Monday, August 13, 2012

Brahms German Requiem (in English)


I started out miffed that we were singing this in English.  The other two times we met for a community sing, we did the Latin pieces in Latin.  I hate it when I have to sing in English just because people are afraid of German or Slovanic or French or [fill in the blank with whatever language scares you].  (Maybe that's just because I'm not good enough to try to sight-sing words and music when I can barely handle music, so I don't really have to think that hard about the words.)

I was being all grumbly to myself about it, too.  "Luther would have wanted it sung in its native language," I found myself somewhat irrationally pouting.  But after I sang it in English, well, I suspect Luther would have approved because even though he was German and was all about a German Bible, he was most interested in making the sacred intelligible to the lay people (in his case, the German ones), and that's why I'm glad I sang this one in English: otherwise, the piece would not have had the power to move me like it did.

For a week before we sang it, I listened to about 5 different versions of this piece that I borrowed from the library, all in German and, while I found it powerful and sometimes stirring, it was more like orchestral music to me.  But with the English score in my hands, I saw the words.  This repeated phrase over and over like hammer blows pounding out the truth of mortality: "Behold all flesh is as the grass and all the loveliness of man is as the flower of grass."  Kettledrums, basses, cellos, altos and tenors in the low end of the range and the bases an octave below and the music just pounding away around us rising and falling away like our voices like the ocean vast and unfathomable and terrifying.

And the music.  The baritone solo in movement II followed by the choir in a sort of choral call and response and then the voice parts passing the phrase back and forth.  We were all lost for 6 whole pages (in movement III, I think), but half of us were there for the last note.  VI has the violins just sawing away incredibly.  And pages 63-85.  Wow.  The midpoint or so has the most incredible ending ever.  I'm always irritated when more comes after that.  VII has some lovely moments but seems anticlimactic compared to the earlier movements which makes sense since the whole piece it starts in grief and anger and harshness and sorrow and moves to a resolution here at peace in music and in voices.

The juxtaposition of this music with these words is synergistic.  I could feel the shape of the whole and the shape of the parts when words I understood were added to the music.  I understood what it meant, not just how it sounded.  And then, after three and a half hours of singing (once through for rehearsal and once through for performance), I got into my car and put in my favorite recording of all the ones I borrowed from the library and listened to it again, and it meant so much more than it had when it was just music to my ears.

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