Brahms Requiem Program Notes

Johann Sebastian Bach

Komm süsser Tod, komm selge Ruh, BWV 478

(Come Sweet Death, Come Blessed Rest)

Arranged by Leopold Stokowski

J.S. Bach was born in Eisenach, Germany in 1685 and died in Leipzig in 1750. He likely composed this work in 1736 for inclusion in a Lutheran hymn book published that year. The original score contains just the melody, text, and figured bass. Leopold Stokowski made his arrangement of the work for full orchestra in 1946. The score of the arrangement calls for 3 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, bass clarinet, bassoon, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 4 trombones, tuba, timpani, harp, and strings.

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When Bach was Kapellmeister for all the Lutheran churches in Leipzig, he contributed some 69 sacred songs and arias for inclusion in a songbook called Musicalisches Gesangbuch, a collection of hymns tunes edited by Georg Schmelli. The songbook was a practical collection of sacred music intended for the Lutheran congregations in Leipzig. All of Bach’s contributions were hymns that would have been familiar to the city’s Lutherans, except for one: Komm süsser Tod.

It seems that Bach composed this original work for the occasion, basing it on a text by an unknown author. The text of the first verse reads, in English:

Come sweet death, come blessed rest!

Come lead me to peace,

For I am weary of the world.

O come! I wait for you,

Come soon and lead me,

Close my eyes.

Come, blessed rest!

Bach’s score for this text contains only two staves of music: the melody and a figured-bass line. Yet it is one of the most sublime things he ever composed.

A figured-bass line contains indications of what harmonies are intended to fill out the space between the two lines of music. In Bach’s day, while a singer sang the melody a keyboardist—probably an organist—would have inprovised that filling-out on the spot.

The sheer beauty and power of Bach’s Komm süsser Tod—along with the sparseness of its score—have inspired innumerable arrangements. Leopold Stokowski made his own arrangement in 1946, one of many big-orchestra renderings he made of Bach’s works.

Why do we play an inauthentic, high-cholesterol version of this work today? Well, it’s worth remembering that when Stokowski began making his arrangements of Bach in the 1920s, many concert-goers had never heard Bach performed. Stokowski’s versions of this work and others—widely disseminated through concerts, recordings, and radio broadcasts—helped to bring Bach out from the dusty old history books and back into the concert hall. Stokowski arranged this music because he loved it and wanted it heard, and he treated it with sensitivity and enthusiasm. Revisiting his arrangement reminds us that it’s the spirit that counts, not the instrumentation.

 

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Dan  Forrest

in paradisum . . .

Dan Forrest was born in Elmira, New York in 1978. He composed this work in 2008 on a commission from Bob Jones University for the annual commencement concert, where it was premiered by the BJU Symphonic Wind Band. The orchestral version was first performed by the Columbus Philharmonic Orchestra under the direction of David Bowden. The score calls for mixed chorus, 2 flutes, alto flute, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, harp, optional organ, and strings.

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Although Dan Forrest has composed instrumental, orchestral, and wind band works, he is best known for his sacred choral music. Forrest received his Bachelor’s and Master’s Degrees in piano performance from Bob Jones University in South Carolina and a Doctorate in composition from the University of Kansas. His composition teachers include Joan Pinkston, Dwight Gustafson, James Barnes, and Alice Parker. Forrest has been chairman of the department of music theory and composition at Bob Jones University, and is currently an associate editor at Beckenhorst Press and serves on the editorial board of The Artistic Theologian. He has received awards and distinctions such as the ASCAP Morton Gould Young Composers Award, the ACDA Raymond Brock Award, the ACLM Raabe Prize, a Meet the Composers grant, and many others.

Forrest writes the following about this work: “in paradisum . . . takes its title more from Scripture than from the liturgical “In Paradisum” Requiem movement. This setting uses a wide variety of Scriptural texts, which, though written thousands of years apart, all speak to mankind’s burning desire to glimpse the afterlife by revealing the compassionate character and precious promises of God to His people. The opening bars present massive chords in a highly animated texture; these ‘pillars’ not only represent the unshakeable truths that follow, but also serve as a musical basis from which most of the rest of the piece is constructed. The first main section sets ‘Precious in the sight of the Lord’ as well as ‘I go to prepare a place for you.’ A second section (which uses portions of Revelation) uses the flatted seventh scale degree (taken from the opening ‘pillar chords’) to symbolize sorrow, pain, and tears. This flatted seventh gives way, symbolically, to the raised seventh scale degree, picturing God’s tenderly ‘wiping away all tears.’ Eventually the ‘pillar chords’ return, this time setting the one occurrence of the phrase ‘in paradise’ from Scripture (Christ’s words from the cross to the dying thief) which provides a thrilling glimpse into eternity. Near the end of the piece, one more glimpse of the ‘tears’ idea appears, but it quickly (and again, symbolically) disappears into the settled rest of the closing section, which includes a ‘new song,’ calling from eternity ‘on high.’

 

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Johannes Brahms

Ein Deutsches Requiem, Op. 45

Johannes Brahms was born in Hamburg, Germany in 1833 and died in Vienna, Austria in 1897. Though he began his requiem in 1856, he used some material he had composed two years previously. He did not consider it finished until he composed what is now the fifth movement, in 1868. The first performance of the final, seven-movement work was given in Leipzig the following year. The score of Ein Deutsches Requiem calls for soprano and baritone soloists, chorus, 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, organ, harp, and strings.

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The word “requiem” comes from the first line of text of the Catholic Mass for the Dead: “Requiem aeternam dona eis domine” (“Grant them eternal rest, Lord”). The liturgy is primarily a plea from Man to God to accept the soul of the departed into Heaven, and it has been set to music many times. When the young Brahms decided to compose a requiem, prompted by the death of his friend and mentor Robert Schumann, he had a different idea: he would address neither the dead nor God, but the living.

Brahms avoided the text of the Catholic mass entirely, instead drawing from the Lutheran Bible words from the Psalms, Peter, James, Isaiah, John, Hebrews, Ecclesiasticus, Apocrypha, and Revelation. (Brahms was not an overtly religious man, but he read the Bible daily and knew just where to go for the words he wanted.)

Ein Deutsches Requiem had a long gestation period, even for Brahms. After Schumann’s death Brahms worked out the text and composed the music for a four-movement cantata, which then lay dormant for four years. The death of his mother returned him to his subject; her passing affected him deeply, especially since she died before he could arrive at her sickbed. He renewed his work, expanding the cantata into a requiem of six movements. After it was performed, however, Brahms was still dissatisfied. Soon after the premiere (and just after visiting his mother’s grave, it is said) he began what became the fifth movement, with soprano solo; the text is clearly a memorial to his mother. The seven-movement Ein Deutsches Requiem became instantly popular, and has remained so to this day.

Musically, the Requiem is of enormous breadth, subtle musicianship, and almost fanatical devotion to the text. The work opens with a somber tone, the highest instruments absent and violas and cellos divided. The chorus’ first words proclaim that this is a work for the living, not the dead: “Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted.” The first three notes contain a tiny motive that will appear many times, but most tellingly in the last movement.

The second movement begins as a slow march underlined by ominous timpani strokes. First the chorus whispers “For all flesh is as grass,” then it roars. When “Be patient, therefore, brethren” is reached, the clouds part and the music is drenched in light. The march returns, but this time the text continues with great affirmation, “But the word of the Lord endureth forever.” With the words “And the ransomed of the Lord,” the music becomes ecstatic.

In the third movement the baritone and the chorus speak of the shortness of life and the vanity of Man. After the question “And now, Lord, what is my hope?” the music slowly comes to a stop. The answer wells up from nothingness to fervent intensity: “My hope is in Thee.” The last word of that line becomes the downbeat of a colossal double-fugue (the orchestra has one, the chorus the other), with the words “The souls of the righteous are in the hands of God.” The entire fugue plays over a constant pedal-point on the note D, as if to signify an omnipresent, immutable force.

As befits its text (“How lovely are Thy dwelling places”), the fourth movement is innocent, happy, and flowing with faith. The fifth movement is the “afterthought” Brahms wrote for his mother. It is achingly tender, as Brahms gives us and himself the message “I will see you again, and your heart will rejoice.”

The mysteries to ponder in the sixth movement are accompanied by radical harmonic mysteries in the music. It is only when “The trumpet shall sound” that the music organizes itself, becoming defiant in “O Death, where is thy sting?” In one of the most miraculous transformations in music, a broad and glorious fugue ensues on “Thou art worthy, Lord, to receive glory.” Far from its mysterious opening, the movement ends as tonally-centered as can be.

A beatitude opened Ein Deutsches Requiem, and another closes it.  “Blessed are they that mourn” began a first movement full of doubt; “Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord” is the last movement’s affirmation of faith. The long journey from bereavement to consolation proceeds with a force of logic that is overpowering. Brahms had to compose the “extra” movement for his mother, for it gave the work its symmetry. The Requiem forms a great arch with “How lovely are Thy dwelling places” as its central, beatific keystone; the third and fifth movements, for the soloists, balance each other; the biggest movements come second and sixth;  and the last movement returns to the F major that began the first.

Some have suggested that what Brahms composed amounts to a “Protestant” Requiem, but the composer wasn’t thinking that way: he wrote a requiem for a different purpose, not a different church. The title, he said, merely indicates the language spoken: “As regards the title, I confess I should gladly have left out ‘German’ and substituted ‘Human.’”  He sought a universal response to Man’s universal problem, and as a believer he knew that a solution was not attainable on this earth. His goal was consolation—his own, and that of others. “Now I am consoled,” he wrote. “I have surmounted obstacles that I thought I could never overcome, and I feel like an eagle, soaring ever higher and higher.”

—Mark Rohr

Questions or comments?

markrohrprogramnotes@gmail.com

 

 

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