Musical Excursion: Brahms Requiem

The tradition of the requiem mass goes back centuries. Originally called the Missa pro defunctis, or the "Mass for the dead," it was used to celebrate/commemorate/pray for the deceased. The theology is distinctly Roman Catholic; pleas are made for the forgiveness of sins for those who have departed, for example. See here for more/better details:

Various composers have tried their hand at the requiem over the years, but today we're talking about the efforts of Joh. Brahms, who wrote this piece around the year 1865. This puts us at the end of the American Civil war, probably in the middle of what people would call the"Romantic Period" in music.

The history of this art form is rich and deep, and I'm going to gloss over it almost entirely, but I will note that Brahms' take on the genre is a bit unusual in that he:

Uses the German language, Uses the mass as a point of departure for something that is only nominally sacred, Plays fast and loose with the form and the text used therein, and Makes a point of steering clear of any distinct Christian theology

"Fine," you say, "why are we talking about this?" My answer is that while this isn't necessarily a composition intended for church use, by choosing the subject matter (and title) Brahms invokes a resonance with the earlier, sacred genre. It asks us to compare and contrast itself with what we know or understand about sacred music.

More importantly, it's a stunningly beautiful and reflective piece. We won't cover everything here, and in fact, we're just going to look at a tiny fragment from one movement, Denn wir haben hie keine bleibende Statt ('here (on earth) we have no resting place").

If you haven't listened to this movement, check it out on youtube ( It has every bit as much "punch," in my opinion, as more famous compositions (like Orff's "Carmina Burana") and works through some of the most sublime concepts and writings in the New Testament, exploring the final judgement as well as Christ's victory over death.

Consider the excerpt below (youtube link: , where Brahms sets the text from 1 Corinthians 15:50,"Death is swallowed up in Victory. O Death, where is your victory? O Death, where is your sting?" (also see Hos. 13:14):

Please listen to this passage several times, and note the call and response that takes place between the voices in the choir, the sense of propulsion that drives this passage forward, and the harmonic shifts that underpin it. I'll address each dimension next.

Call and response: Brahms is treating this text in a contrapuntal way ("contrapuntal" -- an adjective describing the use of "counterpoint"), which is a centuries-old approach to creating music. Note how each of the four voices above moves somewhat independently of the other voices, the soprano/alto voices "taking turns" with the tenor/bass. This creates a "call and response," almost a canonic feel. The upper voices say 'where-is-thy-sting', followed by the answer, 'is-they-sting.'

I'll be talking about counterpoint again and again, so if you don't necessarily understand or believe all of this immediately, that's fine--take it from me, it's used extensively through music history (and in this Requiem). It's a staggeringly beautiful if misunderstood art form, and merits much study and discussion.

Propulsion: The phrase (or parts of the phrase) "where is the sting" repeat in each voice, each time at a different pitch level. The melodic content used to express each word shifts, though, moving downward. This technique is known as a sequence, and is a developmental tool used throughout music history. By "developmental tool" I mean this is an accepted, tried-and-true way of moving the music forward while emphasizing the following:

A repeated idea (at different pitch levels) serves to reinforce the contents of the text, The act of locking together different ideas in sequence (as we'll see below) reflects an aesthetic that mirrors the distinctly theistic idea that an overarching narrative, or "telos" controls the direction of history. This is reflected, in microcosm, in the machinery driving a sequence.

Counterpoint was--and is--considered a difficult task, requiring equal amounts skill and genius. What a better way to express the complex mysteries of creation than through the most difficult and rewarding compositional techniques?

Harmonic Shift: Reducing the pitches to their structural roles, we can create a skeleton of the harmonic and linear movement, such as we see below:

If you play this at the piano, you can hear the general chordal and harmonic movement implied by the linear/contrapuntal harmony. Two things are immediately apparent:

Although the notes are expressing a motivic/linear idea, they "stack" together to create a circle-of-fifths progression (D-G-C-F-B-E) Alternating consonant/dissontant intervals create harmonic tension and resolution, "propelling" the music forward, but in a familiar way. We also hear fairly thick harmonies, with seventh and ninth chords. Comparing the reduction to the actual score (the first example) we can see a beautiful interlocking of the motive (a stepwise descent through a third followed by a stepwise ascent) through the use of sequence.

I've identified the intervals between the bass pitch and the choral voices above. The red bars and numbers show an example of the 9th and 5th being created between the bassline and soprano. You'll see repeating patterns (9-5, 9-5, or 10-7, 10-7). These linear intervallic patterns are interlocked with the harmonic and melodic motion, and illustrate the mechanical, or "craftsmanlike" dimension of this type of composition.

Dissonances are created by tying or sustaining pitches above the moving bass, and those are resolved according to the ancient rules of counterpoint. Brahms really pays homage to the old, sacred style, which must have seemed anachronistic in the 'modern' music world of the 1860s. In some ways, this passage could have come straight out of a Bach Motet from 1722!

If you think there's a lot to talk about here, you're right. This is a tiny, fairly predictable section of a much larger, more complex work, yet we've been able to catch a glimpse of the great care and skill Brahms exhibits in working out his musical ideas.

For me personally, nothing is more satisfying than a well-worked-out sequence, and one of the greatest ways to express our joy and wonderment at the creator's plan for redemption is through sequence. The arc of history is turbulent and sometimes dissonant, but is controlled by the plan of creation put forth by the Father. The aesthetic that drives the sequence (and musical development and working-out) is our human reflection of that arc.

As you'll notice, I'll try to explore the relationship between sequence and this plan time and time again.

In another post, we'll explore some different approaches to composition that do not reflect this kind of aesthetic, and compare their underpinnings as well as their specific works.

Questions for discussion/consideration

Listen to the entire movement (or the whole work if you have time, it is not long). Try to identify other sections that use counterpoint. Are they used just sporadically, or do they serve to amplify certain elements in the text? Which elements?

Focus your attention on the music you are using in your church services. Are you able to identify the use of sequence in those works?