This page describes the historical context of Brahms’ most famous work and the textual difference between it and a Requiem mass. Remember that the only portion of this piece on our playlist is the fourth movement, perhaps the best known of all the movements from the piece.
A German Requiem, To Words of the Holy Scriptures, Op. 45 (German: Ein deutsches Requiem, nach Worten der heiligen Schrift) by Johannes Brahms, is a large-scale work for chorus, orchestra, and a soprano and a baritone soloist, composed between 1865 and 1868. It comprises seven movements, which together last 65 to 80 minutes, making this work Brahms’s longest composition. A German Requiem is sacred but non-liturgical, and unlike a long tradition of the Latin Requiem, A German Requiem, as its title states, is a Requiem in the German language.
Brahms’s mother died in February 1865, a loss that caused him much grief and may well have inspired Ein deutsches Requiem. Brahms’s lingering feelings over Robert Schumann’s death in July 1856 may also have been a motivation, though his reticence about such matters makes this uncertain.
His original conception was for a work of six movements; according to their eventual places in the final version, these were movements 1–4 and 6–7. By the end of April 1865, Brahms had completed the first, second, and fourth movements. The second movement used some previously abandoned musical material written in 1854, the year of Schumann’s mental collapse and attempted suicide, and of Brahms’s move to Düsseldorf to assist Clara Schumann and her young children.
Brahms completed all but what is now the fifth movement by August 1866. Johann Herbeck conducted the first three movements in Vienna on 1 December 1867. This partial premiere went poorly due to a misunderstanding in the timpanist’s score. Sections marked as pf were played as f or ff, essentially drowning out the rest of the ensemble in the fugal section of the third movement. The first performance of the six movements premiered in the Bremen Cathedral six months later on Good Friday, 10 April 1868, with Brahms conducting and Julius Stockhausenas the baritone soloist. The performance was a great success and marked a turning point in his career.
In May 1868 Brahms composed an additional movement, which became the fifth movement within the final work. The new movement, which was scored for soprano soloist and choir, was first sung in Zürich on 12 September 1868 by Ida Suter-Weber, with Friedrich Hegar conducting the Tonhalle Orchester Zürich. The final, seven-movement version of A German Requiem was premiered in Leipzig on 18 February 1869 with Carl Reinecke conducting the Gewandhaus Orchestra and Chorus, and soloists Emilie Bellingrath-Wagner and Franz Krükl.
Brahms assembled the libretto himself. In contrast to the traditional Roman Catholic Requiem Mass, which employs a standardized text in Latin, the text is derived from the German Luther Bible.
Brahms’s first known use of the title Ein deutsches Requiem was in an 1865 letter to Clara Schumann in which he wrote that he intended the piece to be “eine Art deutsches Requiem” (a sort of German Requiem). Brahms was quite moved when he found out years later that Robert Schumann had planned a work of the same name. German refers primarily to the language rather than the intended audience. Brahms told Carl Martin Reinthaler, director of music at the Bremen Cathedral, that he would have gladly called the work “Ein menschliches Requiem” (A human Requiem).
Although the Requiem Mass in the Roman Catholic liturgy begins with prayers for the dead (“Grant them eternal rest, O Lord”), A German Requiem focuses on the living, beginning with the text “Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted.” from the Beatitudes. This theme—transition from anxiety to comfort—recurs in all the following movements except movements 4 and 7, the central one and the final one. Although the idea of the Lord is the source of the comfort, the sympathetic humanism persists through the work.
Brahms purposely omitted Christian dogma. In his correspondence with Carl Reinthaler, when Reinthaler expressed concern over this, Brahms refused to add references to “the redeeming death of the Lord,” as Reinthaler described it, such as John 3:16. In the Bremen performance of the piece, Reinthaler took the liberty of inserting the aria “I know that my Redeemer liveth” from Handel’s Messiah to satisfy the clergy.