Brahms’ Variations on a Theme by Haydn and “Ein deutsches Requiem”

The New York Philharmonic on Tuesday, June 5.

The traditional Latin text for a requiem mass is a prayer for the dead, repeatedly asking God to grant the departed eternal rest. Brahms’ requiem is different. Instead of using the Latin liturgy, he patched together texts from the Bible, both Old Testament and New. The result is a prayer not so much for the dead but for the living: those who grieve and will someday die themselves.

Ein deutsches Requiem is nothing less than the most powerful, eloquent contemplation of mortality I’ve ever encountered. Grand yet intimate, it first assures you that you will find peace someday (Brahms opens with one of the Beatitudes: “Blessed are they who mourn, for they shall be comforted”), and then it plunges into a harrowing study of the transience of human life. (“For all flesh is as grass…”) After that grim truth, the reassurances of the final movements, with promises of life after death from the Epistles and Revelation, are truly heavenly. The requiem is an emotionally exhausting work but an extraordinary one.