i have had an intimate love affair with Ein deutsches Requiem for over four years now, and its still in the blessed honeymoon stage. it all started when a very exuberant german conductor walked into my life. Hans Michael Beurle was here to teach our choirs about Bach, Brahms and conducting and i had the pleasure of experiencing all three (even though he struggled all semester with the pronunciation of my name) and the coup de grâce would be Brahms’ Ein deutsches Requiem with our combined choirs (vocal ensemble, choir, chorus and choral society). we started work on the piece early and Hans singled me out for alto section leader. that meant me listening to my recording of the Requiem (which just happens to feature the Atlanta Symphony Chorus, under the baton of Robert Shaw, who i just heard perform the Requiem with the Berlin Philharmonic) over and over, marking up my score and, occasionally, singing my parts out loud on the Q88. i fell in love with the piece instantaneously.
and then, the day after our vocal ensemble’s performance of all Bach cantatas (as Hans called them, the really hard ones), i went to see a cardiologist in Long Island, as my GP was worried about some recent EKGs. after some tests, i sat in the doctor’s office with my parents only to hear that i was going to the emergency room right then and there to have heart surgery. to make a long story short, this was the beginning of a multiple year (and ongoing) barrage of surgeries and hospitalizations that would completely change my life (i was 21 at the time). i ended up being in this particular hospital for two weeks, mostly in ICU on bed rest. once i was out of recovery, my parents asked me if there was anything from my apartment that i wanted. i asked for three things. a stuffed bear that was a keepsake, my ipod and my score to the Requiem. now for any of you who have had extended hospital stays, you know that it gets old fast. you’re awake at all hours, never really left alone with nothing to do. so amidst all of the pain (physical and personal) and confusion, i fell, very deeply, into the Brahms. i was excited to nail a new passage, memorize something or just have the chance to sing. and the more it became about knowing the piece as opposed to just knowing the words, i felt a sort of joy that was hard to access under the circumstances.
singing “ewige Freude” suddenly meant something.
the day i got out of the hospital was the dress rehearsal for the performance. i couldn’t walk and had to be carried into my apartment. i took a shower and went to sleep for a few hours. and when i woke up, i made the decision to go to the dress rehearsal. my parents were staunchly against it but i had made up my mind. i needed to do this. and i don’t know how but my parents understood. so i hobbled to the bus and made my way to school on the condition that if anything happened that i would come straight home. everyone was surprised to see me and asked how i was. i didn’t want to talk about it, all i wanted to do was sing. and though i sat while everyone else stood, i sang. Hans assured me that i didn’t have to be there but was glad to have me.
i ended up doing the performance (standing) and i couldn’t control my emotions. i cried like i had never cried before. this piece of music carried me through an incredibly dense despair to a place of freedom and joy. i believe that that is the message of the piece itself. Brahms himself was suffering from loss when he embarked upon the work and its ability to help heal cannot be lost on us. any attempt to talk about the so-called power of music can become trite so i will leave it here (and let the music speak for itself) but i must end with this: there is something to be said about what we allow music to do, both to us and for us. if i ever forget why i got into this racket in the first place, this helps me to remember.
here is the Philharmonia Orchestra under the baton of Otto Klemperer performing the first movement, Selig sind, die da Leid tragen.