Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Sing along with death

Spring is the season of passion and death. If you don't believe me, look to the concert calendar. Funerals have long been an inspiration for composers, of course, and if you sing in a choir, you're going to appear in your share of Requiems, but with Good Friday coming up, demise is uppermost on the minds of our choral directors. Two groups in suburban Philadelphia will present memorial concerts over the next two weekends. On April 10, the choir at Abington Presbyterian Church will perform Brahms' German Requiem, and on the 16th, the Choristers (formerly the more provincial Choristers of Upper Dublin) will sing Dvorak's "Stabat Mater." Both concerts are dedicated to the memory of those who have died in the past year, or earlier, if one’s grief is great enough. Names submitted by the performers, congregants or audience members will be printed in the programs. (See my previews at left.)

Of the two pieces, I guess I will find the German Requiem the more congenial. Brahms was the sort of agnostic that was becoming increasingly common in the 19th century, though he knew his Lutheran Bible well, and the verses he chose for the Requiem don't fit the standard Christian model of redemption through pain. (I have to question the thought-process of a God who cannot redeem sinners without staging an act of torture for their benefit.) Every program booklet ever published on the work points out that Jesus is never mentioned, and, despite the promise of resurrection near the end, the emphasis is squarely on comforting the living who are left behind. Before the first performance of the work — appropriately enough, on Good Friday, 1868 — K.M. Rheintaler, the rehearsal director, tried to persuade the composer to add a movement that would be more in keeping with the spirit of the day. According to the Grove Dictionary, “Brahms politely but firmly refused.” And for that we may thank him. Tacking on a conventional expression of piety would have ruined the emotional and intellectual integrity of the piece. The music is more genuine, more sincere and more effective without it. I am looking forward to the concert, even if the performance will likely be uneven, as performances by community groups usually are.

Dvorak, a devout Catholic, never understood Brahms’ decision, either, and his “Stabat Mater” does end with just such an expression of piety. To be fair, though, so does the poem he set. “When my body shall die,” it says, “grant that my soul be given the glory of paradise.” David Spitko, the Chorister’s director, described Dvorak’s music to me as progressing from darkness to triumph. Dvorak had lost three children in the years before he wrote the piece, and he was entitled to his feelings, but I have lost a child, too, and my own feelings are somewhat different. Nevertheless, I want to hear the music. Much of Dvorak’s vast output is rarely performed. Think about it. Beyond the handful of “name” pieces like the “New World” Symphony or the “American” String Quartet, how much of it do we really know well? I’ve never heard any of the operas, and I don’t know how many of them I can even name. I’m grateful, then, that David and company have chosen to revive a major but underexposed work.

Oh, by the way, the performance of the Requiem performance. You have no excuse not to go, if you are anywhere in the area.


E. Henry Thripshaw said...

Dvorak also wrote a Requiem of his own, in addition to that Stabat Mater.

Joe Barron said...

True, but it was Requiem Mass, not the kind of personal selection of scripture Brahms used in A German Requiem.