Britten and Brahms: The Work of Memory
By Thomas May

Just 21 years after the death of Johannes Brahms in 1897, the Great War came to an end with Armistice Day — the 100th anniversary of which took place exactly one week ago. The civilization that had nurtured Brahms’s music was forever changed. Out of the horror of that experience emerged a hope that “the vastest war in history,” as H.G. Wells prophesied at the beginning of the conflagration in 1914, would prove to have been “a war for peace” and “a settlement that shall stop this sort of thing for ever.”

Fast forward another 21 years, and the world would not only once again be at war but launch an orgy of self-destruction soon to eclipse the previous conflict. Benjamin Britten and his peers, including the poet W.H. Auden, had already resigned themselves to oncoming catastrophe: Auden headed to America, where he would later become a U.S. citizen, and Britten followed in April 1939, in the company of his life partner, the tenor Peter Pears — even for a time sharing a group house with Auden in Brooklyn — though Britten and Pears returned to their native England in 1942.

One reason behind Britten’s desire to seek temporary refuge in the U.S. was to escape the backlash against his pacifism in Europe. The composer channeled his reactions to the Second World War into a number of works, culminating in one of the most-celebrated choral masterpieces of the 20th century, the War Requiem (premiered in May 1962). But long before that, he had already started giving voice to his pacifist ideals in such works as the score he supplied for the brief though controversial antiwar 1936 film Peace of Britain, directed by Paul Rotha.

Britten’s convictions similarly prompted him to write the cantata Ballad of Heroes for a pageant sponsored by the left-wing UK Popular Front and presented as a “Music for the People Festival” in London on April 5, 1939. A relatively little-known example of Britten’s choral oeuvre, Ballad of Heroes not only foreshadows aspects of the War Requiem but expresses, on its own terms, a compassionate vision of the tragedy of war. Britten composed Ballad to poetry by Auden and Randall Swingler, a poet, flutist, and editor of the Daily Worker, the British Communist Party’s newspaper.

Conceived as an homage to those lost fighting in the Spanish Civil War against the forces of fascism — Auden himself had volunteered for the left-wing Republican side as part of the International Brigade — Ballad of Heroes is cast in three continuous sections, opening with a choral funeral march that sets a text by Swingler. The atmosphere and tempo change drastically for the frantic central section, also choral: Scherzo: Dance of Death (in which the poetic element becomes more sophisticated and less preachy). Here, Britten turned to excerpts from Danse Macabre, a poem Auden had written into one of the composer’s scores in 1937 just before he departed for Spain, beginning with “It’s farewell to the drawing room’s civilized cry.” The final section begins with a solo recitative for tenor (though Britten allows for a soprano, as in this performance, to sing the part), who is joined by the chorus, singing Britten’s setting of another Swingler poem, “Still though the scene of possible Summer recedes.” Material from the poetic “melodrama” On the Frontier (a collaboration between Auden and Christopher Isherwood published in 1938) is then set for Chorus (“Europe lies in the dark”) before Britten reprises a part of the funeral march as an epilogue.

Fans of Mahler and Shostakovich will recognize Britten’s deep affinities for both composers. His use of trumpets in the opening section spread throughout the performance space looks ahead to some of his War Requiem’s most stunning acoustical effects. The Mahler expert Donald Mitchell noted that both Ballad of Heroes and the War Requiem “belong to the same line of evolution in Britten’s art, a line in which specific beliefs and specific musical techniques emerge in inextricable association.”

Though Britten had no particular use for Brahms, his German predecessor set a precedent that Britten would follow when he fashioned his War Requiem libretto (juxtaposing the ancient Latin texts with poetry by Wilfred Owen, who was killed in battle one week before Armistice Day in 1918). Ein deutsches Requiem likewise rejects setting the traditional prayers of the Mass for the Dead. Instead, Brahms organized his own sequence of texts to create an anti-doctrinaire Requiem. His interest was not in the issue of salvation or damnation; what impelled Brahms was the work of memory on the part of the living.

“Of all the major composers in the history of music, Brahms was perhaps the only one to have distinguished himself as a choral conductor,” observes the musicologist/conductor Leon Botstein. Brahms’s choral conducting went hand-in-hand with his emerging reputation as a composer. Few premieres in his career proved to be as significant as that of the Requiem.

In fact, the world premiere is a somewhat complicated story. An initial unveiling of the first three movements in Vienna in 1867 fared poorly, but the bulk of the work made a powerful impression when Brahms conducted it at the Cathedral in Bremen on Good Friday in 1868. (One movement was not heard at that time: the fifth, featuring solo soprano. The complete, seven-movement Requiem premiered in February 1869 in Leipzig.)

The unorthodox approach taken by Brahms confused even some of his fervent supporters. His avoidance of conventional references to Christianity troubled contemporaries like Karl Reinthaler, the Lutheran organist at Bremen Cathedral, who remarked: “For the Christian mind, however, there is lacking the point on which everything turns, namely, the redeeming death of Jesus.”

Brahms’s title (“A German Requiem”) points to the original nature of the work in comparison with the longstanding tradition of musical settings of the Mass for the Dead. “German” in the title refers to the language of the texts Brahms culled for his libretto. But he also declared that he may just as well call the work “A human Requiem,” and the overall message is indeed a humanist one.

Martin Luther’s German translation of the Bible served as Brahms’s source, from which he wove an eclectic tapestry using excerpts from the Psalms, Isaiah, the Book of Wisdom, Ecclesiasticus, and the New Testament. As a “Requiem,” Brahms clearly has in mind a connection to the ancient liturgical tradition of a Christian Mass in memory of a deceased person. At the same time, not a single movement of Ein deutsches Requiem corresponds exactly to the lineup we find in the Requiem settings by Mozart, Verdi, or Fauré, for example. Take the Dies irae, with its theatrical depiction of Judgment Day (constituting a massive portion  of the Verdi Requiem): this is conspicuously absent from Brahms’s Requiem.

Not that Brahms’s strategy of his selecting his own texts was entirely unprecedented. Handel’s Messiah is the best-known example of a similar method of piecing together various scriptural selections to trace the narrative of the nativity, passion, and resurrection of Jesus. Other composers of the Renaissance and Baroque — eras of intense interest to Brahms as a student of music history — also anticipated this method of using selected texts to create a musical memorial. (Think of the Bach Passion settings.)

In his Requiem, Brahms shifts the focus away from pleading for the redemption of the deceased. His music is geared instead toward consolation of the living. After all, young Brahms found himself in desperate need of consolation when his beloved mentor and friend Robert Schumann, suffered his terrible demise while in an asylum and eventually died in 1856.

The death of the composer’s mother in 1865 was another impetus. In her memory, he wrote what became the fifth movement, which contains some of the score’s most beautiful music and the line “I will comfort you as a mother would.” (Incidentally, the Brahms authority Michael Musgrave thinks that the usual story — that the composer wrote movement five as a kind of postscript, later interpolating it into the score — is inaccurate. Musgrave posits that Brahms withheld it from the Bremen premiere because he needed to see the audience’s reaction before allowing such a private confession to become public.)

What resulted is a uniquely personal choral work that, like the traditional Requiem, addresses the ultimate questions. But it does so without the established ideological framework of the latter. In a sense, the Brahms Requiem represents the ultimate “crossover” work of sacred to secular music.

The listener is immediately drawn into this music by Brahms’s balance of lyricism and drama. At the same time, the work achieves a satisfyingly complete and symmetrical large-scale design in the form of an arch. For instance, the simple, three-note motif heard when the chorus first enters serves as an organically unifying basic idea. The final movement is similarly slow and echoes the beginning. The second and sixth movements provide dramatic highlights, the second resembling an apocalypse in slow motion and the sixth (with its addition of solo baritone) a fresco of existential dread. This is where Brahms comes closest to a Dies irae sensibility, though his approach is much more subjective than the horror film counterpart in conventional Requiems. Movements three and five both juxtapose the solo human voice with the chorus, while the Psalm that is set in the fourth movement takes its place as the serene center of the Requiem, around which everything revolves.

The principle of a music of consolation returns in the final moments. The miracle of musical time is such that Brahms has by this point firmly implanted a memory, so that its reprise is laden with those associations. He uses this inherent musical power as a gesture akin to what the traditional Requiem is intended to do: to uplift those left to mourn with the promise of eternal life. Brahms has left a musical imprint in our memory that he now recalls — the artist’s version of immortality.

—Thomas May writes about music and the arts.