Johannes Brahms said of the title Ein deutsches Requiem, “I confess that I would gladly omit even the word German and instead use Human….” So Brahms wrote a work of consolation for the living, “a healing piece,” as Symphony Chorus Director Amy Kaiser has described it. You don’t need to know German or the Bible when you hear Brahms’ Requiem, you feel its meaning and its comfort.
You no doubt have heard of the protest at Powell Hall Saturday night, just before Markus Stenz turned to give the downbeat to the orchestra and chorus to begin Ein deutsches Requiem. You no doubt have your own thoughts and feelings about it.
Among the orchestra and staff of the St. Louis Symphony the thoughts and feelings are as diverse as can be found anywhere outside of Powell Hall. In response to the protest, some were inspired, some were afraid, some were appalled, some were angry, some were puzzled.
Some members of the audience booed, some applauded. Some members of the orchestra and chorus applauded. Others did not.
I’ve seen the word “surreal” used more than once on individual musician and chorus member Facebook accounts. And for some, there remain unresolved, conflicting thoughts. One chorus member wrote: “As for me, I added Michael Brown and his family to my private list of those for whom I was singing the great German Requiem.”
“Behold, I show you a mystery:/ we shall not all sleep,/ but we shall all be changed….”
Following the afternoon rehearsal of Four Preludes and Serious Songs, I asked Amy Kaiser, “Are you happy?” The St. Louis Symphony Chorus director told me, “I’m happy.”
I asked Chorus Manager Susan Patterson how A German Requiem was going, with one rehearsal to go Thursday night. “It’s going to be beautiful,” she told me.
Symphony violist Chris Woehr gave me a bit of music theory relating to Brahms, and music in general. It is an equation he’s devised based on “emotional bang for practice buck.” Some works, Woehr has observed, take a lot of practice, but they are more intellectual or idea-driven. They don’t score with the emotions. Other composers, Brahms especially, aren’t terrifically hard to play, but man, do they ever zero in on the heart.
With double Brahms this weekend, Chris is happy too.
The St. Louis Symphony Chorus met for its first rehearsal on Tuesday night: Brahms’ Ein deutsches Requiem, in preparation for concerts the first weekend of October.
The manager of the Chorus, Susan Patterson, told me that a colleague who overheard the rehearsal remarked on how the ensemble sounded “so beautiful, so together” in this first run through. But Patterson informed me that at least 80 percent of the chorus has already sung this work many times in their lives. “That’s why the finest orchestras are so good. The musicians all know the standard repertoire; they’ve played it so many times. They can get to the real heart of the matter.”
Getting to the heart also means getting at the details. It might be how you get to the heart. Amy Kaiser, entering her 20th season as Chorus Director, is known for being very precise with language, with pronunciation, with diction. Kaiser arrived with her “IPA sheets” [International Phonetic Alphabet] along with recorded samples of vowel sounds for the German text.
“Amy is intimately familiar with the work,” Patterson added. “She can talk about how the music represents the words.” For example, during one passage the “key is unsure, unsettled, ambivalent, because the text is dealing with the uncertainties of life.” Elsewhere, “a circle of fifths is like the circle of life.”