Brahms Requiem

“Seasons of Life”

Brahms: Requiem
Jonathan Dove: The Passing of the Year

Saturday 21 March 2015
St George's, Bristol

Christopher Finch - Conductor
Meeta Raval - Soprano
Gerard Collett - Baritone
Nigel Nash, Claire Alsop - Pianos

Concert Order

(Scroll down or click a composer's name to view programme notes...)

Brahms A German Requiem
Jonathan Dove The Passing of the Year

Programme Notes

Ein Deutsches Requiem, Opus 45 - Johannes Brahms (1833 - 1897)

For some years Brahms had been considering various ideas for a Requiem, but it was not until 1866, when he was 33, that he began work on it seriously. 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 Deutches 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, Ein Deutsches Requiem was immediately recognised as a masterpiece of exceptional vision, and it finally confirmed Brahms' reputation as a composer of international stature.

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, ‘Herr, lehre doh mich’, is paralleled in the fifth by the soprano solo, ‘Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit’. The lyrical fourth section, ‘Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen’, 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 skillfully 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 ‘Selig sind’. 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 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. 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, ‘Denn alles Fleisch es ist wie Gras’ ‘(Behold, all flesh is as the grass)&resquo;. A lighter central episode provides some brief respite before the funeral-march returns. Eventually, at ‘Aber des Herrn Wort bleibet’ ‘(But yet the Lord's word endures)’, 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 ‘Nun Herr, wess soll ich mich troüsten?’ ‘(Now, Lord what do I wait for?)’ and the reply, ‘Ich hoffe auf dich’ (‘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 in which the chorus 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 ‘Wir werden nicht alle entschlafen, wir werden aber alle verwandelt werden ......zu der Zeit der letzten Posaune’ (‘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 ‘Tod, wo ist dein Sieg?’ (‘Death, where is thy victory?’) where a majestic fugue ensues. 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: ‘Selig’ (‘Blessed’).

© John Bawden

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The Passing of the Year - Jonathan Dove (born 1959)
Song cycle for double chorus and two pianos

Jonathan Dove's The Passing of the Year was commissioned, in its original form with piano accompaniment, by the London Symphony Chorus, which gave the first performance in March 2000. A version with two pianos and four percussionists was commissioned by Dove's publisher Edition Peters for the celebrations of the bicentenary of the founding of the firm in 1800. This performance was accompanied by two pianos. The score is testimony to the composer's gift for singable, fresh-sounding choral writing, and also to his flair for selecting and setting texts.

The seven poems Dove has chosen from various periods of English and American literature are arranged in three ‘movements’ corresponding to three stages in the cycle of the seasons. The first anticipates the arrival of summer. The words ‘O Earth, O Earth, return!’, from the Introduction to William Blake's Songs of Experience, are set in chordal declamation over continuous two-against-three rhythmic patterns. The ‘lusty song of fruits and flowers’ within Blake's To Autumn is set in drifting choral textures, penetrated by ringing crystalline interjections, and in the luminous central section is subtly infiltrated by the 13th-century round Summer is icumen in. The breathless questions and answers of Emily Dickinson's Answer July treated in rapid-fire exchanges between the two choruses, suggest, as Dove says in his own programme note, ‘the excitement of everything bursting into life and summer's triumphant arrival’.

The second movement marks the passing of summer. The drowsy atmosphere of Bathsheba's song as she bathes, from George Peele's Biblical drama The Love of King David and fair Bethsabe, is conveyed by shimmering piano figuration and the blurring together of phrases freely repeated on a single note by each singer in a section. The address to the sunflower searching for repose, in one of Blake's Songs of Experience, is set to a simple melody for all the male voices, which breaks into a canon for the two choirs and then acquires a wordless descant for the female voices, accompanied throughout by two alternating chords. The lines of a dying victim of the plague from Thomas Nashe's play Summer's Last Will and Testament are shared between the two choirs, with the prayer ‘Lord, have mercy on us’ as a constantly recurring refrain.

The final movement moves on to mid-winter and specifically to the turn of the year. An a capella reminiscence of the opening ‘Invocation’ leads into a setting of lines from Alfred, Lord Tennyson's In Memoriam, an extended elegy for the poet's friend Arthur Hallam. The bells ringing in the New Year, represented in the vocal parts as well as by the pianos, sound a note of optimism for a new beginning.

© Anthony Burton 2014

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Claire Alsop Claire Alsop was born in Durham where she had organ lessons with James Lancelot at Durham Cathedral. She then studied music at Bristol University, during which time she was organ scholar at Bristol Cathedral, and had lessons with David Briggs at Gloucester Cathedral. On graduating, Claire was appointed organist of Cheltenham Ladies College, where she worked until 2001, and she was also accompanist to the Cheltenham Bach Choir under Stephen Jackson.

In 2003 she spent a term as acting director of music at St Mary Redcliffe Church in Bristol. She gained the FRCO diploma in 2006, winning the Turpin prize. Claire is assistant organist at St Mary Redcliffe church, together with her husband Graham. As a freelance musician she enjoys a range of music making including teaching, examining for ABRSM, accompanying and solo work, and has broadcast live on both Radio 3 and BBC1. She enjoys keeping animals, and her menagerie includes chickens, tortoises and four children.

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