Brahms’s German Requiem is really one of those works that you can’t do without.  If you have never heard it before, I urge you to listen to it multiple times.  The words are below.  This is a live recording of George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra.  At one time, this orchestra was probably the best in the world.  The soloists are Gundula Janowitz, soprano, and Tom Krause, baritone.

Here is the Requiem in the appropriate order.  The German below follows this order.

Selig sind

Denn Alles Fleisch

Herr, lehre doch mich

Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen

Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit

Denn wir haben hie keine bleibende Statt

Selig sind, Die toten

Ein Deutsches Requiem (A German Requiem) by Johannes Brahms, is a large-scale work for chorus, orchestra, a soprano and a baritone soloist, composed between 1865 and 1868.

The first performance of the six movements (there had been an earlier semi-premier of the first three movements) premiered in the Bremen Cathedral on Good Friday, April 10, 1868, with Brahms conducting and Julius Stockhausen as the baritone soloist.  The performance was a great success and marked a turning point in Brahms’s career.

In May 1868, Brahms composed an additional movement, which became the fifth movement within the final work.  The final, seven-movement version of A German Requiem was premiered in Leipzig on February 18, 1869, with Carl Reinecke conducting the Gewandhaus Orchestra and Chorus, and soloists Emilie Bellingrath-Wagner and Franz Krückl.

Brahms assembled the libretto himself.  The text comes from the German Luther Bible.

Critical reception

Most critics have commented on the high level of craftsmanship displayed in the work, and have appreciated its quasi-Classical structures (e.g. the third and sixth movements have fugues at their climax). But not all critics responded favorably to the work. George Bernard Shaw, an avowed Wagnerite, wrote that “it could only have come from the establishment of a first-class undertaker.” Some commentators have also been puzzled by its lack of overt Christian content, though it seems clear that for Brahms this was a humanist rather than a Christian work.

 

George Szell

George Szell (June 7, 1897 – July 30, 1970), originally György Széll, György Endre Szél, or Georg Szell, was a Hungarian-born Jewish-American conductor and composer. He is widely considered one of the twentieth century’s greatest conductors.  He is remembered today for his long and successful tenure as music director of the Cleveland Orchestra of Cleveland, Ohio, and for the recordings of the standard classical repertoire he made in Cleveland and with other orchestras.

Szell came to Cleveland in 1946 to take over a respected if undersized orchestra, which was struggling to recover from the disruptions of World War II. By the time of his death he was credited, to quote the critic Donal Henahan, with having built it into “what many critics regarded as the world’s keenest symphonic instrument.”  Through his recordings, Szell has remained a presence in the classical music world long after his death, and his name remains synonymous with that of the Cleveland Orchestra.

Life and career

Szell was born in Budapest but grew up in Vienna. His family was of Jewish origin but converted to Catholicism and so as a young boy he was brought up as a Catholic and taken regularly to Mass.

He began his formal music training as a pianist, studying with Richard Robert. One of Robert’s other students was Rudolf Serkin; Szell and Serkin became lifelong friends and musical collaborators.  In addition to the piano, Szell studied composition with Eusebius Mandyczewski (a personal friend of Brahms), and with Max Reger for a brief period. Although his work as a composer is virtually unknown today, when he was fourteen Szell signed a ten-year exclusive publishing contract with Universal Edition in Vienna. In addition to writing original pieces, he arranged Bedřich Smetana’s String Quartet No. 1, From My Life, for orchestra.

At the age of eleven, Szell began touring Europe as a pianist and composer, making his London debut at that age. Newspapers declared him “the next Mozart.” Throughout his teenage years he performed with orchestras in this dual role, eventually making appearances as composer, pianist and conductor, as he did with the Berlin Philharmonic at age seventeen

Szell quickly realized that he was never going to make a career out of being a composer or pianist, and that he much preferred the artistic control he could achieve as a conductor. He made an unplanned public conducting debut when he was seventeen, while vacationing with his family at a summer resort. The Vienna Symphony’s conductor had injured his arm, and Szell was asked to substitute. Szell quickly turned to conducting full-time. Though he abandoned composing, throughout the rest of his life he occasionally played the piano with chamber ensembles and as an accompanist. Despite his rare appearances as a pianist after his teens, he remained in good form. During his Cleveland years he occasionally would demonstrate to guest pianists how he thought they should play a certain passage.

In 1915, at the age of 18, Szell won an appointment with Berlin’s Royal Court Opera (now known as the Staatsoper). There, he was befriended by its Music Director, Richard Strauss. Strauss instantly recognized Szell’s talent and was particularly impressed with how well the teenager conducted Strauss’s music. Strauss once said that he could die a happy man knowing that there was someone who performed his music so perfectly. In fact, Szell ended up conducting part of the world premiere recording of Don Juan for Strauss. The composer had arranged for Szell to rehearse the orchestra for him, but having overslept, showed up an hour late to the recording session. Since the recording session was already paid for, and only Szell was there, Szell conducted the first half of the recording (since no more than four minutes of music could fit onto one side of a 78, the music was broken up into four sections). Strauss arrived as Szell was finishing conducting the second part; he exclaimed that what he heard was so good that it could go out under his own name. Strauss went on to record the last two parts, leaving the Szell-conducted half as part of the full world premiere recording of Don Juan.

Szell credited Strauss as being a major influence on his conducting style. Much of his baton technique, the Cleveland Orchestra’s lean, transparent sound, and Szell’s willingness to be an orchestra builder all came from Strauss. The two remained friends after Szell left the Royal Court Opera in 1919.

In the fifteen years during and after World War I, Szell worked with opera houses and orchestras in Europe: in Berlin, Strasbourg — where he succeeded Otto Klemperer at the Municipal Theatre — Prague, Darmstadt, and Düsseldorf, before becoming principal conductor, in 1924, of the Berlin Staatsoper, which had replaced the Royal Opera. In 1930, Szell made his United States debut with the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra. At this time, he was better known as an opera conductor than an orchestral one.

Move to the U.S.

At the outbreak of war in Europe in 1939, Szell was returning via the U.S. from an Australian tour; he ended up settling with his family in New York City.  From 1940 to 1945 he taught composition, orchestration, and music theory at the Mannes College of Music in Manhattan.  After a year devoted primarily to teaching, Szell began to receive frequent guest conducting invitations. Important among these invitations was a series of four concerts with Arturo Toscanini’s NBC Symphony Orchestra in 1941. In 1942 he made his Metropolitan Opera debut; he conducted the company regularly for the next four years. In 1943 he made his New York Philharmonic debut. In 1946 he became a naturalized citizen of the United States.

The Cleveland Orchestra: 1946 to 1970

In 1946, Szell was asked to become the Music Director of the Cleveland Orchestra. At the time the Cleveland Orchestra was a highly regarded regional American orchestra (the top-tier American orchestras were Philadelphia Orchestra, Boston Symphony Orchestra, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, New York Philharmonic and NBC Symphony Orchestra). For Szell, working in Cleveland would represent an opportunity to create his own personal ideal orchestra, one which would combine the virtuosity of the best American ensembles, with the homogeneity of tone of the best European orchestras. Szell made it clear to the trustees of the Orchestra that if they wanted him to be their next conductor, they would have to agree to give him total artistic control of the Orchestra; they agreed. He held this post until his death.

By the end of the 1950s it became clear to the world that the Cleveland Orchestra, noted for its flawless precision and chamber-like sound, had taken its place alongside the greatest orchestras in America and Europe.

Other orchestras

After World War II Szell became closely associated with the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam, where he was a frequent guest conductor and made a number of recordings. He also regularly appeared with the London Symphony Orchestra, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Vienna Philharmonic, and at the Salzburg Festival. From 1942 to 1955, he was an annual guest conductor of the New York Philharmonic and served as Musical Advisor and senior guest conductor of that orchestra in the last year of his life.

 

The German text below was selected by Brahms from the Lutheran Bible. The English is from the King James Bible.

  German English
I
Matthew 5:4 Selig sind, die da Leid tragen, denn sie sollen getröstet werden. Blessed are they that mourn; for they shall be comforted.
Psalm 126:5,6 Die mit Tränen säen, werden mit Freuden ernten.
Sie gehen hin und weinen und tragen edlen Samen, und kommen mit Freuden und bringen ihre Garben.
They that sow in tears shall reap in joy.
He that goeth forth and weepeth, bearing precious seed, shall doubtless come again with rejoicing, bringing his sheaves with him.
II
1 Peter 1:24 Denn alles Fleisch ist wie Gras und alle Herrlichkeit des Menschen wie des Grases Blumen. Das Gras ist verdorret und die Blume abgefallen. 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.
James 5:7 So seid nun geduldig, lieben Brüder, bis auf die Zukunft des Herrn. Siehe, ein Ackermann wartet auf die köstliche Frucht der Erde und is geduldig darüber, bis er empfahe den Morgenregen und Abendregen. Be patient therefore, brethren, unto the coming of the Lord. Behold, the husbandmen waiteh for the precious fruit of the earth, and hath long patience for it, until he receive the early and latter rain.
1 Peter 1:25 Aber des Herrn Wort bleibet in Ewigkeit. But the word of the Lord endureth for ever.
Isaiah 35:10 Die Erlöseten des Herrn werden wieder kommen, und gen Zion kommen mit Jauchzen; ewige Freude wird über ihrem Haupte sein; Freude und Wonne werden sie ergreifen und Schmerz und Seufzen wird weg müssen. 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.
III
Psalm 39:4-7 Herr, lehre doch mich, daß ein Ende mit mir haben muß, und mein Leben ein Ziel hat, und ich davon muß.
Siehe, meine Tage sind einer Hand breit vor dir, und mein Leben ist wie nichts vor dir.
Ach, wie gar nichts sind alle Menschen, die doch so sicher leben. Sie gehen daher wie ein Schemen, und machen ihnen viel vergebliche Unruhe; sie sammeln und wissen nicht wer es kriegen vird. Nun Herr, wess soll ich mich trösten? Ich hoffe auf dich.
Lord, make me to know mine end, and the measure of my days, what it is: that I may know how frail I am.
Behold, thou hast made my days as an handbreadth; and mine age is as nothing before thee.
Surely every man walketh in a vain shew: surely they are disquieted in vain: he heapeth up riches, and knoweth not who shall gather them.
And now, Lord, what wait I for? my hope is in thee.
Wisdom of Solomon 3:1 Der Gerechten Seelen sind in Gottes Hand und keine Qual rühret sie an. But the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and there shall no torment touch them.
IV
Psalm 84:1,2,4 Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen, Herr Zebaoth! Meine seele verlanget und sehnet sich nach den Vorh�fen des Herrn; mein Leib und Seele freuen sich in dem lebendigen Gott. Wohl denen, die in deinem Hause wohnen, die loben dich immerdar. How amiable are they tabernacles, O Lord of hosts!
My soul longeth, yea, even fainteth for the courts of the Lord: my heart and my flesh crieth out for the living God.
Blessed are they that dwell in thy house: they will be still praising thee.
V
John 16:22 Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit; aber ich will euch wieder sehen und euer Herz soll sich freuen und eure Freude soll neimand von euch nehmen. And ye now therefore have sorrow; but I will see you again, and your heart shall rejoice, and your joy no man taketh from you.
Ecclesiasticus 51:27 Sehet mich an: Ich habe eine kleine Zeit Mühe und Arbeit gehabt und habe großen Trost funden. Ye see how for a little while I labor and toil, yet have I found much rest.
Isaiah 66:13 Ich will euch trösten, wie Einen seine Mutter tröstet. As one whom his mother comforteth, so will I comfort you.
VI
Hebrews 13:14 Denn wir haben hie keine bleibende Statt, sondern die zukünftige suchen wir. For here have we no continuing city, but we seek one to come.
1 Corinthians 15:51,52,54,55 Siehe, ich sage euch ein Geheimnis: Wir werden nicht alle entschlafen, wir werden aber alle verwandelt werden; und dasselbige plötzlich, in einem Augenblick, zu der Zeit der letzten Posaune. Denn es wird die Posaune schallen, und die Toten wervandelt werden. Dann wird erfüllet werden das Wort, das geschrieben steht: Der Tod is verschlungen in den Sieg. Tod, wo ist dein Stachel? Hölle, wo ist dein Sieg? Behold, I shew you a mystery; We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed.
In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.
. . . then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory.
O death, where is they sting? O grave, where is they victory?
Revelation 4:11 Herr, du bist Würdig zu nehmen Preis und Ehre und Kraft, denn du hast alle Dinge geschaffen, und durch deinen Willen haben, sie das Wesen und sind geschaffen. Thou art worthy, O Lord, to receive glory and honour and power: for thou hast created all things, and for thy pleasure they are and were created.
VII
Revelation 14:13 Selig sind die Toten, die in dem Herrn sterben, von nun an. Ja, der Geist spricht, daß sie ruhen von ihrer Arbeit; denn ihre Werke folgen ihnen nach. Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord from henceforth: Yea, saith the Spirit, that they may rest from their labours; and their works do follow them.