The next concerts by the Santa Barbara Choral Society, conducted by JoAnne Wasserman will take place at 8 p.m. Saturday, April 1, and 3 p.m. Sunday, April 2, at First Presbyterian Church, 21 E. Constance Ave.
There will be but a single work on the program: Johannes Brahms’ “A German Requiem, to Words of the Holy Scriptures, Opus 45 (1865-1868).”
It has been 10 years since we’ve heard this overwhelming work performed live in our town. The chorus will be supported by a full orchestra, and the soloists are soprano Tamara Bevard and baritone Lester Lynch.
Brahms called his work “German” because the sung text was in the noble German of Luther’s translation of the Bible, as opposed to the Latin of the Roman Catholic mass for the dead.
Patriot though he was, he did not mean the title as a dedication to the German people. His vision transcended nationalism or ethnicity. In fact, he told one of the first men to conduct the work that he would have gladly called it “Ein menschliches Requiem” — that is, “A human requiem.”
“A German Requiem” differs from the Roman Catholic requiem in more than language. The Catholic work focuses on the recently dead, their final judgment, their hope of heaven and peace.
Brahms’ concern is with the living, their grief, their longing, their search for comfort, and their ultimate reconciliation with the inevitable.
Thus, the first words we hear are not a prayer that the dead should “rest in peace,” but the exhortation: “Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted,” from the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:4).
The texts, chosen by Brahms himself, make no specific professions of Christian faith, beyond the hope that a benevolent Lord will bring solace.
The Roman Catholic requiem is an established liturgical format, a variety of mass; not so the “German Requiem” of Brahms, which is more psychological than religious, and only “catholic” in the original meaning of the word: i.e., “universal.”
Finally, there is the matter of what we might call the work’s dynamic, which has little to do with confessional or linguistic differences. Brahms’ “Requiem,” like that by Fauré (which uses the traditional Latin text), is full of emotion and spiritual questing, but relatively undramatic.
Brahms’s work is a grand meditation on mourning, the most beautiful in any language. When I hear it, I usually think of the first sentence of Doctor Zhivago:
“On they went, singing “Rest Eternal,” and whenever they stopped, their feet, the horses, and the gusts of wind seemed to carry on their singing.”
Tickets to “A German Requiem“ are $45 and $35 ($7 for kids ages 7-17 with adult). They can be purchased at the door, or on line at http://www.sbchoral.org/current-season-tickets/.