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Requiem for the Living

Brahms’s »A German Requiem« at the Elbphilharmonie – not a gloomy mass for the dead, but a work full of comfort, hope and faith.


  • Church music in remembrance of the dead
  • Originally part of the Roman Catholic liturgy
  • The name comes from the Latin: »Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine« (Give them eternal rest, o Lord)

Brahms’s »A German Requiem« is one of the most frequently-performed works in the classical repertoire. The 70-minute work, which doesn’t sound like a mass for the dead at all, was performed at the Elbphilharmonie on 11 March, with Dutch conductor Bernard Haitink directing the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and Choir.


Johannes Brahms was only 34 years old when he conducted his »German Requiem« for the first time on Good Friday 1868. Up to that point, his career as a composer had been arduous, but the new composition brought him renown throughout the German-speaking countries. To this day, the Brahms Requiem remains one of the best-loved works of classical music. Settings of the Mass for the Dead were not unusual in the 19th century, it’s true – but Brahms wrote one like nobody had ever heard before.


In music, a requiem is a mass for the dead, a piece of sacred music written in remembrance of the departed. The term comes from the Latin »Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine« (Give them eternal rest, o Lord), the opening line of the service for the dead in the Roman Catholic liturgy.

Thus the requiem was originally music for the Mass with fixed texts. But in the course of the 19th century, many requiems broke away from this purely sacred function. Both the texts and the musical forms gradually became freer, and the works were designed increasingly for concert performance rather than for a service of worship.


In Brahms’s work, the Latin word »requiem« doesn’t appear even once, and in other respects, too, the composer turns the traditional function of the genre upside down: instead of lamenting the departed, it comforts the living. So Brahms actually composed a »requiem of life«.

Johannes Brahms (approx. 1865)
Johannes Brahms (approx. 1865) © unbekannt/Wikimedia Commons


Brahms really wanted a conductor’s position in his native Hamburg, but his application was rejected and, disappointed, he moved to Vienna, where he performed Renaissance and Baroque music as the head of the city’s Singakademie.

But it could have turned out worse: as it happened, it was in the music of centuries long past that gave the composer inspiration for his Requiem: Heinrich Schütz, who died in 1672, had compiled a selection of passages from the Luther Bible for his »Musikalische Exequien«, itself written for use at funeral services. Brahms was inspired by Schütz to choose vivid descriptive passages from his old children’s Bible that moved him, and which he believed would offer solace to the bereaved.

Excerpt from Brahm's manuscript (5th movement: Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit)
Excerpt from Brahm's manuscript (5th movement: Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit) © Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek Hambur

»Wonderful, deeply moving and soothing.«

Clara Schumann über »Ein deutsches Requiem« / Clara Schumann on »A German Requiem«


Thus he set to work and composed the first two movements; but these then landed in his desk drawer for the time being. Only four years later, after the death of his mother in 1865, did Brahms apparently resume work on the Requiem, and he conducted the completed piece in Bremen Cathedral on Good Friday 1868 before a congregation of more than 2,000. The premiere was a huge success: many people are said to have wept as they heard the opening chorus.


In his Requiem Brahms takes the listener on a journey to the seven states of the human soul. The choir sings of the transitory nature of life at the outset, while the work closes with an expression of hope for eternal life. Throughout the score, the choir is in the limelight, with a higher share of the music than normal.

I. SELIG SIND, DIE DA LEID TRAGEN (Blessed are they who bear suffering)


  • One of the most important composers of the 19th century
  • Lived from 1833 to 1897
  • Born in Hamburg, later moving to Detmold and then Vienna
  • Wrote influential works in all musical genres apart from opera: four symphonies, concertos, chamber and piano music, oratorios, choral works (»A German Requiem«) and some 200 songs
  • Brahms evergreens:
Lullaby (Guten Abend, gut’ Nacht)
Hungarian Dance No. 5
Hungarian Dance No. 1

II. DENN ALLES FLEISCH, ES IST WIE GRAS (For all flesh, it is as grass)

The funeral march that makes up the second movement plays out to the monotonous rhythm of the timpani. Flesh, grass, flowers – with these vivid images, the low choral voices conjure up the finite nature of human existence.


III. HERR, LEHRE DOCH MICH (Lord, teach me)

The baritone soloist sings one special passage in the third movement:

Surely a man goes about as a shadow! Surely for nothing they are in turmoil; man heaps up wealth and does not know who will gather! (Psalm 39, vi)

Doesn’t this sound pretty relevant to our own time?

Brahms Factoids

  • The little word »die« is only heard once in the 70-minute score
  • Brahms only called it a »German« Requiem because the sung texts are in German instead of the usual Latin
  • Brahms didn’t compose the fifth part until after the first performance. The seven-part version that we know today was first performed in 1869.

IV. WIE LIEBLICH SIND DEINE WOHNUNGEN, HERR ZEBAOTH (How lovely are Thy dwellings, o Lord of Hosts!)

Flutes and women’s voices flirt in the fourth movement with the afterlife. The music seems to float in the air and lead directly to heaven.

VI. DENN WIR HABEN HIE KEINE BLEIBENDE STATT (For we have no lasting place)

The Requiem reaches its dramatic climax in the sixth movement. Here, Brahms uses the powerful image of the trombone from the Latin »Dies irae«, the Day of Wrath, the day of the Last Judgement. But in Brahms’s case, the brass instrument doesn’t sound the way to Purgatory, but mocks death instead: »Tod, wo ist dein Stachel? Hölle, wo ist dein Sieg?« (Death, where is thy sting? Hell, where is thy victory now?)



»Fully aware and deliberately«, Brahms used the neutral word »Lord« several times in the Requiem, but avoided the name »Christ« throughout. The director of music at Bremen Cathedral was apprehensive that the work wouldn’t seem sufficiently Christian in tone, and inserted an aria from Handel’s »Messiah« to mollify the clergy. But it soon became clear that the Brahms Requiem displays deep Christian faith, just not in the spirit of the established Church.

AND SO...?

Brahms’s unconventional Mass for the Dead is just as much at home in the concert hall as it is in church. As a philanthropist and free thinker, Brahms would undoubtedly have enjoyed hearing his Requiem performed at the Elbphilharmonie.

Text: Katja Tschirwitz