Brahms’ A German Requiem

Notes by TŌN violist Lucas Goodman

The Inspiration
Brahms began composing Ein Deutsches Requiem (A German Requiem) immediately following the death of his beloved mother, Christiane, in February of 1865. Another likely source of inspiration was Brahms’ ongoing grief for his late friend, Robert Schumann, the man who initially caused him to become famous and who tragically died in 1856 while institutionalized. After an initial premiere of a smaller version in December of 1867, Brahms revised A German Requiem into the more expansive version that is popular today. It is the longest work in his oeuvre, and the largest in terms of number of musicians.

A Different Requiem
Brahms’ Requiem is different from other traditional Requiem masses, such as those composed by Verdi, Mozart, Berlioz and Fauré, in a few notable ways. First, as the name implies, A German Requiem uses German instead of the traditional Latin text used by the composers mentioned above. Another major difference is that Brahms, who himself was a Protestant, took his own selections of text from the Lutheran Bible as the libretto for his Requiem, as opposed to the Catholic tradition typically associated with the Requiem Mass. Along with this difference comes a difference in the focus of the text itself, which omits references to Jesus Christ and other facets of the Christian faith—a fact which was pointed out to him by the conductor of the premiere. Brahms opted to compose what he would describe as a “Requiem of Mankind” in his response to the conductor. Brahms also chose to focus his work not on the dead but on the living, in an attempt to offer comfort to all listeners.