Editor’s note: Judith Reynolds is singing in the combined chorus of 122 singers drawn from Durango, Farmington, Telluride and Fort Lewis College. By Judith Reynolds
Special to the Herald
The San Juan Symphony, regional choirs and soloists have joined forces to present A German Requiem by Johannes Brahms in Durango and Farmington. Offering this beautiful and enormously comforting masterpiece couldn’t come at a better time.
Brahms’ non-traditional interpretation of the Latin Mass for the Dead may just alleviate campaign fatigue, election anxiety and our general cultural malaise.
On Saturday evening, conductor Thomas Heuser will lead a veritable phalanx of musicians in Durango’s Community Concert Hall at Fort Lewis College to perform without intermission one of the great works of symphonic and choral literature. Sunday afternoon in the Farmington’s Henderson Performance Hall, Heuser and company will repeat the concert.
“When planning my first season,” Thomas Heuser said in a recent interview, “a large-scale choral collaboration was a high priority, both because of the emotional impact of the music but also because our communities have such dedicated singers and talented choirs.
“The Brahms itself has an incredibly special place in my appreciation of music. My love of the music is rooted in my memories of past performances as a singer and conductor. What’s more, this is not just an ordinary Requiem Mass. The German Requiem speaks to all mankind, everyone from every religion. Brahms meant for that to be the case.”
Brahms’ Requiem is sung in German, not Latin. The composer chose the texts from Martin Luther’s translation of the Old and New Testaments. Thematically, Brahms emphasized coming to terms with death and acceptance – not judgment and repentance.
Although the composer wrote no formal dedication, two significant losses in the 11 years he worked on the Requiem have been cited as important. He began composing in 1857, a year after his mentor, friend and musical father, Robert Schumann, died in tragic circumstances. As a tribute, Brahms started a symphonic composition, but he never completed it. Some material found its way into his D minor piano concerto and also the second movement of the Requiem, “Behold all flesh is as the grass.”
In 1865, Brahms’ mother, Johanna, died. Her death apparently spurred Brahms to complete the Requiem. Part Five, featuring a very high, delicate soprano solo, is thought to express reverence for motherly tenderness.
Born in 1833, Brahms grew up in a Hamburg slum. The family of five struggled, headed by a gruff, argumentative father, a musician who played a variety of instruments and made a living working part time in beer halls, restaurants and the local opera orchestra. Brahms’ mother augmented the family’s irregular income as a seamstress.
Brahms showed early musical ability and followed his father’s path of earning money by playing piano in bars and special occasions. Eventually, he concentrated on composition, and his ascent as a successor to Beethoven is a remarkable story, capped along the way at age 36 when he conducted the first full performance of his requiem on Feb. 18, 1869, in Leipzig.
The seven-part Requiem begins with a quiet and contemplative iteration from Matthew 5:4: “Blessed are they that mourn for they shall have comfort.”
The work is not without struggle or tension. But unlike the Latin Mass for the Dead, A German Requiem has no Dies irae, Day of Wrath.
“Brahms does create musical depictions of such biblical themes as the Last Judgment,” Heuser said, “but overall the message of the work and its texts coalesce around the universal importance of loving God, of loving our fellow man and looking past the duration of our own lives towards whatever redemption we find in our faith.”
The composer allegedly said his Requiem could be called “a human requiem.” Its ecumenical spirit and overall tone of warmth doesn’t preclude strong emotion, rigorous challenge or sadness. But it overwhelmingly drives toward acceptance and reaffirmation.
“My hope for the audience,” Heuser said, “is to come away rejoicing in the power of music to lift our spirits and inspire us to love each other – which is a pretty lofty goal. But if any piece of music can do that, it is the Brahms’ German Requiem.”
Judith Reynolds is an arts journalist and member of the American Theater Critics Association.