Annie Bergen on Johannes Brahms's German Requiem

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The above audio is from the opening of Johannes Brahms's Ein Deutsches Requiem (Teldec, 1995)

The requiem that stands out for me is the performance I heard of Brahms’s Ein Deutsches Requiem (A German Requiem) shortly after the attacks of September 11, 2001. The performance was by the New York Philharmonic under the direction of Kurt Masur at Avery Fisher Hall. A collective feeling of wounded angst could be felt as audience-goers entered the auditorium.

I remember that most were dressed in the dark colors of mourning. In a burst of solidarity we shot to our feet as the first notes of the Star Spangled Banner were played. Then, the orchestra’s executive director Zarin Mehta announced that there would be no applause at the end of the performance. Brahms’s “German Requiem” began, its first words “Blessed are those who mourn for they shall be comforted” acting as a time-released salve to the sorrow we were feeling. Tears flowed.

It’s thought that Brahms wrote his requiem as consolation after the death of his mother. On this occasion, after the September 11th attacks, the effect was so profound it was as if it had been composed that day. There was indeed silence at the end. Not being able to applaud diverted what would have been a release into a world of quiet contemplation. We were left with a confirmation of the extraordinary power of music to heal and comfort.

In recent years, at WQXR, I’ve become familiar with other requiems and two that have struck me especially are Maurice Duruflé’s Requiem, Op. 9 inspired by his love of Gregorian chant and Gabriel Fauré’s Requiem, a prayerful meditation that is consistently haunting and intimate, a work that strips away the terror from the pain of death to one of consolation and peace.