A Composer’s Unique Take on Life and Death

Rebecca Bailey

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) revealed his deepest feelings about life and death in his “German Requiem” (Ein Deutsches Requiem, Op. 45). Written over about 10 years starting in his 20s—a period that encompassed the deaths of two people especially important to Brahms—the work doesn’t use the traditional Latin mass, but instead sets Brahms’s own selected text from the Lutheran bible, in German. Perhaps this personal connection to the text is one reason the Requiem is so profound and beautiful, painting a broad, detailed emotional canvas with splendid vocal and the symphonic writing.

Judge for yourself when the Handel Society of Dartmouth College performs this work on Tuesday, November 13, 7 pm, in Spaulding Auditorium. The 100-member chorus—America’s oldest town-gown choral society and a melting pot of Dartmouth students and people from throughout the Upper Valley—is joined by an orchestra and guest soloists Deborah Selig, soprano, and Sumner Thompson, bass.

Music historians say Brahms was only in his 20s when he began to consider the groundbreaking step of composing a Requiem, or mass for dead, based not on the traditional Latin Requiem mass text but on Biblical texts that spoke more to his own personal beliefs. The idea began to take shape in his mind in 1857, a year after the death of his friend and mentor, Robert Schumann. But it wasn’t for another eight years, following the death of his mother, that he took up completed the bulk of the work, adding other movements to it over the next four years.

Brahms himself chose the text, using the German Lutheran Bible that he, a Protestant northerner, grew up with. Unlike the traditional Requiem text, a German Requiem doesn’t directly allude to an afterlife.  Instead, through careful choosing of text, Brahms creates a monumental work that consoles the living, starting with an opening movement that gently intones, “Selig sind, die da Leid tragen” (Blessed are they that mourn).

By 1869, the work stood complete as a seven-movement Requiem for chorus, soloists and orchestra. In the process, it became the central work of Brahms’ career, the one that established him as a composer of major stature and linked two of the most important spheres of his lifelong musical endeavor, the vocal and the symphonic.

The soloists for Tuesday’s performance both come with substantial credits and commendations. Based in Boston, Selig performs repertoire spanning the baroque to contemporary in opera, oratorio and art song across the United States. Along with teaching the voice faculties of Wellesley College, Brown University, and the summer Boston University Tanglewood Institute, she maintains a busy concert schedule that in this season includes Beethoven’s 9th Symphony with the Buffalo Philharmonic; Brahms’ Liebeslieder Waltzes benefitting “Music for Food” at the New England Conservatory; a song recital Angel Spirits: Music of World War One  for the Jamestown (NY) Concert Association and Harvard University. Thompson is in demand on the concert and opera stage across North America and Europe, appearing as a soloist with such leading ensembles as the Britten-Pears Orchestra, the National Symphony, the Boston Early Music Festival, and Les Boreades de Montreal. He can be heard on the Boston Early Music Festival’s Grammy nominated recording of Lully’s Psyché (CPO label).