In an excellent sermon I heard this past Sunday, preached by The Rev. Sari Ateek, we were reminded that God doesn’t need us to be worthy, just open to the ways that God will work with, and in, our lives. Let’s face it, we’ll never actually be worthy of anyone’s unconditional love, but as Christians we are asked again and again in the New Testament to die to self and be born again as we attempt to become worthy. Not once in a while or just during Lent, but every day. As one Lenten hymn reminds us, So daily dying to the way of self, so daily living to your way of love. (The Hymnal 1982, No. 149, v.2). Every day we have the chance to be new, to be better, to let our old selves die and find new life.
Perhaps this in part explains why I am feeling so fortunate to be conducting performances of Brahms’ Requiem this week. You might have noticed that requiem settings are most often performed as part of November’s season of remembrance or during the Lenten time of tombs and yearnings for Easter’s resurrection. But as summer beckons? New life has already come. The evidence is in every garden and graduation ceremony and requiems don’t fit. Unless, perhaps, as a reminder that resurrection of our souls happens whenever we open ourselves up to the possibility of change, even in the heat of summer.
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897), proud German, avowed humanist and ambivalent Christian, wrote his largest work based on the Catholic Requiem mass for the dead, but with the hope that it would be music that brought solace to the living. The title of “German” comes from its language – a German text, rather than the traditional Latin, but Brahms wished that it could have been called Ein menschliches Requiem (A Human Requiem). He would be pleased to find that this work has been described as a meditation on mortality from a humanist point of view.
Brahms very likely began composing this music as a response to his sorrow at the death of his dearest friend, fellow composer Robert Schumann, and he continued working on it between the years 1857 and 1868, during which time his beloved mother also died. He not only eschewed the traditional Latin of requiem settings, but also the traditional liturgical texts, compiling his own from the Bible. He notably failed to ever mention Jesus. Perhaps he hoped that his Requiem would transcend any particular religion.
Though known to be a gruff misanthrope, Brahms concentrated on themes of everlasting joy in this music. The word Selig (blessed) begins and ends this Requiem, and the choir frequently sings about Freude (joy). There is no fire and brimstone in Brahms’ views on mortality, only hope. As if Brahms is giving the listener permission to live in hope, without the rigors of belief.
There is an expansiveness to his thinking, and it is expressed in the music through the large ranges for the singers, luxurious sounds from the orchestra, and sweeping musical lines. As a young musician said to me in a recent conversation about Brahms’ music in general, even the briefest of his pieces seems to encompass the entirety of life. Its richness and complexities and confusions. Its joys and sorrows.
Walking into summer, limbs bared to the sun, arms outstretched as we slough off old ways and open ourselves to new life. I’m well aware that mourning the death of one we have loved is not the same as dying to self and being born again. But thinking about Brahms’ Requiem made me intrigued by a possible connection. Some part of ourselves dies when a beloved one has died, and we slowly learn to find new life in some way for that relationship. When I planned last fall to perform Brahms’ Requiem with a choir made up of those working at The World Bank and IMF I could not have guessed how right it would feel now, on the brink of summer, to let parts of me die as I welcome the changes of new life.
Where I’ll be:
May 22, May 29 and June 5 – organist/choir director for the 9:00 am, 11:15 am and 5:00 pm service at St. John’s, Norwood, 6701 Wisconsin Avenue, Chevy Chase, Maryland. Experienced choral singers who would like sing with the choir there, come at 10:30 for rehearsal before the service.
May 31, June 2 and June 6 – performances of Brahms’ Requiem with the World Bank/IMF Chorus and orchestra, 1:00 pm each of these dates. United Church (G and 20th) on May 31. For performances at the World Bank (June 2) and IMF (June 6) visitors will need to get free passes by contacting firstname.lastname@example.org and allow a few extra minutes to get through the security checks at these institutions.
June 12 through August 14 – organist/choir director for the 10:00 am and 5:00 pm services at St. John’s, Norwood. Come and sing with the Summer Choir there. 9:15 am rehearsal.
June 13 through 17 – The annual conference of The Association of Anglican Musicians, an organization that has been a source of some of my closest friends, supportive colleagues, and an inspirational reminder of all that is good about The Episcopal Church. We meet this year in Stamford, Connecicut.
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This blog represents my attempt to put thoughts together on various things that seem to connect – in my mind anyway. More often than not new ideas first involve reaching back to what was and I can only hope that the prehistoric San cave painting at the top of this page inspires all kinds of new connections between old and new.
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