The German Requiem, premiered 150 years ago at Bremen Cathedral was therefore a highly personal undertaking of coming to terms with his loss and concordantly a way of calibrating his spiritual compass. Clearly, the work does not function in a liturgical sense, but rather represents a meditation upon death pieced together by juxtaposing fragments from various parts of the Lutheran bible. The fragmentary nature of the text, missing any obvious reference to the redemption of Christ, did not sit well with critics and clerics alike.
For the first performance on Good Friday 1868, Brahms eventually agreed that the aria “I know that my redeemer liveth” from Handels’ Messiah would be inserted between the third movement and intermission. This first performance only featured six movements, and Brahms eventually decided to add one more—this became the 5th movement in the finished order—which openly references motherly love, and therefore more readily acknowledges the emotional source of the work. The finished text is shaped by a gradual shift of focus from the subjective experiences of the living to the beatific state of the dead and the promise of their eventual resurrection. Brahms told his close friend Karl Reinthaler, a theologian and director of music at Bremen Cathedral, that the word “German” in the title primarily referred to the language rather than an intended audience. And Brahms was happy to call the work “A Requiem for humanity,” a sentiment organically reflected in his extraordinary textual choices and multidimensional musical setting.
Johannes Brahms: German Requiem