BY NICHOLAS WHITE
The German Requiem (Ein Deutsches Requiem) by Johannes Brahms is one of the most important works this composer produced. The opening three movements were first performed in Vienna during December 1867, and movements 1-3, 6 and 7 were performed in Bremen on Good Friday 1868. The first performance of the entire work took place at the Leipzig Gewandhaus on February 18th, 1869. Since then, the German Requiem has been one of the most frequently performed of all works in the oratorio repertoire. The compilation of Biblical texts on which it is based, all chosen by the composer, reflects a “sense of religiosity common to all mankind,” characteristic of the spiritual thinking of the mid 19th century. Despite certain reminiscences of earlier settings of the Requiem, Brahms’s work was viewed from the outset – quite correctly – as being entirely novel in both conception and execution.
Although the Requiem is usually performed with full orchestra, Brahms also arranged the piece for four-hand piano accompaniment. The piano version of the piece was first performed at the home of Sir Henry Livingston in 1871. On April 11th, The Boston Cecilia will present this more intimate arrangement of the Requiem.
In 1868, before the first performance of the complete work, the full score, orchestral and choral parts, and the vocal score (with the complete voice parts and piano solo reduction of the accompaniment by the composer himself) were issued by the publisher Rieter-Biedermann. This publishing house, founded in 1849, had a close association with Brahms during the 1860s and early 1870s. The musical material of the German Requiem printed by Rieter-Biedermann was augmented by the composer’s piano duet arrangement. The piano version of the German Requiem represents more than a mere arrangement of the orchestral parts for piano duet. It is a reworking of the entire score, including the vocal parts, to form an autonomous keyboard composition; this sets the accompaniment for our concert apart from a normal piano reduction intended for rehearsal purposes. In his quest for a piano duet texture which sounds well and is wholly pianistic in character, the composer proceeded in a manner which approaches creative reworking and fresh shaping of existing musical material. This applies, for example, to the many doublings by which particular melodies are brought out. In our performance, in order to preserve the luminous, transparent nature of certain solo and choral lines which would not be doubled in the orchestral version, we have made judicious cuts to the piano duet accompaniment, thereby leaving the chorus or the soloists undoubled by the piano.
By making this arrangement of the German Requiem for piano duet, Brahms was following a practice which was widely current during the 19th and early 20th centuries, of publishing symphonic works in transcriptions of this kind. Before the existence of recordings, arrangements such as this offered the public the best opportunity to become familiar with the composition in its entirety. Undoubtedly piano duet arrangements of this kind also represent a particular and once-popular class of publication for domestic music-making.
A presentation of Brahms’s well-loved masterwork in a form that is less familiar to the ear, like this one with an alternative form of accompaniment, gives us a unique opportunity as performers. In effect, as a chorus, we are able to approach the voice parts with a new perspective. Performing the piece then takes on a feeling of chamber music: a more direct, and in some cases more subtle, form of musical communication. There is a re-imagined clarity to the choral writing which, in combination with a truly pianistic accompaniment, presents the piece to the listener in a whole new way. Brahms’s masterpiece remains intact. The communication of it becomes fresh and newly invigorated.
Adapted, with additions, from Wolfgang Hochstein’s 1989 foreword to the Carus Edition.