Brahms Requiem

April 4 – 6, 2024

FABIO LUISI conducts

BRAHMS Ein deutsches Requiem (A German Requiem)

Fabio Luisi leads all musical forces (including former DSO artist-in-residence Matthias Goerne) in Brahms’s inspiring work. Gone are the rafter-shaking Last Judgment and punishment for sinners; instead, this Requiem’s centerpiece is the gentle “How Lovely Is Thy Dwelling Place,” comforting the bereaved and giving them the hope for eternal life. A balm for the soul. With English supertitles.

Program Notes

English Translations

Join us for a special pre-concert talk with Assistant Conductor Maurice Cohn! The talks will take place from Horchow Hall starting at 6:30pm on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday.

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Fabio Luisi

Music Director

Louise W. & Edmund J. Kahn Music Directorship

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Golda Schultz


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Matthias Goerne

Matthias Goerne


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Dallas Symphony Chorus


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Program Notes

by René Spencer Saller

Brahms loved singers, and singers loved him back. To understand why, all you need to do is listen to his vocal music. No one was better at bringing out the beauties of every vocal range. Present-day mezzo-sopranos and contraltos are especially grateful that Brahms wooed several of their tribe. Most composers give the sopranos all the best parts, but Brahms’s fondness for the duskier timbres is evident throughout his vocal music, particularly in his longest composition, A German Requiem. This ambitious work not only secured the 32-year-old Hamburg native’s status as a leading European composer; it also gave him the confidence to think big and to take risks.

Songs of Love and Death

On February 2, 1865, Brahms’s ailing 76-year-old mother died of a stroke. A short time later, the composer sent his most trusted confidante, Clara Schumann, new sketches for “a so-called Deutsches Requiem.” He had been mulling over the project in a general way for years, but his mother’s death galvanized him. The draft that he sent Clara was for the fourth movement of the Requiem, “How Lovely Is Thy Dwelling Place.” In the accompanying letter, he wrote, “It’s probably the least offensive part…But since it may have vanished into thin air before you come to Baden, at least have a look at the beautiful words…I hope to produce a sort of whole out of the thing and trust I shall retain enough courage and zest to carry it through.”

It took him another year and a half, but he finished it. In August, during one of his working vacations with Clara and her children, he wrote, “Baden-Baden in Summer 1866” at the bottom of the Requiem score. That September, in front of a small gathering at Clara’s, he performed the entire piece, then only six movements (he added the solo soprano movement after the premiere). In her diary, Clara gushed, “Johannes has played me some magnificent numbers from A German Requiem …[I]t is full of thoughts at once tender and bold.” The debut performance was a great success, and the Requiem went on to be sung by choruses across the country.

Human, All Too Human 

The article is crucial: It’s a requiem, not the requiem. And although it’s a “German” requiem, Brahms was referring not to the nationality but to the language. Instead of Latin, the ordained language for the standard Catholic requiem, Brahms compiled his favorite lines from Martin Luther’s translation of the Bible. Karl Reinthaler, the music director in Bremen who would lead the choir at the premiere, fretted that the work glossed over a major theological point: salvation through the death of Christ. The premiere, after all, was scheduled for Good Friday.

Brahms, who was fundamentally agnostic, refused to yield: “As far as the text is concerned, I confess that I would gladly omit even the word German and instead use Human…I have chosen one thing or another because I am a musician, because I needed it, and because with my venerable authors I can’t delete or dispute anything. But I had better stop before I say too much.” As Brahms biographer Jan Swafford writes, “He fashioned an inwardly spiritual work, full of echoes of religious music going back hundreds of years, yet there is no bowing to the altar or smell of incense in it. Even if the words come from the Bible, this was his response to death as a secular, skeptical modern man.”

A German Requiem shattered nearly every rule for requiems. It never mentions Jesus Christ by name and completely avoids the topic of Judgment Day. Its real subject is not divine grace and paradise but human grief and transience. It does not mourn the dead so much as console the living. Despite its focus on death, the word that appears most often in the text is, unexpectedly, “Freude,” or “joy.”

A Closer Listen 

Brahms made his own lovely dwelling place in the house of music; his holy cathedral, a four-part choir and orchestra. The structure is sound, its lines balanced and symmetrical. It begins and ends with the word “selig” (blessed). The second and sixth movements are also parallel, with minor-key main sections followed by ecstatic major-key conclusions. The third and fifth movements feature solo parts, for bass-baritone and soprano, respectively. The fourth movement is both pivot and resting point, with a lullaby-like theme and a fugato section that dovetails with the more prominent fugues in the third and sixth movements.

Architecture aside, what makes the Requiem so dazzling is its wealth of gemlike details. From its first moments, it has a luminous solemnity. Through the shadowy strains of the orchestra, the chorus sings softly – which, as any vocalist will tell you, is much more difficult than belting out the notes. The violins are conspicuously absent in this twilit soundworld. Near the end of the first movement, an arpeggiated harp figure emerges from a radiant cloud of polyphonic voices. Brahms used harps sparingly, almost always to suggest a state of grace.

The second movement – sketched a dozen years earlier, in response to his mentor Robert Schumann’s suicide attempt – is a triumph of chiaroscuro. It begins as a death march, while a sepulchral chorus announces that “all flesh is as grass.” When the women’s voices converge in a lyrical response, the words are still somber—grass withers, flowers die – but the gloom is shot through with sunlight. Not quite midway through the movement, the singers counsel patience: “The husbandman waits for the precious fruits of the earth and is patient until he receives the morning and evening rain.” At the mention of rain, the doubled flute and harp join pizzicato strings, forming gentle, rejuvenating droplets of solace.