As I age I think more about death, especially as I see relatives and friends dropping away. I am blessed with good health and with genes that indicate continuing longevity, so I am not morbid about myself in these ruminations.
I still feel the absence of my father, my sister Diane, my life-long friend Fred Pape, and, quite recently, Uncle Harry whose oft-repeated phrase suddenly popped into my head at the proper occasion: “take it easy.” To indulge and assuage these thoughts and feelings I listen to music: most often Chopin and Grieg, occasionally Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff to evoke my mother.
I recently ‘discovered’ liturgical music, primarily the Mozart “Great” Mass in C Minor and his Requiem; and, the Stabat Mater of Pergolesi. Although I will never tire of them, I play them less often now, as I can conjure elements of each in my head when I wish. What I most recently have discovered that my favorite “classical” composer, Brahms, also wrote a requiem, about which more below.
A requiem is an act or token of remembrance. The word is from the Latin requies, ‘rest’, as in requiescat in pace—‘rest in peace’.
The “act or token” is most often conducted as a Christian ceremony in recognition of someone’s death (also groups of people).
The “act” in church is often accompanied by music written specifically for remembering the dead. In this setting, the requiem takes the form of a liturgical mass.
Simply stated a ‘requiem’ is an occasion to remember someone upon his or her death, and to wish her or him a peaceful “rest.”
Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897) wrote a magnificent piece of music for such an occasion, Ein Deutsches Requiem (1868), “A German Requiem.” And, even though he used text from the Old and New Testaments of the Lutheran Bible (in German, not the traditional Latin, hence the “German” in the title), it was not written to be performed in church, although there is nothing to prevent this. Nowhere in the text of the vocal portion of the music is there mention of Jesus Christ as is required for a liturgical mass.
He did use “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” of chapter 3, verse 16 of the Gospel of John (King James Version cited here). But, as he told conductor Karl Reinthaler, “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 best knowledge and will I would dispense with passages 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 [the Old and New Testaments] I can’t delete or dispute anything. But I had better stop before I say too much.” (Source).
Before discovering this piece, I was unaware that Brahms had written what could be termed ‘religious’ music. In researching this article I found he was not formally a religious man, but has been described as a ‘humanist,’ a term and concept I find almost abhorrent. I hasten to add I am not a member of any church or religion, and do not proselytize anything. I have written elsewhere on this, so will refrain from explaining further.
Nonetheless, I find that the second movement of Brahms’ Ein Deutsches Requiem, “All Flesh is as Grass,” grabs me and moves me as well as any of the liturgical music mentioned above. I perceive Brahms having been inspired by a power greater than man, just as with Pergolesi, Bach, Mozart and countless others who have written liturgical and secular music.
Here is the translated text of the second movement of Ein Deutsches Requiem, “All Flesh is as of Grass” (Source):
1 Peter 1:24
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.
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.
1 Peter 1:25
But the word of the Lord endureth for ever.
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.
The words speak for themselves. The music contains a death march, but ends in the glory indicated by the words.
So, I think of those who have departed, immersed in music which celebrates death, becoming spent of sorrowful emotions and filled with strength for the journey which continues.