Music + Arts

The Beauty and Sorrow of Brahms’ Requiem

On Friday night we have the privilege to present one of the greatest choral masterpieces of all time.

Those of you familiar with Johannes Brahms’ A German Requiem know that it was conceived for full orchestra and symphonic chorus. But a number of years ago I was delighted to discover that Brahms himself had arranged the original orchestral accompaniment for piano duet: four hands on one piano. I immediately fell in love with this more intimate version, finding the immediacy of the piano and voices deeply moving.

I knew right away that this version of the Requiem would become an important staple in our Chamber Choir’s concert series.

The Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church Chamber Choir premiered A German Requiem on April 11, 2019. We were honored to perform this masterwork with The Shelest Piano Duo. Both Anna and Dimitri Shelest Anna and Dmitri Shelest are established solo artists, having received numerous prizes and awards along the way. Their collaboration as a duo brings to the performance stage inventive programs not only of solo repertoire, but also four-hand music. (The Shelests were set to perform with us again this year, on Verdi’s Requiem, before the global pandemic altered our plans.)

Four-handed piano arrangements of orchestral music were commonplace in the 19th century. Like today, large instrumental ensembles were often impractical and expensive, so many publishing companies commissioned piano arrangements of orchestral music.

Before the dawn of recordings, these arrangements allowed people to enjoy symphonic and operatic masterpieces in their own homes. They also offered producers the opportunity to become familiar with pieces before investing large sums of money into full performances. Although employees of the publishers often created these arrangements on behalf of the composers, it is significant that Brahms arranged the piano accompaniment for his Requiem himself.

Brahms composed A German Requiem between 1865 and 1868. Many people speculate that the work was inspired by two bereavements in Brahms’ life: the loss of his dear friend, the great composer Robert Schumann in 1856, and then of his own beloved mother in 1865. Although Brahms was a deeply private person who never confirmed nor denied these speculations, the fact that he took the time to compose the four-hand piano accompaniment personally speaks to his fondness for this particular piece.

This arrangement of the Requiem received its premiere in London at a private residence in 1871, and has since come to be known as the “London” version. Not a mere reduction of the orchestral score, Brahms created an artful and idiomatic piano accompaniment, one that arguably allows the listener to experience the piece with a clarity beyond that of the original orchestral score.

In this intimate chamber version, the beautiful text setting and brilliant choral textures are presented with an immediacy not soon forgotten—a direct, heart-to-heart conversation with the brilliant composer of this profound, human Requiem. We hope you will join us on Friday evening for this online community event. It will be a wonderful way to prepare for Holy Week.

The encore performance of Brahms’ Requiem: The Lenten Concert, will be presented simultaneously as a Facebook Watch Party and a YouTube Premiere at 7 pm Friday, April 3. Both presentations will feature live commentary from Ryan Jackson and many of the performers. See our Events page for details on how to access these platforms.