Music for Troubled Times: Brahms’s A German Requiem

I’ve been listening to a lot of Brahms lately. A lot. For five and a half months, I’ve been listening to almost nothing but Brahms, endlessly drawn to his warm and wistful melodies from the early Piano Sonatas to the Clarinet Quintet.

Perhaps it’s because Brahms’s extraordinary sound is so perfect for this moment. It’s been a bad year: global pandemic, recession, protests, riots, climate change, the list goes on. Through it all, Brahms offers solace in music of heartfelt and convivial gemütlichkeit, like returning home to family and friends after a long and tumultuous journey.

Yet Brahms is no anesthetic for the human condition. His music doesn’t take the pain away, and in fact pain is almost always lingering just beneath the surface, gently drawing the listener’s heartstrings with sadness and sentimental yearning. Brahms instead embraces the pain, envelopes it with glowing autumnal light, and recasts it with restorative compassion and acceptance.

Nowhere is the restorative power of Brahms’s music more evident than in his 1868 choral masterpiece A German Requiem (Ein deutsches Requiem), a work perfectly in tune with these difficult and uncertain times.

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