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Brahms’ Requiem – Music with a message for our time

Brahms’ Requiem – Music with a message for our time

by Matt Mazzoni on May 05, 2022


On Sunday, May 15, at 3:00PM, a musical ‘downbeat’ will come from Central’s sanctuary that will lead a choir and orchestra into a musical journey that, given the chance, will plumb the depths of our souls. I say this because of first-hand experience! I first sang in a performance of A German Requiem by Johannes Brahms when I was in college. When the choir director announced the project, I can’t say that I was excited about it. But months later, after the performance, I was transformed by it.

The Brahms Requiem occupies a place in choral music second only to Handel’s Messiah. Like Messiah, it’s built entirely on texts from the Bible and grapples with the deepest questions that face all of us – when we face sorrow, loss, and death, where do we find our comfort? The answer that this piece gives us is plain – our hope is in Thee.

A ‘requiem’ may seem like an odd choice for an Easter-season piece. Historically speaking, a requiem is a funeral service – specifically, it’s the Roman Catholic Mass for the Dead. The focus of the texts and prayers are for the deceased – that God would have mercy on their souls and accept them into everlasting life. The text, which is historically sung in Latin, typically features a long segment that focuses on God’s judgment called the Dies Irae (literally ‘Day of Judgment’), and when composers set this part of requiem text, they often have a bit of a field day with all the dramatic imagery found in the Dies Irae that often becomes the focus of the whole piece (the Requiems of Mozart, Berlioz, and Verdi are exceptional examples of this). However, Brahms did not set the traditional Latin text for his Requiem. He instead compiled the text himself, and chose two points of departure from ordinary musical convention: his Requiem would be sung in the vernacular (in his case, German, and in our performance, English), and his music would be for the living – for the people grieving after suffering death and other losses close to them.

The Brahms Requiem then gives us both sorrow and joy in fairly equal measure – many of the individual movements progress from dark to light, sorrow to joy, and recognizing our human frailty yet finding hope in God’s unshakable providence. Like grief, it doesn’t move in a straight line either – it begins with a verse from the Beatitudes, “Blessed are they who mourn, for they shall be comforted,” (Mt. 5:4) and ends with “Blessed are the dead...that they may rest from their labors” (Rev. 14:13). Through all that is between, including depictions of the end times, reflections about our own death, recognizing the assurance of God’s hand being an unshakable rock, and the peace of dwelling in the temple of the Lord, the overarching theme is that God’s divine comfort is greater than our biggest, fiercest, and most powerful fears, pains, and losses.

That is why this piece is appropriate for the Easter season, especially Easter of 2022. Everyone has struggled and experienced losses and hardships in the past two years that have impacted us on a personal, societal, and global level. We have all been faced with (and will continue to be faced with) the question, “Where do I find my hope?” I pray that the answer is as the piece suggests: “O God, my hope is in YOU!”

This concert is also exciting because it will feature a partnership with the Chancel Choir from one of our sister EPC churches, Second Presbyterian Church of Memphis, TN. Central and Second Pres. are very similar churches: both have roughly 175-year histories of proclaiming the gospel, making disciples, transforming communities, and embracing worship that aims to glorify God through choirs, singers, and instrumentalists of all ages on mission to make Jesus known. It will be a privilege to share in worship and concert with them on May 15 in St. Louis, and an even bigger one to travel the following weekend to Memphis to do the same at Second Pres.

This concert is free and open to the public – we welcome you and encourage you to bring family, friends, neighbors, colleagues, anyone with whom who you would like to share this experience. The concert begins at 3:00pm and will last approximately one and one-half hours with a reception following. Children are welcome (we will have cry-room space available). Unfortunately, this concert will not be live-streamed, but we have plenty of space to enjoy it in person.

In Christ,
A. Matthew Mazzoni
Director of Music Ministries

Tags: music, concert, requiem, brahms

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