An elegy to remember

Published in Al Ahram Weekly

“Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.” (Matthew 5:4) is the opening line sung by the choir in Johannes Brahms’ Ein deutsches Requiem. Unlike Requiems by Brahms’ predecessors, who created the Requiem masses, prayers for the dead, Ein deutsches Requiem (German Requiem ) is a consolation for a living human being intended to help him deal with and accept death. The libretto is based on Psalms, Revelations, John, Peter, James etc. from Martin Luther’s German vernacular translation of the Bible. The text does not make direct referrals to Christ and Christian dogma, as obviously the composer did not want to follow any specific liturgical customs or traditions. Thus Brahms’ Requiem cannot be counted as a religious testimony per se; its thematic beauty emerges rather from its encounter with humanity. At the same time, Requiem speaks to the living instead of mourning the dead.

Requiem steps past Christianity, past the Church. For humanists, Brahms transcends religion; for musicologists, the wealth in his work is exceptional. Historians have read too much into the “German” of the title, arguing about the political backgrounds to Brahms’ work. It is definitely better to read a musician’s work in the light of the historical context, but it is less ideology than a general understanding of the transformations besetting the 19thcentury that informs Brahms’ music. In 1867, he wrote to Karl Reinthaler: “as far as the text is concerned, I confess that I would very gladly omit the ‘German’ and simply put ‘Human’.” Yet those words have not put an end to debates about the message of the Requiem over the last 150 years; no less than the music, they have fed thinking about the piece, its context, and its message of Universality. According to Minear in Theology Today (July 1965), “[Brahms] told a friend that the Requiem takes for granted an unshakeable confidence, but … this confidence does not eradicate the sorrow, the uncertainty, the doubts, the losses, which beset believer and unbeliever alike.”

Ein deutsches Requiem is Brahms’ magnum opus and one of the most substantial choral and orchestral works of all times. Requiem immediately brought the composer into the limelight, a big privilege for his rather young age (he was only 34 when in 1867 Requiem was first performed in its first six-movement form; as of 1869 it became seven movements). Critical approaches have pointed out Brahms’ unprecedented compositional technique, immediately granted the composer the third and last spot at the Big B podium, behind which J.S. Bach and Beethoven already stood.

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On 13 Feb, the Cairo Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Nayer Nagui, and the A CappellaChoir with Maya Gvinera as Choir Master, took on the challenge of presenting this monumental work to the Egyptian audience. And throughout all seven movements, the work maintained a steady flow with the choir adding much needed perspective to the sound of the orchestra. Nagui has a profound experience with choir works and Brahms’ Requiem served as excellent material to demonstrate his abilities. Nagui’s baton managed to transfer much of Brahms’ musical wealth, shaping the whole piece into a superb, emotionally and intellectually engaging experience.

The conductor utilized all the technical assets of the A CappellaChoir whose excellent preparation for this demanding concert cannot pass unnoticed. “Selig sind” (“Blessed are”) opened the concert with velvet smoothness in its muted tones. During the seven movements sopranos and tenors especially provided many captivating sonic nuances. Choir shades joined the orchestra which at times offered its full sweep and at other times made distinctive details shine. abundance of woodwinds was skillfully met especially by flutes and clarinets. Meditative darker strings colored several parts of the Requiem, while the harps’ lines were both elegant and accurate.

In Brahms’ Requiem, both solo parts, soprano and baritone, need vocally and musically advanced singers. Soprano only sings in the fifth movement, added by Brahms in memory of his own mother. Dalia Farouk as a glowing soprano and for her charming stage presence, and she successfully met many of Brahms’ expectations. Her technical excellence is unquestionable; her high tessitura is crystal clear. She was obviously comfortable in many long phrasings. In “und habe groÏen Trost funden” (and have gotten unto me much rest) she made a powerful lyrical impact. “Ich will euch træsten, wie einen seine Mutter træstet” (As one whom his mother comforts, so will I comfort you – Isaiah 66:13), continued Farouk. In addition to technical readiness, Requiem demands a significant dosage of emotional maturity and artistic intelligence and Farouk does not lack for either; she had all the maternal warmth and vitality required.

The baritone solos form part of two movements: III and VI. Their role is striking different from that of the soprano; instead of consolation, they bespeak grief and desperation. David Wakeham, the British baritone with an international reputation, reveals the truth of an unavoidable end to every life. The passage starting with “In Siehe, ich sage euch ein Geheimnis” (Behold, I show you a mystery – Corinthians 15:51) in the fourth movement has a declamatory character. Here Wakeham’s ringing timbre with a good dose of a dramatic intensity resulted in the ideal formula for Requiem ‘s core thematic realization. “Der Tod ist verschlungen in den Sieg!” (“Death is swallowed in victory!” – Isaiah 25:8), with a trumpet call and Wakeham’s intelligent phrasing and good intonation, poignantly underlined victory of life over death.

In spite of several dramatic accents, Brahms’ Requiem is consoling. A number of lyrical melodies are drawn against various harsher colors. Its contents, structure, thematic and musical elements are a delightful challenge for both emotions and intellect. “Blessed are the dead, who die in the Lord, from henceforth.” (Rev. 14:13) is heard from the choir in last Requiem lines. Though it speaks to those who died, it can be read as a consolation for those who live. For an attentive audience the ending of such a piece should either provoke a moment of silence where the mind has a chance to recapture the earthy reality or immediate ovations. The Egyptian audience was moved to the latter option, applauding well deserved effort and artistic excellence.

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