Classical Requiems: Brahms’s “Human” Requiem

Classical Requiems: Brahms’s “Human” Requiem

As the transcendent beauty of Brahms’s Requiem comes to the Jones Hall stage, it’s important to note that this requiem is unlike any other you might know. From musical notation to orchestration, the Brahms’s brings the connection to humanity to the forefront of the profound masterwork.

Brahms's Requiem (Ein deutsches Requiem):

  • German Language and Sacred Text: What separates Brahms's Requiem from other works is that it is sung in German. Most requiems that have been composed usually use Latin text. The text is primarily taken from the Lutheran Bible.
  • Emphasis on Comfort: Unlike traditional requiems focused on Judgement Day and salvation, Brahms's Requiem emphasizes comfort and solace for the living. It is perhaps the most singular sacred choral work during the Romantic period and is often considered a humanistic and consoling work.
  • Choral Emphasis and Balance: Brahms provides intricate choral writing and uses the phrase Selig sind, or “Blessed are”, to create a unified structure within the choir. He uses the choir to set the mood of the piece while the orchestra provides a rich and supportive backdrop to the overall vision. The blend between the two ensembles never overshadows one another.

Verdi's Requiem:

  • Operatic Influence: Verdi's Requiem has a more dramatic and operatic feel compared to Brahms's Requiem. It incorporates theatrical elements and demands a larger orchestra. Verdi not only extends the brass section but allows the soloists to become a prominent role in its narrative.
  • Latin Text and Traditional Elements: Verdi adheres to the traditional Latin text for the Requiem Mass, providing a more traditional Catholic liturgical approach compared to Brahms's use of vernacular text.
  • Fun Fact: Verdi writes parts for female voices in his requiem during a time when the Catholic Church only used men for their chorus!

Mozart's Requiem:

  • Incomplete Composition: Mozart's Requiem is known for being incomplete, with various sections finished by his students and other composers. Brahms's Requiem, on the other hand, is a complete and original work.
  • Dramatic Contrast: While both works explore the theme of death, Mozart's Requiem has a more ominous and dramatic tone, often associated with the mysterious circumstances of Mozart's own death.
  • Dynamic Orchestration and Solos: Mozart’s Lacrimosa and Dies Irae are two of the most powerful movements in classical music. Mozart uses these movements to create a forceful undertone full of fear and somewhat remorse in the text and toward the audience. He interacts with the soloists and the orchestra and allows them to interact and shine in their own way respectively.

Fauré's Requiem:

  • Shorter Duration: Fauré's Requiem is notably shorter than Brahms's, with a focus on tranquility and peacefulness. It lacks the intense and grandiose moments found in Brahms's composition.
  • Non-traditional Emphasis: Fauré's Requiem is known for its non-traditional liturgical emphasis, omitting certain sections like the Sequence section and inserts Pie Jesu, a prayer to Jesus. At the end, Fauré inserts an extra movement called In Paradisum that comes from the burial service rather than the Mass. Brahms, while deviating from the traditional Latin text, maintains a more comprehensive structure.
  • Melodic Structure: Fauré focuses on melodic simplicity and clarity, with a lighter orchestration that allows the beauty of individual lines to shine. Brahms uses complex harmonies and elaborate counterpoint in his requiem.


Berlioz's Requiem (Grande messe des morts):

  • Orchestral Grandeur: Berlioz's Requiem is renowned for its massive orchestral forces, including additional brass that are separated in the performance space. It creates a spatial and immersive quality, enhancing the grandeur and overwhelming nature of the work. Brahms's Requiem, while still orchestral, doesn't reach the same level of grandiosity in terms of sheer size and scope.
  • Instrumentation: Berlioz uses four off stage brass bands and other unusual instruments to enhance innovative sonic effects within a performance hall. Although Brahms doesn’t use this experimental orchestration, he still provides a unique landscape that allows audiences to escape into a different world.
  • French Influence: Berlioz's Requiem reflects French Romantic sensibilities, incorporating a more flamboyant and expressive style, contrasting with the more reserved and introspective nature of Brahms's Requiem. Berlioz’s Requiem of 1837 was also an example of High Romanticism and is one of the grandest works of the 19th century.


These comparisons highlight the diverse approaches composers have taken in expressing themes of mortality and spirituality through the medium of requiem compositions. Each work has its unique cultural, linguistic, and stylistic elements that contribute to its distinct character. The musical changes also highlight the diverse approach each composer takes in shaping the sonic landscape of their requiem compositions, from the emphasis on choir and balance in Brahms's work to the operatic drama of Verdi, the dramatic orchestration of Mozart, the chamber-like intimacy of Fauré, and the massive sonic experimentation of Berlioz. Each composer's choices contribute to the distinctiveness of their Requiem.

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