Music Monday #5: Nice Place You Got Here

I always nearly forget about my Music Monday post, and then I always freak out a little trying to decide what piece to give you. But this time, I remembered early enough to keep both things from happening. I was sitting in church yesterday, between song-leadings, listening to the readings while trying to keep my bra from peeking out of the neckline of my dress, and one of the readings was about the many rooms in God’s house, and that led me to this week’s post.

It’s one of the better-known movements in the Brahms Ein deutsches Requiem. It’s called “Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen.” Translation: “How Lovely Is Thy Dwelling Place.” Though it was composed in German, it is often sung in English, so you might recognize the piece and not the words. The scripture is quite familiar to Christian singers and classical composers alike; it is taken from the book of Psalms. But the reason for the piece is much more touching.

Brahms lost his mother in 1865, and it was a loss so devastating that he needed to write an entire work to help him cope. Ein deutsches Requiem is a requiem in the emotional sense, but not in the literal sense. As I think I mentioned in last week’s Music Monday post, a requiem is a traditional Catholic funeral mass, using the rites of Christian burial as prayers, imploring God for the forgiveness of sins. But Brahms defied tradition when he wrote this work in a way that would have scandalized Vienna, where it was premiered, movement by movement, over the course of a couple of years.

First, he wrote the thing in German.

That’s not right.

It’s supposed to be in Latin.

Second, he wrote it in the wrong key. Requiems are written in the morbid and sad D minor. He wrote his in the more uplifted and hopeful D major. By the second note of the first movement (“Selig sind, die da Leid tragen”), the audience would have realized his folly. Ornate fans would have stopped flapping so people in powdered wigs could mutter to each other in shock over his defiance and sacrilege.

But it wasn’t folly at all. Brahms wasn’t writing the traditional requiem, because the traditional requiem focuses on the dead, and his or her supplications and appeals for forgiveness, as well as the appeal for eternal rest.

Brahms wanted to focus on the living, those left behind.

(Apparently, the Rapture would have made this selection apropos, as well, if it had happened. There’s wifi in heaven, right?)

When I performed this work with the chorus I belonged to, our director gave us a great little piece of history for reference. Brahms was writing Ein deutches Requiem while the Civil War was ending here. Not so long ago, really. Our director also shared this incredible tidbit: Ein deutsches Requiem ends with a sentiment about one’s works living on after they’re gone. As Brahms was nearing the end of his life, he one night sat in his kitchen with a friend, throwing manuscripts into his wood-burning stove.

Throwing manuscripts into the fire.

Because he didn’t think they were good enough, and didn’t want them to be found after his death.

Um, Hey, Johannes... you've LOST YOUR MIND! STOP IT!

I’m sure they would have sucked. Seeing as how they were Brahms.

Killin’ me, Johannes. Killin’ me.

Here (linked with the word “listen” below) is a recording of the Philharmonia Orchestra and chorus, under the direction of Otto Klemperer. It was digitally remastered in 1997, but originally recorded in 1961. It is generally regarded as one of the best and most faithful recordings of the work. (Apparently, Brahms is hard to conduct; my own director calls himself “Brahms-impaired,” though I can’t understand why.)

Close your eyes and listen. Happy Music Monday.