I’m still recovering from singing Brahms’ Ein Deutsches Requiem last night. It was a tremendous evening – somewhere in the sixth movement I remember realizing that everything was going beautifully, and I got a tremendous surge of exhilaration. Sometimes, when you perform, you aren’t sure how it’s going; sometimes you know you’ve bombed; and sometimes – rarely – you realize that you’ve dropped into the groove and you’re sailing. It was glorious; the performers (including the chorus) got three curtain calls.
I’m really glad I didn’t drop out of the performance. I considered it. I’m having my left knee replaced in early March; last weekend I had a really bad night with a lot of pain, and I have a diary entry that says I’m not sure I can sing the Brahms. Now that it’s over, I wouldn’t have missed it.
Performing a choral work of this magnitude is physically demanding; if you’ve never sung symphonic music you wouldn’t know. It’s long, seven movements, and the chorus sings every one of them, and not just a few bars either. I didn’t clock how long we took to perform it, but my recording (Philippe Herreweghe, Orchestre des Champs Elysees, La Chappelle Royale) runs 66 minutes. We’re standing and singing our hearts out for most of that. Of the pieces I’ve performed, only a couple are longer. It’s challenging music; alone among his contemporaries, Brahms liked to write fugues, and there are major, difficult fugues in movements two, three, and six, and a minor fugue in four.
It meant rehearsing with the orchestra and soloists until 10 PM Wednesday and Thursday night, and then the performance Friday. Before I retired, I used to take concert Fridays off, so I could get some rest. During rehearsals we sit on backless benches on stage, baking under the stage lighting, while Maestro Michael Morgan works out performance details with the symphony, standing to sing when he’s ready to go on. You hold the music up and out in front of you, so you can see the music and the conductor at the same time, and your back aches; for a long piece like this you have to be careful about your feet. In a concert years ago, I almost fell coming off the risers, because both my feet were asleep. It’s hot and cramped and crowded and the music makes it all worth it.
This is probably the only non-Catholic requiem you’ll ever hear; Brahms based the text on the German Luther Bible, and dedicated it to the living. It has no direct references to Christian doctrine. But the music is glorious, beautiful, inspiring. It’s still running through my head.