Brahms’ German Requiem

For many years Brahms had been preoccupied with the idea of composing a Requiem, but only in 1866, when he was 33, did he begin serious work on it. It was completed the following year with the exception of the fifth movement, which he added later in order to achieve a more balanced structure. In its incomplete form Ein Deutsches Requiem was first heard in Bremen Cathedral on Good Friday 1868. The final version was performed the following year at Leipzig’s famous concert-hall, the Gewandhaus.

Brahms may have written the Requiem in memory of his mother, who died in 1865; it is equally possible that he had in mind his great friend and mentor, Robert Schumann, whose madness and tragic death had profoundly affected the young Brahms. The composer himself gave no indication of whose memorial the Requiem might be, if indeed it was any one person’s. As with all great music, the universal message of its vision transcends the circumstances of its conception.

The work’s title reflects Brahms’ use of the Lutheran Bible rather than the customary Latin one. He compiled the text himself from both Old and New Testaments, and from the Apocrypha. It has little in common with the conventional Requiem Mass, and omits the horrors of the Last Judgement – a central feature of the Catholic liturgy – and any final plea for mercy or prayers for the dead. It also makes only a passing reference in the last movement to Christian redemption through the death of Jesus. Not surprisingly, the title of “Requiem” has at times been called into question, but Brahms stated intention was to write a Requiem to comfort the living, not one for the souls of the dead. Consequently the work focuses on faith in the Resurrection rather than fear of the Day of Judgement. Despite its unorthodox text, the German Requiem was immediately recognised as a masterpiece of exceptional vision, and it finally confirmed Brahms’ reputation as a composer of international stature.

1. Blessed are they that mourn

2. Behold, all flesh is as the grass

3. Lord, let me know mine end

4. How lovely are thy dwellings

5. Ye now have sorrow

6. For we have here no abiding city

7. Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord

The similarity of the opening and closing movements serves to unify the whole work, while the funeral-march of the second is balanced by the triumphant theme of the resurrection in the towering sixth movement. Similarly, the baritone solo in the third, ‘Lord, let me know mine end’, is paralleled in the fifth by the soprano solo, ‘Ye now have sorrow’. The lyrical fourth section, ‘How lovely are thy dwellings’, is therefore at the heart of the work, framed by the solemnity of the first three movements and the transition from grief to the certainty of comfort in the last three.

This carefully balanced architecture is matched by an equally firm musical structure based on two principal ideas which Brahms skilfully uses in a variety of subtle guises throughout the work. The most important of these occurs at the opening choral entry and consists of the first three notes sung by the sopranos to the words ‘Bless-ed they’. Brahms uses this musical cell as the main building block of the whole piece, subjecting it to a variety of transformations, including upside-down and back-to-front versions, both of which play as significant a role as the original form. The other important musical idea is a chorale-like melody played by the violas at the very beginning. Its most obvious re-appearance is in the second movement, now in a minor key, as an expansive melody sung by the choir in unison. Brahms had recently discovered the cantatas of J.S.Bach, and there seems little doubt that this theme was derived from a very similar chorale melody in Bach’s Cantata No.27.

The opening movement, the text of which is one of the beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount, begins in hushed and sombre mood, reflected in the orchestration by the temporary absence of the violins. As the music proceeds, however, mourning is transformed into comfort.

The second movement, in the dark key of B flat minor, is centred on the heavy rhythms of a funeral-march, with the chorus proclaiming the inevitability of man’s fate, ‘Behold, all flesh is as the grass’. A lighter central episode provides some brief respite before the funeral-march returns. Eventually, at ‘But yet the Lord’s word standeth for ever’, an energetic allegro emerges, once more transfiguring darkness into light and leading to a glorious conclusion.

In the third movement, the baritone soloist and chorus begin by pondering the transience of human existence. The soloist then asks ‘In what shall I hope?’ and the reply, ‘My hope is in thee’, wells up from the depths in a rising crescendo of affirmation. This leads seamlessly into a broad, imposing fugue, remarkable for its omnipresent pedal D which, whilst creating considerable tension during the fugue itself, also provides an unshakable foundation for the final resolution.

After the intensity of the first three movements, the pivotal fourth – a serene pastorale – provides the opportunity for contemplation and rest. This is music of exceptional beauty, and it is hardly surprising that this movement is so widely known and loved.

The fifth movement features a sublime soprano solo accompanied by woodwind, horns and muted strings. The chorus, too, plays an accompanying role. Whereas the baritone soloist in the third movement sung of grief and doubt, the soprano’s message here is one of maternal consolation.

Brahms reserves his most dramatic music for the imposing sixth movement. It begins in reflective mood, but soon the baritone soloist introduces the familiar verses ‘We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed …… at the sound of the last trumpet’, at which point the music explodes into a blaze of sound and energy. The intensity builds up until ‘Death, where is thy sting?’ where a majestic fugue ensues. In the middle of this fugue two fortissimo climaxes grow out of an exhilarating orchestral Jacob’s ladder that reaches up to heaven as it passes from the bass instruments right up to the flutes and violins. The movement ends with a final powerful statement.

The last movement begins with a radiant melody from the sopranos, followed by the basses. The moving final section is a subtle reworking of music from the very opening, and the Requiem reaches its peaceful conclusion at the same word with which it began: ‘Blessed’.

John Bawden

German Requiem Texts


1. Selig sind, die da Leid tragen,
denn sie sollen getröstet werden.
Die mit Tränen säen,
werden mit Freuden ernten.
Sie gehen hin und weinen
und tragen edlen Samen,
und kommen mit Freuden
und bringen ihre Garben
Blessed are they that mourn,
for they shall be comforted.
They who sow in tears,
shall reap in joy.
Go forth and cry,
bearing precious seed,
and come with joy
bearing their sheaves
2. Denn alles Fleisch ist wie Gras
und alle Herrlichkeit des Menschen
wie des Grases Blumen.
Das Gras ist verdorret
und die Blume abgefallen.So seid nun geduldig, lieben Brüder,
bis auf die Zukunft des Herrn.
Siehe, ein Ackermann wartet
auf die köstliche Frucht der Erde
und ist geduldig darüber, bis er empfahe
den Morgenregen und Abendregen.Aber des Herrn Wort bleibet in Ewigkeit.Die Erlöseten des Herrn werden wieder kommen,
und gen Zion kommen mit Jauchzen;
ewige Freude wird über ihrem Haupte sein;
Freude und Wonne werden sie ergreifen
und Schmerz und Seufzen wird weg müssen

For all flesh is as grass,
and the glory of man
like flowers.
The grass withers
and the flower falls.Therefore be patient, dear brothers,
for the coming of the Lord.
Behold, the husbandman waits
for the delicious fruits of the earth
and is patient for it, until he receives
the morning rain and evening rain.But the word of the Lord endures for eternity.The redeemed of the Lord will come again,
and come to Zion with a shout;
eternal joy shall be upon her head;
They shall take joy and gladness,
and sorrow and sighing must depart


3. Herr, lehre doch mich,
daß ein Ende mit mir haben muß,
und mein Leben ein Ziel hat,
und ich davon muß.Siehe, meine Tage sind
einer Hand breit vor dir,
und mein Leben ist wie nichts vor dir.
Ach wie gar nichts sind alle Menschen,
die doch so sicher leben.Sie gehen daher wie ein Schemen,
und machen ihnen viel vergebliche Unruhe;
sie sammeln und wissen nicht
wer es kriegen wird.
Nun Herr, wess soll ich mich trösten?
Ich hoffe auf dich.Der Gerechten Seelen sind in Gottes Hand
und keine Qual rühret sie an
Lord, teach me
That I must have an end,
And my life has a purpose,
and I must accept this.Behold, my days are
as a handbreadth before Thee,
and my life is as nothing before Thee.
Alas, as nothing are all men,
but so sure the living.They are therefore like a shadow,
and go about vainly in disquiet;
they collect riches, and do not know
who will receive them.
Now, Lord, how can I console myself?
My hope is in Thee.The righteous souls are in God’s hand
and no torment shall stir them

4.Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen,
Herr Zebaoth!
Meine Seele verlanget und sehnet sich
nach den Vorhöfen des Herrn;
mein Leib und Seele freuen sich
in dem lebendigen Gott.Wohl denen, die in deinem Hause wohnen,
die loben dich immerdar



How lovely are thy dwelling places,
O Lord of Hosts!
My soul requires and yearns for
the courts of the Lord;
My body and soul rejoice
in the living God.Blessed are they that dwell in thy house;
they praise you forever


5. Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit;
aber ich will euch wieder sehen
und euer Herz soll sich freuen
und eure Freude soll niemand von euch nehmen.Sehet mich an:
Ich habe eine kleine Zeit Mühe und Arbeit gehabt
und habe großen Trost funden.Ich will euch trösten,
wie Einen seine Mutter tröstet
You now have sorrow;
but I shall see you again
and your heart shall rejoice
and your joy no one shall take from you.Behold me:
I have had for a little time toil and torment,
and now have found great consolation.I will console you,
as one is consoled by his mother

6. Denn wir haben hie keine bleibende Statt,
sondern die zukünftige suchen wir.Siehe, ich sage euch ein Geheimnis:
Wir werden nicht alle entschlafen,
wir werden aber alle verwandelt werden;
und dasselbige plötzlich, in einem Augenblick,
zu der Zeit der letzten Posaune.
Denn es wird die Posaune schallen,
und die Toten werden auferstehen unverweslich,
und wir werden verwandelt werden.
Dann wird erfüllet werden
das Wort, das geschrieben steht:
Der Tod ist verschlungen in den Sieg.
Tod, wo ist dein Stachel?
Hölle, wo ist dein Sieg?Herr, du bist würdig zu nehmen
Preis und Ehre und Kraft,
denn du hast alle Dinge geschaffen,
und durch deinen Willen haben sie
das Wesen und sind geschaffen



For we have here no continuing city,
but we seek the future.Behold, I show you a mystery:
We shall not all sleep,
but we all shall be changed
and suddenly, in a moment,
at the sound of the last trombone.
For the trombone shall sound,
and the dead shall be raised incorruptible,
and we shall be changed.
Then shall be fulfilled
The word that is written:
Death is swallowed up in victory.
O Death, where is thy sting?
O Hell, where is thy victory?Lord, Thou art worthy to receive all
praise, honor, and glory,
for Thou hast created all things,
and through Thy will
they have been and are created


7. Selig sind die Toten,
die in dem Herrn sterben,
von nun anJa der Geist spricht,
daß sie ruhen von ihrer Arbeit;
denn ihre Werke folgen ihnen nach
Blessed are the dead
that die in the Lord
from henceforthYea, saith the spirit,
that they rest from their labors,
and their works shall follow them

An Announcement from Music Director Eric Paetkau

It’s hard to believe that I’m enjoying my seventh season as Music Director of the SSO. I’ve had so many unforgettable experiences and memorable moments over the years. Not only has the organization as a whole been incredible (the musicians, Mark Turner and the whole staff, the Board) but the welcome and warmth Karen and I received from the audience, the city, and the community has been special. And that’s why it’s not easy to say that I’ve decided to move on from the SSO at the end of this season and hand over the musical reins of this wonderful orchestra

Eric Paetkau conducting. I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished as an organization over the years and how we’ve been an innovative force in the Canadian music scene. Some highlights have been the many Saskatchewan and Canadian musicians and music we’ve featured, our growing presence in the community, and simply daring to try new things and making them work. Part of this is creative momentum and I strongly believe new ideas and fresh perspectives are paramount to artistic growth. That’s why I’m very excited in passing the torch to new musical leaders and seeing how they contribute to the future of the SSO.

We’ve already been seeing fresh faces on the podium in the last year and I’m delighted to see many more this coming season. I’m making this announcement now to ensure a smooth transition and for everyone (orchestra, audience, and community) to experience what great things are in store for the orchestra moving forward. Thanks to all of the hard work from everyone involved, the SSO is in a prime position for an exciting future.

But I’m not done yet!  I’m excited for the Brahms Requiem this month and then officially saying goodbye in May. I look forward to my last season and continuing to experience not only this great orchestra but the wonderful city of Saskatoon and its incredibly warm and inviting people.

Thank you Saskatoon and see you soon!
Eric Paetkau