Of all the composers whose music I enjoy, none seems to fit into the ‘Marmite’ category quite so well as the German, Johannes Brahms (1833-1897). I wonder if this is some strange reflection of the way he was received in his own lifetime: it is astonishing how vilified he was by so many composers whose lives crossed with him at some point. As far as I can see, only two contemporary musicians had any time for him, Robert and Clara Schumann, whose music will definitely be the subject of a future post; but Tchaikovsky was not alone in thinking him a ‘scoundrel’ – and a ‘giftless bastard’ to boot. (I beg to differ with his adjective, and his noun is factually incorrect.) Liszt, Bruckner, Berlioz, Wolf were all at odds with him, as, notably, was Richard Wagner. All of them resented his determination to hold on and advance the legacy of the Baroque and Classical masters, such as Bach and Beethoven, rather than push on into pastures new and avenues more adventurous. Happily he now has enough supporters to ensure that his music is widely played, even if it continues to divide opinion.
It is why I’ve always been amused by the irony that my father’s favourite composer was Wagner, while his favourite piece of music was Brahms’s ‘Ein Deutsches Requiem’. He would often say to us that, on his demise, he would be greatly comforted in knowing that he’d arrived at the right place, if the first sounds he heard were that of the heavenly hosts greeting him with this piece. And so a year after that sad day, I want to share with you a movement from this Requiem, which was a smash hit when it was first performed in 1868, guaranteeing Brahms financial security for the rest of his life. When people hear the word ‘Requiem’, many instinctively (and reasonably) think of Faure, Mozart and Verdi, all ‘big hit’ numbers. Brahms’s, not written for the repose of the dead in the traditional Christian Latin, but in German with words from the Lutheran text, is a piece for the living, opening with the lines ‘Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted.’
At over an hour long, I cannot hope to keep your attention with all of it. But I haven’t shared any choral music with you yet, and I hope this will encourage you to listen to the rest of it another time, because it is has some ethereal melodies and dramatic moments. The movement here is ‘Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen’ (‘How lovely are thy dwellings ‘). It speaks of how ‘my soul requires and yearns for the courts of the Lord’. I mention this because you can really detect that longing in this recording, a tension which gives way to the calm and joyful knowledge of what those courts will promise. Semyon Bychkov, the conductor, extracts wonderful diction, while never losing control of a beautiful mingling of voices, both with eachother and the orchestra. I saw him conduct Verdi’s Requiem at the Albert Hall a few years ago, and it must have been a full thirty or forty seconds before anyone dared to applaud at the end.
You will have surmised that I am a Brahms fan. If you aren’t, I am unlikely to convert you; but if you are new to his music, I hope you will warm to its heavenly and romantic nature. I have my father to thank for introducing it to me, in whose memory I make this post today.