Apart from his music, there is nothing very interesting about Johannes Brahms (German, 1833-1897). His life was relatively simple and mundane. To make matters worse, Brahms attempted to thwart biographers by burning a huge amount of his compositions, letters and other material which might have shed light on his life. Prone to melancholy and somber introspection, he grew more and more isolated as he aged. He was usually extremely grumpy and gruff. He had other strange personality quirks, manifested in incidents like this, reported by a certain Dr. Bauer:
“During the Master’s last summer at Ischl, when his complexion was already dark-brown from jaundice, I was once his guest and lived through a terrible moment. He gave me a glass to hold, poured cognac into it, and intentionally made it overflow. Then he seized my dripping hand and licked it off. I was stupefied with surprise, and asked him why he did that. ‘Oh,’ was the answer, ‘the doctors forbid me to drink; but they say not a word about licking.'”
There is something seriously odd about that, but then again, Brahms was not a man to concern himself with social niceties. Most of the time he was absorbed in composing, and the fruit of his labors was a corpus of immortal masterpieces, which remain popular even today. The particular masterpiece that earned him continent-wide fame was the monumental Ein deutsches Requiem (A German Requiem), a mass for chorus and orchestra.
The work is one of the greatest instances of choral music. The mass combines elevated sublimity with near-perfect musical architecture, and with a limpid lyricism that still has the power to move the listener profoundly. Brahms took a unique approach to Ein deutsches Requiem. The text of the mass is based on the Lutheran translation of the Bible rather than the usual Latin Mass, and Brahms chose the texts at will. He also avoided texts which contained religious dogma, a move which outraged many critics, who called the Requiem a “so-called religious work devoid of creed.” The result is an intensely personal expression of Brahms’s own religiously-tinged emotions, chiefly his longing for comfort in the face of the inevitability of death. Progressing from “For all flesh is as grass, and all the glory of man as the flower of grass,” to a triumphant “O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?”, the mass ends on a note of serene and resigned hopefulness.
Try the Otto Klemperer recording (orchestra: Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau), the John Eliot Gardner (Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique), or the Sir Georg Solti (Chicago Symphony Orchestra). In few works is it better expressed that “Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted. They that sow in tears shall reap in joy.”