Announcing our 2016-17 Season
Elgin Master Chorale
2016-17: Celebrating 70 Years of Song
In 2016-17, Elgin Master Chorale celebrates 70 years of bringing choral music to the Fox Valley.
Brahms: A German Requiem
Sponsored by Sterling (Stu) Ainsworth
Sunday, April 30 at 3:30 p.m.
Blizzard Theatre, Elgin Community College
EMC performs the masterwork that brought the group together in 1947 as a "choral union" of many area church choirs: the haunting German Requiem. Composed during the height of Brahms' highly productive and creative career, the full six-movement work received its premiere performance in 1868. While employing sacred texts, Brahms' requiem departs from the traditional Latin text and mass parts common to many requiems. Experience one of the world's most famous and profound pieces, and see what makes this a treasured piece of the repertoire.
Tickets available here or by calling 847 622 0300
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) Ein Deutsches Requiem, op. 45
At the age of twenty Brahms showed up at the doorstep of Robert Schumann with a bulging portfolio of piano music. Schumann immediately recognized his genius and came out of retirement as a music critic to pen one final article in praise of the young composer. Schumann noticed the “veiled symphonies” of Brahms’ piano music and encouraged the composer to “direct his magic wand where the powers of the masses of chorus and orchestra may lend him their forces.” Schumann’s track record as a music critic was impressive, having begun his career by introducing a then-unknown Frederic Chopin with his legendary quip “Hats off, gentlemen – a genius!”
The Requiem took shape over a period of several years. The music which we now know as the second movement of the Requiem began life as part of a two-piano sonata which Brahms played with Robert Schumann’s wife Clara in the spring of 1854, just a few months after Robert’s article, thus beginning a close lifetime friendship. The sonata morphed into a symphony and then the first piano concerto, but the funeral march was dropped unused in both works. Brahms was deeply affected by the death of his mother in February, 1865. That event, in addition to lingering thoughts of Robert Schumann’s death in 1856, provided the immediate impetus to complete the Requiem, reworking the funeral march of the piano sonata into the second movement. By August 1866 all movements except the fifth movement were completed. The premiere of the six-movement work was given on Good Friday, April 10, 1868 at Bremen Cathedral with Brahms conducting. Brahms encountered Clara Schumann walking up the steps of the cathedral and escorted her to her seat. In August, 1868 Brahms, inspired by the memory of his mother, wrote a new movement for soprano soloist and chorus as a final memorial to her (“I will comfort you as one whom a mother comforts”) and inserted it as the fifth movement of the Requiem. The final seven-movement work was given its premiere in Leipzig on February 18, 1869.
Unlike other composers, Brahms did not use the text from the Catholic Mass for the Dead but rather selected texts from the Old and New Testaments in Luther’s German translation of the Bible. Brahms was not a religious man, but often read favorite verses from the Luther translation of the Bible that he was given as a child. He resisted suggestions to provide a more Christian content (in fact, Christ is not mentioned at all), and stated that the work could just as easily be called a “human” requiem. The primary emphasis of the chosen texts is to comfort the living rather than dwell on the spiritual destiny of the departed soul. It is only in the sixth and seventh movements that the dead are mentioned.
The work is scored for four-part mixed chorus, soprano and baritone soloists, two flutes and piccolo, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons and contrabassoon, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones and tuba, harp, timpani, and strings. The harp and, secondarily horns, were used by Romantic composers such as Schumann and Brahms to convey a sense of distance; therefore these instruments represent separation and mediation between the dead and the living, the underlying basis of the consolatory nature of this Requiem.
In the first movement, “Selig sind die da Leid tragen” (“Blessed are they who carry sorrow”), Brahms begins the Requiem with a lengthy, somber orchestral introduction, notable for the absence of violins. The practice of using lower instruments in works dealing with mourning went back to composers of the 17th century, particularly Heinrich Schütz, whose music Brahms collected and studied. The melody first introduced by the cellos was based on a Lutheran chorale (although scholars are uncertain which one, or if Brahms invented his own chorale-like melody). This theme is used throughout the movement by chorus and orchestra and again in the second movement. The first entrance of the chorus, on the words “Selig sind,” is sung a capella. The upward melody on these words supplied by the sopranos is used as the basis for much of the Requiem, either in its original form or its retrograde (reverse, downward) shape. The text alternates between the ideas of mourning/tears/sowing and comfort/joy/reaping. Brahms makes subtle changes in harmony and rhythm as the chorus alternates between these concepts. When the text “Selig sind” returns at the end of the movement, the melody associated with the opening chorus is given to the woodwinds. Near the end a descending melody, an upside-down version of the “Selig” motive, is imitated in all voice parts on the words “getröstet werden” (“they will be comforted”); this forms the basis for the melody used in the last movement. The first movement concludes quietly with an upward harp arpeggio.
The second movement, “Denn alles Fleisch est ist wie Gras” (“For all flesh is as grass”) begins with a funeral march, adapted from the two-piano sonata movement that Brahms had abandoned years before. Although Brahms wrote above the music “Slow, moderate march,” there are three beats to the bar, making it decidedly unmarchable. The march begins quietly then builds to a loud reiteration via an orchestral crescendo accented by ominous drumbeats. A gentle interlude urging patience, using the analogy of the farmer waiting to reap his crops after the rains, provides contrast before the funeral march resumes. These thoughts are broken off by a dramatic choral acclamation on the word “Aber” (“But”), probably the most decisive “buts” in all music, continuing with “the word of the Lord endures forever.” A triumphal fugue concludes the movement, emphasizing the word “Freude” (“joy”).
In the third movement the focus shifts to individual prayer (“Lord, teach me to know I must have an end…”). Brahms introduces the baritone soloist, who alternates with the chorus to express these thoughts. The music becomes agitated as both soloist and chorus ask “Now, Lord, how shall I find comfort?” as jagged, upward passages are sung disjointedly to illustrate the uncertainty. As the music slows and then pauses, the orchestra stops on an ambiguous chord reminiscent of the one Beethoven used in his Ninth Symphony as he contemplated God in the starry heavens. The mood shifts as the chorus sings of its hope in God. The concluding fugue opens with the “Selig sind” theme from the first movement. Its text, “The souls of the righteous are in the hands of God…,” is anchored symbolically by the D-pedal in the lower orchestral instruments. The symbolism is powerful, as throughout the wanderings of the many instrumental and choral lines the steadfast strength of the central tonality remains solid.
The fourth movement, “Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen” (“How lovely are thy dwellings”), is perhaps the best-known and most lyrical movement of the Requiem, expressing hope for the future afterlife. It is often performed as a stand-alone piece for funerals and choral concerts. The orchestral introduction uses the “Selig sind” theme in inversion and the chorus sings the theme in its original form. Near the end the orchestra and chorus break into a brief double fugue expressing joyous praise. The movement concludes with octave pairings of sopranos with tenors and altos with basses in long, melodic lines.
The fifth movement, “Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit” (“You now have sorrow”), the late insert by Brahms into the Requiem, is a quiet contemplation of the comfort given by God analogous to that of the comfort a mother gives to her child. It is set for soprano soloist and chorus, the latter repeating a single line of text, “I will comfort you as one whom a mother comforts.” The autobiographical underpinnings of Brahms’ mourning of his own mother are evident here.
A shift of focus to the dead begins with the sixth movement. The chorus begins by describing the search for an enduring city, the plodding rhythm illustrating the slow trudge of pilgrims. The baritone soloist, in dialogue with the chorus, narrates the mystery of what is to come. The music becomes more agitated with the greatest intensity thus far in the Requiem until it climaxes on the words “Death is swallowed up by victory. Death, where is your sting? Hell, where is your victory?” “Wo?” (“Where?”) is repeated with dramatic pauses before resolving into a triumphant hymn of praise set to a fugue on the words “Lord, you are worthy to take praise and honor and power…” The subject of this fugue is based on various forms of the “Selig sind” motive, beginning with its reverse or downward shape on the words “Herr, du bist,” and utilizing its original upwards direction on the words “nehmen Preis.” Twice the orchestra ascends five octaves using the “nehmen Preis” motive, like a great wave only to fall back and build again. Brahms’ mastery of fugal technique hearkens back to the Baroque masters whom he had studied so diligently. This movement, so full of tension and resolution, is the climax of the entire Requiem.
The last movement, “Selig sind die Toten” (“Blessed are the dead”), almost serves as a coda to the Requiem as it continues the thoughts of the previous movement. The opening melody sung by the sopranos is an elongated version of the descending melody sung near the end of the first movement. A quiet middle passage, beginning with “Der Geist spricht,” (“The Spirit speaks”) celebrates the deserved eternal rest of the dead from their labors. It again utilizes lower orchestral instruments, this time lower brass, to illustrate the solemnity of the text. A dramatic key change back to the opening key of this movement leads to a reprise of its theme, this time sung by the tenors. The movement ends with a recurrence of the conclusion of the first movement, as the harp once again ascends heavenward.
The premiere of the first three movements in Vienna on December 1, 1867 was a disaster (in the fugue at the end of the third movement the timpanist played too loudly and drowned out the rest of the orchestra and chorus). The first performance of the entire work (excluding what is now the fifth movement) in Bremen was a success and cemented his reputation as a most significant composer. The Requiem has subsequently become a staple of the choral-orchestral repertoire. Brahms made an arrangement of the orchestral accompaniment for piano 4 hands for the first performance of the work in London. Brahms’ German Requiem has special significance to the Elgin Master Chorale. It was the very first work performed by the combination of choirs that formed the Elgin Choral Union, the former name of this choral organization. That first performance took place on May 7, 1948, under the direction of Frank Kratky. It has been performed several times since. This concert will be the third time that the Elgin Master Chorale has performed the work under the direction of Maestro Andrew Lewis, the most recent at the Concert of Remembrance observing the tenth anniversary of 9/11 on September 11, 2011.
Elgin Symphony Season Finale: Pictures at an Exhibition
Presented by the Elgin Symphony Orchestra
Saturday, May 6 at 7:30 p.m.
Sunday, May 7 at 2:30 p.m.
Hemmens Cultural Center, Elgin
The ESO closes its season with Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky’s towering Pictures at an Exhibition, based on drawings and watercolors by Viktor Hartmann. As part of the ESO’s ongoing exploration of Mahler, the program also holds Mahler’s Songs of a Wayfarer, a song cycle with lyrics written by the composer himself based on one of his favorite collections of German folk poetry. Also featured is Vaughn Williams’ Serenade to Music, with text adapted from Act V, Scene 1 of The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare, performed with the Elgin Master Chorale.
Tickets available here or by calling 847 888 4000