his mother, not Jesus. For Brahms unending joy was the ability to be with his mother again, a very human concept. The biblical text refers to the unending joy that the disciples of Christ would receive when Jesus rose from the tomb and it became clear to them why he had to die in the first place. These are very different concepts. Brahms marries three texts in this movement, all of them seeming to point directly to his mother. He sets them in a very intimate way, keeping the choir, orchestra, and the soloist restrained with piano and pianissimo dynamics throughout. Brahms’ mother Christiane had endured a very hard life of punishing labor and poverty. Despite the fact that he missed her desperately, he found comfort in the idea that she had been released from that life and was able to finally find rest.
Ecclesiasticus 51:27 - Sehet mich an: Ich habe eine kleine Zeit Mühe und Arbeit gehabt und habe großen Trost funden.Ye see how for a little while I labor and toil, yet have I found much rest.
Isaiah 66:13 - Ich will euch trösten, wie Einen seine Mutter tröstet.As one whom his mother comforteth, so will I comfort you. Christiane Brahms had a reputation for being a wonderful mother, supportive, well-read, and an incredible cook (her fritters were called ‘famous’). Brahms loved her deeply. Christiane was seventeen years older than Brahms’ father, Johann Jakob. She was forty-four when Johannes was born, and she died of a stroke at the age of seventy-four. The textures of this movement are for Brahms incredibly simple, leaving the soprano voice deeply exposed. These more transparent textures give us a window into Brahms’ grief, laid bare for all to see.
Regardless of our spiritual beliefs, we all have to experience loss in our lives, and we all seek comfort. I recently learned, while painting a project expressing human emotion, that by allowing ourselves to feel sadness and grief we express value for what we have lost. These losses that we sustain aren’t always the loss of friends or family members. Sometimes they are the loss of dreams, hopes, health, and seasons of life. This movement is a gorgeous testament to the mother that Brahms lost and the profound space that she left behind, reminding us that to grieve is to honor our greatest gifts from God.
Questions: When you experience loss, where do you seek comfort? What makes you afraid to share sadness with others? What are some ways we can express value for the things we have lost?
MOVEMENT SIX Hebrews 13:14 - Denn wir haben hie keine bleibende Statt, sondern die zukünftige suchen wir.For here have we no continuing city, but we seek one to come.
The sixth movement opens quietly, almost forebodingly, with a text that meditates on the fallibility of the earth. I didn’t appreciate the magnitude and beauty of the sixth movement of this work until I started painting my series of works based on it. In the Requiem masses, one of the most dramatic pieces of music is always the setting of the text, Dies Irae. Mozart and Verdi both wrote a magnificent setting of this text. A portion translates to:
The day of wrath, that day will dissolve the world in ashes… How great will be the quaking, when the Judge will come, investigating everything strictly. The trumpet, scattering a wondrous sound, through the sepulchres of the regions, will summon all before the throne.
The Dies Irae focuses on the return of Christ and the judgement of the world. It was meant to inspire awe, even terror. The text Brahms sets for the second dramatic section are the words of Paul, drawing on some of the same imagery, but in a very different scene.
1 Corinthians 15: 51, 52, 54, 55 - Siehe, ich sage euch ein Geheimnis: Wir werden nicht alle entschlafen, wir werden aber alle verwandelt werden; und dasselbige plötzlich, in einem Augenblick, zu der Zeit der letzten Posaune. Denn es wird die Posaune schallen, und die Toten wervandelt werden. Dann wird erfüllet werden das Wort, das geschrieben steht: Der Tod is verschlungen in den Sieg. Tod, wo ist dein Stachel? Hölle, wo ist dein Sieg?Behold, I show you a mystery; We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed. In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed... then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?
This text from First Corinthians focuses not on judgement, but on the triumph of the resurrection of the dead. This is a far cry from the dark text we see in the Dies Irae, but Brahms’ musical setting is no less powerful. Rather than creating a feeling of awe and terror, Brahms’ setting brings triumph and hope. Brahms omitted verse 53 and the first part of 54, “For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written…Death is swallowed up in victory!”
Even though Brahms omitted this section, it is hard not to feel the victory of it in Brahms’ music, particularly the setting of, “Wo? Wo? Wo?—or, “Where, where, where?” Over and over, challenging death, finally ending with, “Where is your sting?” It is hard to know what sort of resurrection that Brahms was picturing in his setting of the text. But the heroic baritone solo, dense choral textures, organ, and thick orchestration make us believe in the power of this God to raise the dead and make all things new.
Revelation 4:11 - Herr, du bist Würdig zu nehmen Preis und Ehre und Kraft, denn du hast alle Dinge geschaffen, und durch deinen Willen haben, sie das Wesen und sind geschaffen.Thou art worthy, O Lord, to receive glory and honor and power: for thou hast created all things, and for thy pleasure they are and were created.
Brahms ends with a text pointing directly to the God who raises the dead. The choir sings joyfully of this God, and the stately reverence of it is the perfect end to the triumphal battle cry. Where is the sting of death, indeed? It is difficult to imagine the weight of what resurrection will mean for us. We can’t even conceive of it. C.S. Lewis writes about heaven and the experience of what it will be like to inhabit bodies that are made new in his incredible sermon-turned-essay, The Weight of Glory. I cannot attempt to paraphrase it here. But one of my favorite excerpts of the essay talks about how that should change our experience of ourselves and our neighbors (no matter what their beliefs) profoundly:
There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilization—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendours… Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbour is the holiest object presented to your senses.
This sixth movement feels satisfying because it is the climactic moment of the Requiem, a final answer to the death march of movement two.
Questions: What do you think of the concept of death having been conquered? Does this view of death change the experience of losing loved ones on earth? What questions, tensions, or emotions arise when you think about these concepts? If you believe death has been conquered, how does that change your view of how you live today?
MOVEMENT SEVEN Revelation 14:13 - Selig sind die Toten, die in dem Herrn sterben, von nun an. Ja, der Geist spricht, daß sie ruhen von ihrer Arbeit; denn ihre Werke folgen ihnen nach. Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord from now on: Yea, saith the Spirit, that they may rest from their labors; and their works do follow them.
Though movement one and movement seven start with the same text, they couldn’t be more different. Where movement one was hushed and sorrowful, movement seven is bright and majestic. For me, this text seems almost strangest of all of Brahms’ choices because of his views on Christianity. Here he desires to create a final statement: The dead are blessed because they have died and no longer have to suffer on this earth, and any good things they have done follow them.
The book of Revelation is one of the most contentious books of the Bible, and it has been used for centuries almost as a weapon of fear to coerce people into believing. Of course, no one can be coerced into genuine faith. Revelation actually falls into the genre of apocalyptic literature, and it is meant to tell a great story of two cities: the city of earth (representing Rome) and the city of Heaven. The early church of which John (the author of Revelation) found himself a part was in exile, and many believers were suffering or being murdered at the hands of Rome. This book was actually meant to encourage and to bring hope to its readers: it says that though suffering will continue to come, God in Christ is sovereign and holds the keys to history, and therefore faithful believers will one day be rewarded in God, experiencing full communion with the object of their deepest longing. By contrast, the agony of hell portrayed in Revelation, beyond the symbolic images of fire and physical torment, is actually the anguish of an eternity of separation from the object of our deepest longing; it is an eternal world where there is no home and no comfort of being known.
This idea of being rewarded in God is one of the peculiarities of the Christian faith, and one that is difficult for Christians and those who don’t believe: though we die, yet shall we live—not as a spirit or ghost—but in this body, supernatural and transformed into something we can’t conceive of. The idea of one who is dead being blessed is an odd notion, but the truth of this text that is so beautifully illuminated by the beauty of Brahms’ music is that for a soul secure in God, even death can be a blessing.
Questions: What does it mean to die in the Lord? Does it feel strange to you to call the dead “blessed”? What concepts of heaven and hell did you grow up with? What troubles you about heaven and hell?
R. Greenberg, Great Masters: Brahms – His Life and Music. The Great Courses, No. 757.
M. Musgrave, Brahms: A German Requiem. Cambridge University Press, 1996.
J. Swafford, Johannes Brahms: A Biography. Vintage Press, 1997.
Further resources: C.S. Lewis – The Problem of Pain C.S. Lewis – The Weight of Glory Ed. Nancy Guthrie – Be Still, My Soul – Embracing God’s Purpose & Provision in Suffering