Friday, April 28, 2006

Ein Deutsches Requiem

Blessed are they that mourn:
for they shall be comforted.
Matthew 5:4

They that sow in tears
shall reap in joy.
He that goeth forth and weepeth,
bearing precious seed,
shall doubtless come again with rejoicing
bringing his sheaves with him.
Psalm 126:

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity, for the first time, to play in a perfomance of Johannes Brahms' Ein Deutsches Requiem. Brahms is probably my favorite composer, and if I were asked the question, "What do you think is the greatest piece of music ever written?" it would be difficult to answer, but I suppose this would be near the top of the list. A requiem is a mass service for the dead which almost always uses the same traditional Latin text. Brahms wanted his Requiem to be a reflection of the German Lutheran tradition instead of the Catholic; a German Requiem, so he collected his own text from the German translation of the Bible. The skill with which Brahms collected and juxtaposed these incomprehensibly beautiful texts and set them to music which breathes life into them seems almost as inspired as the texts themselves. And the most amazing thing is that Brahms was pretty much an athiest. God can work through people who do not even believe or follow Him as vessels for His glory!

The first movement, as I have quoted above, is a masterful combination of Old and New Testament verses with a similar idea of comfort. The second movement is a very solemn funeral march, complete with the obligatory dotted rhythms (think of the funeral marches of Chopin, and Beethoven's Third Symphony), and obsessively repeating triplets in the tympani; the text is from 1 Peter 1:24, "For all flesh is as grass..." Then it turns to a beautiful, simple melody in a major key, quoting a very beautiful passage from James 5: "Be patient, therefore, brethren, unto the coming of the Lord...." The third movement, for baritone and chorus, also emphasizes ephemeral nature of life on earth (Psalm 39, "Lord, make me know that my days must have a measure..."). The next movement turns to joy in the anticipation of Heavenly places ("How lovely are thy tabernacles, O Lord of hosts! My soul longeth and fainteth for the courts of the Lord." Psalm 84). The fifth movement, for soprano solo and chorus, returns to the theme of comfort, quoting John 16:22, Isaiah 66:13. The powerful sixth movement is a picture of the Second Coming, with texts that include 1 Corinthians 15, and also a grand fugue, somewhat in the style of Handel, on the same passage in Revelation 4 that is used in the "Worthy Is the Lamb" movement of Messiah. The work is a loosely cyclical form, as the final movement ends with similar music to the first, but this time, "Blessed are they dead who die in the Lord from henceforth." (Revelation 14)

Since I was going through an especially difficult week personally when I was in rehearsal for this performance, I made the text of the first movement my personal object of study. Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted. Blessed--this implies that there is something particularly sanctified, especially esteemed, for those who mourn, something that those who do not mourn cannot share. That something is the experience of being comforted by God, "as one whom his mother comforteth" (Isaiah 66:13). This is something that the angels and all the other created beings cannot truly experience. Otherwise, Jesus might have said, "It's OK if you mourn; you'll be comforted." That would have been wonderful enough. But he said blessed are they.

Another interesting observation I had about the second part of the text of this movement, from Psalm 126, was the part about "bearing precious seed." I looked in several other translations, but the King James is the only one that uses the word "precious." The others say things like "bearing seed for sowing." Even in the original Hebrew words, from the lexicon, I couldn't find a word that was translated "precious." But I love the idea of that; it goes along with the "Blessed are they--" there is something precious, something blessed, about the seed sown in sorrow, that isn't found without it. Sorrow is not just a burden to bear, it's a precious seed. I'm curious why the translators of the King James version chose that word.

It's amazing how God can bring a beautiful thing into your life at just the right time, to help explain the pain of a difficult situation.

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