Brahms’s “Ein deutsches Requiem”

Dresden Staatskapelle at the White Light Festival on Sunday, October 31.

Lincoln Center’s new White Light Festival celebrates music conceived with spiritual meaning, music that consciously seeks some transcendent quality. It is, in short, a festival after my own heart. In virtually every other arena, I find the phrase “spiritual, not religious” irritating—I dismiss it reflexively—but in the concert hall, the words actually mean something to me. Maybe it’s the collaborative nature of the medium, maybe it’s something about the way sound reverberates in a room, maybe it’s just years of conditioning, but music affects me like nothing else.

As for the festival, if you’re going to pick a spiritually meaningful work in the canon of Western music, you’d be hard-pressed to find something better or more appropriate than Brahms’s glorious Ein deutsches Requiem. It’s both a compositional masterpiece and an acutely personal work: Instead of setting the traditional Latin texts (the “Kyrie,” the “Dies Irae,” and all that), Brahms personally selected passages from Luther’s translation of the Old and New Testaments and the Apocrypha, deliberately avoiding Christian dogma (Jesus is quoted but never directly mentioned) and highlighting more broadly humanistic passages of comfort and hope. The result is a requiem like no other: a passionate attempt to confront and accept the specter of mortality, not so much for the dead as for the living.