Thoughts from a Musician's Heart


OUR ULTIMATE SOURCE OF COMFORT AND SATISFACTION

I was 13 years old when I began to fall in love with the music of Johannes Brahms. This obsession

was first set off with the discovery of his Piano Quintet in F minor, and over the next several years

I gradually collected (and am still collecting) a body of works by Brahms which all became very

dear to me. But there has been nothing that has been able to match what many consider to be

Brahms’ magnum opus, Ein Deutsches Requiem. At the Masterworks Festival in 2015, we were

lucky enough to be able to perform this work in the final week (I sang in the choir), and the

performances of it remain as one of my most cherished musical experiences.

Allow me to fast-forward for a moment to January of 2021, when I was working on Brahms’ Six

Pieces op. 118. In the midst of the pandemic, I was having lessons remotely, and my teacher (who

was in Finland) pointed out something which affected me deeply. In the second piece from that set

(Intermezzo in A major, a piece which many readers are likely to recognize), following a tormented

minor-key section, there appears a chorale-like moment of absolute tranquility. It is one of the

most special moments in the whole work. What he brought my attention to was that in this moment,

the tenor line is a direct quotation of the fifth movement from Ein Deutsches Requiem. (This is in

m. 57, and again at m. 61 for the curious.) A coincidence, perhaps? Not when you look at the text

of the fifth movement. The soprano begins with text from John 16:22—“And ye now therefore

have sorrow” in English—which is repeated several times. Then a harmonic shift occurs and we

hear the word “aber” (“but”) repeatedly, before the soothing consolation “I will see you again, and

your heart shall rejoice, and your joy no man taketh from you.” This moment is what is quoted in

the Brahms intermezzo, and the text fits its musical context perfectly. In the later part of the fifth

movement, after the soprano sings from John 16:22, the choir responds with Isaiah 16:13—“As

one whom his mother comforteth, so will I comfort you.” I specifically remember this moment

with great tenderness back in that performance from 2015, and six years later, through a quotation

in a completely separate (and much later) work by Brahms, it takes on a whole new meaning.

Brahms wrote Ein Deutsches Requiem directly following the death of his mother—with the text

taken from the German Luther Bible instead of the Latin Mass, the work has been described as

providing comfort for the living rather than the dead. I do not presume to know much about his

personal religious life, but regardless of this, it is a great consolation to the Christian that the Holy

Spirit would use even a solo piano work by Brahms to remind us that He will always be our

ultimate source of comfort and satisfaction.

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