Johannes Brahms, the composition and performance of the German Requiem was a highly personal undertaking. Brahms had been highly distressed by the breakup of his parents. Tension over money, exacerbated by the great difference in age—his mother was 17 years older than his father—led Johann Jakob to leave his elderly wife in 1864. Although Brahms maintained a cordial relationship to his father, he had always been incredibly devoted to his mother. As such, when his mother died in February 1865, Brahms was profoundly shaken. The “Requiem” begun soon thereafter, was a highly personal undertaking of coming to terms with his loss and concordantly a way of calibrating his spiritual compass. By the end of April 1865, Brahms had completed the first, second, and fourth movements. The second movement, significantly, contains musical material written in 1854, the year of Schumann’s collapse and attempted suicide. All but what is now the fifth movement was completed by August 1866, and Johann von Herbeck conducted the first three movements in Vienna on 1 December 1867.For
Brahms had compiled the text—devoid of any obvious reference to the redemption of Christ—by juxtaposing fragments from various parts of the Lutheran bible. It was never meant to be a theological statement, but an expression of Brahms’s religious identity. The theologian Carl Martin Reinthaler, who trained the choir for the Good Friday 1868 performance in Bremen, was highly critical of the text. In order to appease Reinthaler and the Bremen clergy, Brahms agreed to insert the aria “I know that my redeemer liveth,” from Handel’s Messiah. In May 1868 Brahms composed an additional movement, which became the fifth movement in the final work. Scored for soprano, soloist and choir, “Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit” was first heard in Zürich on 12 September 1868. 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 Krückl. The work received critical acclaim throughout central Europe, England and Russia, and it firmly established Brahms as a major composer.
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