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Bjella undertakes Brahms’ “German Requiem

Sonia Emmons

The Lawrence Symphony Orchestra and combined choirs will perform Brahms’ “German Requiem” this Sat., April 28 at 8 p.m. in the Lawrence Memorial Chapel, under the direction of Director of Choral Studies Rick Bjella. The concert features soprano Winifred Faix Brown and baritone Bill McGraw.
That Brahms wrote his requiem in German, rather than Latin, contributes to its universal human appeal: A work sung in the native tongue could be understood and appreciated by the common person.
With that idea in mind, the Lawrence choirs will sing the requiem in a new English translation.
According to senior Jesse Weinberg, the bass section leader, “Many singers were upset about this decision. Initially I was disappointed, but I think that it is as important for us to sing these words in English as it was for Brahms to write them in German.”
From an ominous beginning to a hopeful end, the requiem is “a journey from darkness to light,” said Bjella.
The music also contains a certain “yin and yang” quality, arising most notably between the orchestra and the choir. When the orchestra is in despair, the choir remains hopeful, and when the choir becomes despondent, the orchestra suddenly sees the light.
This contrast can be heard in the darkly colored first movement, which excludes the violins, clarinets, piccolo, trumpets and timpani.
The opening instrumental line is full of melancholy, but the choir soon enters singing “Selig sind” (Blessed are they) in ascending major thirds, as though leading the way to hope.
The structure of Brahms’ seven-movement masterwork is simultaneously pyramidal and cyclical. In the spirit of a pyramid, the first three movements build up to the centerpiece movement, and the last three gradually descend from the sublime calmness of the middle.
The fourth movement contains the “beautiful, catchy tune” for which the requiem is most commonly known. Weinberg also noted Brahms’ use of “sophisticated harmonic language,” a talent that he developed further over the course of is life.
“Brahms continually experimented with harmonic progressions – he reinvented the wheel several times in his life,” Weinberg said.
The cyclical structure is expressed as the choirs end the piece with the same word that began it: “blessed.”
“The ending is unbelievably majestic – it is not at all flashy,” said Bjella. “The finale unites the living and the dead, and blesses the dead with the same words that conclude the first movement. There is a real sense of solemnity.”
The piece contains a number of exciting fugues. One found at the end of the third movement is “a finale that is second to none,” said Bjella. “There is even a kitchen sink thrown in for complexity.”
The “German Requiem” is unique in its nonliturgical nature. Although Brahms carried a Bible in his pocket and was undoubtedly religious, Bjella explained that “Brahms didn’t fit into a religious dogma, and he purposefully avoided certain texts.” The words are an eclectic mix of Old and New Testament texts.
The requiem is challenging for a number of reasons.
“It switches jarringly fast into new keys,” said Bjella. “This illustrates how things can change in the blink of an eye, as we saw recently with the tragedy at Virginia Tech.”
The “German Requiem” succeeds in expressing an epic range of human emotions, from struggle and despair to joy and hope. Come this Saturday evening to commemorate a death, listen for the kitchen sink, or simply to hear beautiful music that promises to engage and amaze.