I first heard the Brahms Requiem when I was in my last semester of graduate study at the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music. It was conducted by Robert Porco and sung by the combined ensembles of IU. My husband was in the chorus, and one of my friends, Shareese Arnold, was the soprano soloist. I had heard the work was amazing many times from my husband. At that point I didn’t need convincing about Brahms’ music. I was obsessed with his symphonies and famous Op. 77 violin concerto as well as his other choral and chamber music.
I wasn’t prepared for what I heard that night. I had many aesthetic experiences (when your whole body prickles and your hairs stand on end) while listening to music previously. As a pupil of music, I had started to think of music on both an intellectual and aesthetic scale. While I still could be captivated by music, those experiences were fewer and farther between than they were when I was twelve or thirteen years old and knew nothing about classical music other than I loved the way it completely captivated my senses. That night, sitting in my seat at this performance, I was move repeatedly to tears. Each darkly glistening melody lilted its way past me far too quickly. Many moments in that hour passed breathlessly, leaving me without words to describe the crack in my soul that this work had rent, leaving me fulfilled and yet yearning. I didn’t even know much about what they were singing beyond the major themes of the Requiem mass, and I was too transfixed to spare the translations more than a glance.
For months afterward, I sat in the music library, working, listening to recordings and deepening my love of Ein Deutsches Requiem. My appreciation of this work started as purely visceral and aesthetic. The darkness and sweeping broadness of Brahms’ movements captivated me, and as a human with an insatiable desire to meet the longing inside of me, I gladly fed that desire with the music of Brahms.
It wasn’t until over four years later that my appreciation for this work reached new levels. It started when I woke up one morning in the summer of 2014 after a gut-wrenching nightmare about the death of a close family member. It was one of those dreams where you wake up and feel the physical sickness of grief and stress because your body was releasing the same chemicals and having the same reactions as you would experience in real life. I drug myself out of bed to go for my morning walk on a trail near my home, eyes straining in the darkness of a 6:00am late summer dawn. Last summer I spent most of my four-mile walks listening to sermons, podcasts, and Proverbs, but this day I was still shaken by the grief my subconscious had perceived, and I couldn’t shake the death that surrounded my senses. I skimmed my spotify playlists and saw the Brahms Requiem. I don’t know why I thought it was a good idea, but I clicked on it. The shuffle feature pulled up movement two first, whose opening and predominant text translates to,
“For all flesh is as grass, and all the glory of man as the flower of grass. The grass withereth, and the flower thereof falleth away.” (from Isaiah 40 via 1 Peter)
It was like I heard that movement for the first time that day. I looked up the translation and read it as I walked. I let that music possess me like it had three years earlier, but I was a different woman than I was the first time I had heard this piece. I had stood in the valley of the shadow of death as I buried and mourned friends too young to die. I had made a transition from a spiritual seeker to a woman captivated by God. I had battled deep depression. I had walked with those close to me through battles with mental health and addiction issues. I saw the brokenness of a world that is not the way it was supposed to be.
It was embarrassing, but I sobbed when I listened to movement two on the trail that day. It was the only reaction I could have to such a hopeless emotion washing over my senses. I think Brahms wanted me to feel the relentlessness of death, as a listener. To see the world through the clear lens as a thing whose most shimmering heights will inevitably be overcome by the ash of death. Brahms wanted me to hear that we, as humans, are so fragile, so perishable, so ephemeral. Our beauty is delicate, unique, irreplaceable as the most precious flower, but we, like the flower, will wither, all color will drain from us, and we will eventually be swallowed by the earth. But the story doesn’t stop there.
Brahms gives us a glimpse into the hope that the gospel provides us. The next text he chooses is from James and it is on suffering. We are asked to wait patiently for the coming of the Lord, the way the farmer waits for the early rains to make the earth pliable enough to plow and plant, and the late rains to help the crop to spring to life. And after that, he waits for the precious fruit of the earth. His music lightens and lilts, though at the ends of the two musical sections of this break, we feel some underlying music pulling at the ends of this hope. Brahms drags us back into the dark beauty of his setting of All flesh is grass, but this time the music, though we’ve already heard it, seems to sting more, and it almost feels cruel. Hope, and then what? Death again? Yes. The crescendo into the wall of the futility of death hit me on the trail harder this time. I stopped walking, overcome by even deeper hopelessness.
It occurred to me that day that this slice of the Brahms requiem mirrors the realities we face (or that we will face) so well. So much of what we see today in Christian art, worship, and music dwells on sweet, saccharin Christianity in such a way that when we are hit with death in the face, we don’t know what to do with it. I’m not saying we should spend our time only dwelling on sin and death. We should certainly partake in the transforming joy that the gospel offers us. But we need to know in the midst of that that this side of heaven, we all must deal with death. As the voices decrescendo and fade off with the music at the end of this second statement of Isaiah 40, there is a handbreadth of silence and pause – just enough that you almost think it ends there, in death and despair.
But no, Brahms does not leave us there, and neither does Isaiah. A unison “ABER!” broke into the dawn and my earphones, and I heard something I hadn’t heard before. The great “BUT!” in German. The gospel offers a ‘but.’ BUT! The Glory of the Lord endures forever.
What is this you say? The glory of the Lord endures, forever. In light of the gospel, Jesus endured. Jesus lived the life that we should have lived, and in his human flesh, died the death that we should have died. His body was put in the tomb to rot. But, (ABER!) he rose from the dead. He conquered death, not just for his own human body, but for mine, too.
I think what weighed on me so heavily that morning after I woke up was not necessarily the dream itself, but the reality it pressed onto my heart. One day, I will bury that family member. Or if I die before them, they will bury me, and someone else will bury them. I will have to say goodbye, and it will hurt. Not a temporary pain, not an “it gets better” sort of pain. There kind that will change me forever. But. Yes, there is an “Aber.” But Christ conquered death, and though we presently suffer, Christ has paid our ransom. In a world where we are bound by our chosen chains, with hearts by nature inclined toward sin, we are incapable of saving ourselves, of paying our debts. But what it means to have our ransom paid is that Christ bails us out. He saves us, even from death.
You see, I can seek comfort in the face of death by sentimentalizing or glorifying it, or even by pretending it isn’t there. But ultimately it is undeniable that those options are not solutions to death itself. The celebratory almost-fugue at the end of moment two comes from Isaiah 35 and joyfully declares this:
“And the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with songs and everlasting joy upon their heads: they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.”
If I cannot escape death and brokenness by myself, then the only way I could do it is to be ransomed. And the good news is that I have been…all of us have. So my weeping sobs can truly be converted to songs of joy, as is promised in Psalm 126, a text from Brahms’ first movement.
As Brahms’ almost-fugue raced triumphantly to the close of movement two, I found myself sobbing tears of joy. This is the power of music. It strips us bare.
Ever since that morning on the trail, I have wanted to more deeply process the Brahms requiem. To listen to it with intentional contemplation. To know Brahms himself better, as a composer, as a man. To know this work better structurally, historically, intimately. And since I started painting again in 2014 and in earnest in 2015 I thought it would be fitting to consider a project of painting illuminations of the work. I was intimidated, to say the least. I told my husband about the idea on a long car ride back from Iowa. He got excited. He said, “Why not start?” I shrugged and confessed I was afraid I had not yet developed a sophisticated enough visual language to express the things I felt as I listened to this massive work. He said it didn’t matter – I could always revisit the material later, and good friends echoed the sentiment. He excitedly asked me to switch places with him at a rest area so I could drive while he read me the biblical texts and talked to me about the movements. His enthusiasm and willingness to believe in me rubbed off. So the next morning, I walked into my studio and cut a fresh piece of watercolor paper from my giant roll, hooked up my headphones, cracked open scripture, and entered a process that has occupied nearly three months of my creative energy. I am one painting away from completion as I write this, and I’ve learned so much about Brahms as an artist and as a man, about the Requiem itself, and about the promises of comfort that scripture offers. I have also learned a lot about myself as an artist, gained confidence in my visual language, and I’ve had so many wonderful and interesting conversations as a result of this project.
I will be sharing more insight into the individual movements as I worked on them, either on this blog or through a printed medium.
Thank you for reading, dear friends, and for all of the support many of you have offered on this crazy journey.