This weekend I went with my grandparents to the Carmel Bach Festival and had the opportunity to hear both Bach’s B-Minor Mass and Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis Cantata (BWV 21), both for the first time. The Cantata was the first part of a two-part concert, with the second part being Brahms’sEin Deustches Requiem.
I’ve never been a super huge Bach aficionado so I will spare you any attempt at “technical” talk. I will say, however, that the more I hear of Bach’s compositions, the more impressed I am. The mastery exhibited in the B-Minor Mass was incredible. A nearly two-hour affair, every movement of the mass’s four parts was alive with the spirit of worship, from the arias and duets by the four soloists, to the quartets pulled from the ranks of the choir, to the choruses themselves. The cantata that came bundled with Ein Deutsches Requiem is another very good piece, speaking of despair and woe being healed by Jesus’ love for the sufferer. I feel like somewhat of a tool, calling Bach’s work “very good” without being a musicologist or similar, but I lack the skills necessary to describe just how well-made these pieces of music are. Doubtless there are more technical reviews of these pieces for those interested, but as a “lay” person, just being able to enjoy Bach’s music was invigorating.
Brahms’s A German Requiem is almost certainly my favorite piece of classical music, and this performance of it was spectacular. The Requiem is Brahms’s biggest work, a piece taking text from scripture but not meant for liturgical service. Instead of using the traditional Catholic intercession for the dead, Brahms takes text from Martin Luther’s translation of the Bible, choosing passages of hope and consolation for the living. The piece begins “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted” from the beatitudes and proceeds to paint a picture of God’s enduring love and death’s imminent defeat at his hands. It’s absolutely impossible to describe the overwhelming sense of emotion that accompanies this piece, so I highly recommend hearing it for yourself. My grandfather commented that he observed something he had never seen before: nobody was talking in the bathroom after the concert.
What is interesting about this piece is that there is nowhere a mention of Christ as a redeeming figure. While in both of Bach’s pieces Christ is (obviously) preeminent as the redeemer, and the soul can only find comfort from him, Brahms here makes no mention of Jesus. Brahms at one point commented that he could have aptly named the piece “The Human Requiem”, and it is easy to see how the piece is universally appealing and not as alienating as Bach’s Jesu-centric writings are. I think the piece, no matter how humanist and “secular” it might seem, is still a great message for Christians and non-Christians alike. It’s not hard to offer up Brahms’s texts as prayer to the God who is worthy “to receive glory and honor and power” as the sixth movement’s Revelation 4 text proudly proclaims. It’s not difficult for our souls to “long, even faint for the courts of the Lord” (Ps. 84) as in the fourth movement.
I think part of what makes this piece so human and universal is that it proclaims truth that deep down, all humans feel a part of. We yearn, whether we know it or not, for God’s courts in heaven; we know, instinctively, that all flesh is as grass and that our days are as a handbreadth. Whether we try to deal with that truth by working for our own glory and power, and ultimately failing, or by accepting Jesus as the redeemer that Bach’s works point to, is up to us, but both Bach’s mass and Brahms’s requiem point to the fact that there is something greater than us that demands our response. Though Brahms doesn’t illustrate the way like Bach does, he does point to the outcome for God’s people:
“…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 thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?” (1 Cor. 15:54-55)