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Ein Deutsches Requiem: A German perspective

By TPC member Eckart

When I joined Thames Philharmonic Choir in January 2023 the choir started practising Bach’s B-minor Mass. It reminded me of how my life as a chorister had started in Northern Germany with a performance of Bach’s St John’s Passion. Just as then, I felt warmly welcomed and immediately part of a large group of people striving to live up to the enormous challenge of the work. Of course, in Germany you would sing the Latin of the B-minor Mass with a German pronunciation, but over here there are good reasons to choose the familiar Italian one, and so did TPC. I did not think twice about that decision, but I noted frequently, then and ever since, the high standards of enunciation in the choir and the general attention to the interrelation of music and word. This is something that has impressed me in other English choirs, and I imagine it relates in part to the Anglican choral tradition with its regular singing of responses, psalms, and other liturgical texts. Now that we are singing Brahms’ German Requiem, I am experiencing the same kind of attention to expression and a clear and correct pronunciation in relation to my native language.

This is a piece I heard frequently in my childhood, and from early on my attention was drawn to its texts. My grandmother told me how meaningful it had been to her when, in her mid-forties and several years after the deaths of a daughter and her husband, she listened to it for the first time: “I asked myself how such a young man could have been able to choose these powerful and consoling texts and express them musically in such an insightful way.” Brahms was not quite as young as my grandmother thought, and as a young boy and not equipped with her steadfast faith, I never gained her religious insights into the depths of the piece. Rather, at the time, I loved the pomp and grandeur of my parents’ Karajan recording, enjoying it probably more like a romantic opera than an oratorio. It was exhilarating when ten years later I sang it in the Berlin Philharmonie, months after the fall of the Berlin Wall. I had joined the student choir of the Free University Berlin for this experience, but on the day of the concert the choir, orchestra, and conductor did not have much time to think of the bigger historical picture as we were worried about the tympanist who during the dress rehearsal persistently got his rhythm in the second movement wrong. (In the evening all went well.)

Brahms’ Ein Deutsches Requiem is not just written in German rather than Latin for the sake of accessibility. Then, as now, the German Protestant church had no equivalent to the Catholic Mass of the Dead. Thus Brahms’ Requiem has no space in the protestant service. But for the purpose of a musical memorial, he chose texts from the Lutheran Bible, which at that time had gained the status of a German monument. Tellingly, the first performance of the complete work in Leipzig took place in a concert hall. This was in 1869 in a period of rising German nationalism. A year later, the Prussian chancellor Bismarck triggered the Franco-Prussian War, leading to the proclamation of the German Empire in Versailles in January 1871. Soon Bismarck would start the ‘Kulturkampf’, a fight against the Catholic church with the aim of asserting the German state’s power over schools and church appointments, while in Prussia the Emperor was the official head of the United Protestant Church. Equally, students who wanted to join unions had to choose according to their ‘religious’ identities between Catholic, Jewish and ‘German’ ones! Ein deutsches Requiem has its place in this history, which, I believe, is another reason why it should be performed in German. While it can transcend its moment and speak to us directly, Brahms’ Requiem is also a product of its time. Music and words communicate in many different ways.

During the last year I have learned, in lovely conversations, that several TPC choristers are competent or tentative German speakers with a diverse knowledge of German culture. Some have grasped the opportunity of our present project to engage further with the language. This is wonderful and I am always humbled and inspired by the wide range of different skills in the choir. This, of course, also means that many don’t know the language. One choir member  told me recently that singing in German felt like ‘singing by numbers’. I understand that and wonder whether we don’t have a strong potential for singing by numbers even when we know the language. A few years ago, I heard a rendition of the German Requiem where the German baritone soloist started the third movement “Herr, lehre auch mich, daß ein Ende mit mir haben muß” “Lord, let me know mine end”, fluently singing the words “Herr, höre auch mich, …” “Lord, listen to me, I must suffer an end”. Some members of the audience will not have registered this and enjoyed his beautiful sound production, but for me, it wrecked the passage, not because it was wrong, but because it came so fluently, as if words were interchangeable, didn’t matter. I doubt this could have happened with a non-native singer. For the audience, our understanding of the language is not as important as our ability to produce it in a ‘correct’ and inspired way. The listeners for whom we are going to sing in Cadogan Hall on 16 March will have the chance to have read the English text in front of them while fully experiencing the combination of music and German biblical text as created by Brahms and communicated by us under Harry’s direction. May their experience that evening be as enriching as the work of the last few weeks has been for us.


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