German Requiem, op. 45

Various researchers have identified different motivations for the German Requiem. Some maintain that it mourns the death of Robert Schumann, who was the young man’s mentor and friend. Others suspect it was inspired by the death of Brahms’ mother. There is a degree of truth in both assertions. Parts of the composition date back to 1856, the year of Schumann’s death, while there is no disputing that the Fifth movement, the last to be composed, was Brahms’ memorial to his mother.

The German Requiem is perhaps the finest example of “preserving tradition” to be found among Brahms’ oeuvre. This is the German baroque tradition, whose last masters were Bach and Schütz. The Requiem also identifies itself with German Protestant ecclesiastical traditions.

Brahms compiled the text for the Requiem himself from various books of Holy Scripture. He used the Psalms, the Evangelium, the Letters of the Apostles, the Book of Prophets, and even quotes twice from the so-called Apocryphal Books. The end result might be more fairly termed a sermon rather than a requiem.

The seven movements summarise human thoughts about death with beautiful logic and philosophical refinement. It is based on faith naturally, but – as with Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis – is free of any denominational commitment. The first movement begins with consolation, and only later is the concept presented that everything is mortal. The third movement tries to find the goal of life amid the visible lack of meaning. The soul yearns for the Lord and finds consolation in the Lord. In this understanding, life on earth is truly a temporary station, and death cannot be triumphant. Therefore, it is the dead who are happy. The resonance of this work, with its humanism and freedom from denominational dogma, is reinforced by a quotation from the Revelation of St John, that it is man’s work and his art that make him immortal.