The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Why is Brahms’ “German” Requiem so great? Ask the American poet Emily Dickinson. | December 10, 2012

By Jacob Stockinger

Great musical works, like great poems, get analyzed and  eventually overanalyzed. Yet they still stand and endure and continue to speak to us and to move us and make us think. That is why they are masterpieces.

So just maybe we can use one masterpiece to discuss another – counterparts in beauty, as it were, or “correspondences” to use French poet Charles Baudelaire’s term. After all, poets and musicians seem to have a lot in common.

Let me be specific. I have in mind the “German” Requiem, Op. 45, by Johannes Brahms (1833-1897, below).


I could talk about the two outstanding performances of the 75-minute “German” Requiem that I heard this past weekend. I could mention how robustly and, at the same time,  subtly the University of Wisconsin  Symphony Orchestra played under conductor Beverly Taylor (below left).

Beverly Taylor and Choral Union and UW Symphony Brahms German 12-7-12

I could praise how the choral parts, as performed by the campus and community UW Choral Union (below top), brought so many degrees of shading and dynamics to convey the mood and meaning of the text. I could single out how the undergraduate soloists, baritone Benjamin Li (below middle) and soprano Olivia Pogodzinski (below bottom), stood out for their full, strong voices.

Choral Union Brahms 2012

Benjamin Li, baritone Brahms German 12-7-12

Olivia Pogodzinski soprano Choral Union Brahms 12-7-12

But something deeper and more elusive haunts one about this music. And if it didn’t, would I perceive the music as so great?

We have a long history together, the Brahms “German” Requiem and me.

I first sang it when I was 14 or 15.

Since then it has remained for is one of the greatest pieces of music. I see it as the greatest choral work ever in part because it is more a secular humanist work rather than a religious one, and because the Scriptural texts seem so universal. Plus, the work feels so perfect in how carefully it is composed and written, for both voices and instruments. It feels so spontaneous and heart-felt, yet it is also so crafted and well thought-out. It is a perfect blending of the heart-felt and the analytical, the personal and the objective.

For a long time I have played the “German” Requiem to privately mourn the deaths of family members, friends and even the sadness of world events. This year too it once again holds special meaning for me. (And for others too, since these performances were dedicated to UW Professor Emeritus David Schrieber, who sang with the UW Choral Union for more than 40 years and recently died.)

But what words could really do justice to this great work with its sweeping melodies; its alternating drama and lyricism; its mix of Classicism and Romanticism; with its using  counterpoint and fugues both to offset and to enhance its soaring melodic lines and rich harmonies? (At bottom is Movement 6 with baritone soloist Dietrich Fischer Dieskau.)

I wondered.

Then I found the right words – not from me but from a great artist who lived closer in time to Brahms and who seems to share his sensibility and whose work even follows the same as the “German” Requiem.

The words come from one of those short and sometimes cryptic, but deeply moving poems by the 19th-century American poet Emily Dickinson (1830-1886, below, in a daguerreotype photograph from 1846) –- and it is absolutely worthy of Johannes Brahms and his “German” Requiem:

emily dickinson BW photo daguerrotype 1846


By Emily Dickinson

After great pain, a formal feeling comes –

The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs –

The stiff Heart questions ‘was it He, that bore,’

And ‘Yesterday, or Centuries before’?

The Feet, mechanical, go round –

A Wooden way

Of Ground, or Air, or Ought –

Regardless grown,

A Quartz contentment, like a stone –

This is the Hour of Lead –

Remembered, if outlived,

As Freezing persons recollect the Snow –

First – Chill – then Stupor – then the letting go –

As Brahms’ text , drawn from  “Revelations,” says in the last movement: “Their works live on after them.”

Do you also think the poem captures some or even much of the Brahms?

Do other poems or passages of literature come to mind when you think of the Brahms?

And what did you think of the performances this past weekend?

The Ear wants to hear.


  1. They casually moved around the grounds until they reached the tomb of Johannes Brahms. “Another one of the greats,” she said.
    “I like his Hungarian dances.”
    “Yes, they’re lovely. They played a few of them at the restaurant a few days ago. I love so many of his works. The four symphonies, the two piano concertos, his violin concerto, and so many other works, but I think my favorite is his German Requiem.”
    “Why is that Maria”?
    “I guess it’s because of its somber, autumnal beauty. I especially like the chorus when they sing, ‘Denn alles Fleisch es ist wie Gras.’… Anyway, I really get stirred up when I hear them sing about how all flesh withers away like grass does, but there’s also hope when they sing about how the word of the Lord endures forever. It makes me want to live so much.”
    “Don’t you want to live anyway, Maria?”
    “Of course, silly, but when you hear music that is so powerful, you just get an added sense of urgency of enjoying every second of your life; just like we’ve been doing on our honeymoon.”


    Comment by — December 10, 2012 @ 1:16 pm

    • Dear altjira,
      Thank you for reading and supplying this great reply.
      Could you please clarify the details of where it comes from and who wrote it?
      I think I would like to pursue the work it is found in.
      Thank you so much.
      The Ear


      Comment by welltemperedear — December 10, 2012 @ 2:08 pm

  2. Yes, what a perfect juxtaposition of music and poem! I’ve sung it with Robert Fountain and with ellsworth synder; it’s one of the most powerful works ever composed, and unforgettable to sing.


    Comment by Susan Fiore — December 10, 2012 @ 9:37 am

    • Hi Susan,
      Lucky you , to have sung a great work with two of the best.
      Thank you for appreciating the poem-music juxtaposition.
      It seems to have worked so well this time, I might try it again when the music is right and the time is appropriate.
      Such beauty and profundity transcend time — and my own journalistic or critical musings.


      Comment by welltemperedear — December 10, 2012 @ 10:57 am

  3. I attended the Sunday evenng performance. This musical creation never ceases to amaze me. I have participated in singing this piece in the past, so I was feeling every note in my heart and every fiber of my being. What an up-lifting experience, so good for the soul. I was particulalrly impressed with the feeling evident in Benjamin Li’s solos. A beautiful performance by everyone.


    Comment by Nina Sparks — December 10, 2012 @ 9:20 am

    • Hi Nina,
      Thank you for reading and replying.
      I couldn’t agree with you more.
      The entire ensemble performing outstandingly.
      But thank you for singling out the undergraduate baritone Benjamin Li.
      He has everything — tone, diction, volume and stage presence.
      This young singer has quite the future before him. I have no doubt we will be hearing — literally, hearing — a lot more about him and from him in the days to come.


      Comment by welltemperedear — December 10, 2012 @ 10:55 am

  4. Your columns are always very authoritative, Ear, but this one was very moving as well. Thank you for that.


    Comment by Michael Muckian — December 10, 2012 @ 8:57 am

    • Hi Mike,
      Thank you for understanding and reading so well between the lines.
      It was moving for me too.


      Comment by welltemperedear — December 10, 2012 @ 10:51 am

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