Brahms’s A German Requiem: Reconsidering Its Biblical, Historical, and Musical Contexts | R. Allen Lott
Lott, R. Allen. Brahms’s A German Requiem: Reconsidering Its Biblical, Historical, and Musical Contexts. Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 2020. 512 pp. Hardback, $117.28.
Despite almost universal modern assessments of Johannes Brahms’s Ein deutsches Requiem (A German Requiem) as a deliberately secular choral treatment of death, R. Allen Lott, professor of music history at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, meticulously demonstrates that “the Requiem is not theologically or doctrinally inclusive but instead adroitly summarizes the unique Christian view of death, grief, and an afterlife” (2). Along with being one of the most performed choral works from the nineteenth century, Brahms’s Requiem is notable for the fact that unlike a standard Latin mass for the dead, the composer used exclusively texts from Luther’s German translation of the Bible. Yet Christ is not explicitly named, leading most modern scholars to conclude that Brahms did not intend his Requiem to be a Christian work but rather a humanist composition inclusive of all creeds. In contrast to this recent consensus, Lott presents his case through evaluating early writings about the work, investigating how audiences understood it during the first fifteen years of performance, and in-depth textual and musical analysis, providing a definitive conclusion that a Christian understanding of this beloved nineteenth-century choral masterpiece “is not only allowable but the most rational one to adopt” (2).
Lott lays an interpretive foundation for his analysis in Chapter One, arguing for a “course correction to a path that has been focused primarily on Brahms’s enigmatic objectives” (13) since “intention does not trump execution” (14). Therefore, determining whether the Requiem is a Christian work should be decided based on how the original audiences would have understood the intertextuality of the biblical texts Brahms chose and how he set them musically (37). The broader contexts of those passages, along with that of the sacred music traditions within which Brahms composed his work, strongly suggest Christian theological implications.
Lott introduces those implications with an exegesis of the biblical texts in Chapter Two, which he argues “embody unambiguous Christian positions that are distinct from other religious traditions” (60). He demonstrates that, despite common claims, the Requiem is certainly about Jesus Christ since Brahms quotes Jesus’s own words (61) and other texts that mention or allude to Christ without naming him (64). “These multiple references to Christ,” Lott contends, “inherently make the Requiem a Christian work” since “Christ’s identity as the Son of God and the Savior of the world are the most distinguishing features of Christianity that separate it from all other religions” (67). Further, “Brahms’s text includes unambiguous references to Christian doctrines that are not commonly held” (72), including explicitly Christian understandings of creation, redemption, resurrection, and the afterlife, each of which provides uniquely Christian comfort and promise of joy in the face of death. “Only simple ignorance of or willful disregard for the details of the text,” Lott concludes, “can justify a universal interpretation of the Requiem” (93).
If Lott’s biblical exegesis were not enough to convince skeptics, he demonstrates in Chapter Three that “the first commentators . . . consistently read and heard [the Requiem] as a piece upholding common Christian beliefs” (98). Based on the fact that “religion continued to be a vital element in nineteenth-century German life” (101), “it should not be surprising that listeners experienced the Requiem with is purely scriptural text as a Christian work” (110). Lott provides numerous statements by critics, musicologists, and theologians of the time who clearly identified it as Christian, even Protestant (120), and its classification “as a specimen of church music, which could only refer to settings of doctrinally orthodox texts, verify the recognition and acceptance of the work’s Christian content” (133).
In Chapter Four Lott examines one of the most frequently cited “proofs” of the Requiem’s supposed universal focus, a letter written by conductor Karl Reinthaler prior to its 1868 premiere in Bremen, wherein he stated, “For the Christian consciousness it lacks the point around which everything revolves, namely, the redeeming death of the Lord” (171). Lott demonstrates that this one statement taken out of context does not account for the fact that Reinthaler made other comments in his letter supporting a Christian interpretation and repeatedly programmed the work for Good Friday performances (178). In fact, such explicitly Christian programming continued for years by others; Lott demonstrates that “more than one-fourth of the early performances of the Requiem occurred during Holy Week, indicating a perceived resonance between the work and an important Christian observance” (184).
Lott presents what he considers “the most important hermeneutical guide to the Requiem”—musical analysis—in Chapter Five, explaining that “Brahms set his Requiem text sympathetically, convincingly, dramatically, and, above all, with an earnest devotion to sacred music traditions” (230). In particular, Brahms alludes in the Requiem to several well-known sacred works, most notably Handel’s Messiah. Lott argues that “the general similarities between the Requiem and Messiah as well as several areas of textual overlap and interrelatedness encourage a Christian perspective on the Requiem” (277), which he explores at length. Finally, Lott meticulously traces Brahms’s “musical devotion to scripture as a composer and his continuation of longstanding practices,” leading listeners “to accept the revered, traditional interpretation of the biblical text” (319).
In the final analysis, Lott provides an overwhelmingly convincing, substantively documented case for a Christian interpretation of Brahms’s Requiem. Indeed, as Lott notes, “modern scholars seem to impose a set of guidelines for assessing the Requiem that are not followed for any other musical work, not even the other choral works of Brahms” (327), in an attempt to substantiate a universalist claim. Far from being a dry musicological monograph, Lott’s extensive analysis is engaging and even devotional, and though his musical analysis requires some competency in music literacy (especially in Chapter Five), theologians and even lay Christians would find this work fascinating. Perhaps Lott’s treatment will cause skeptics and Christians alike to consider anew that “blessed are the dead who die in the Lord.”