on hearing Brahms’s Requiem; views on death
by Roger W. Smith
On Monday, November 6, 2017, I attended a performance of A German Requiem, to Words of the Holy Scriptures (“Ein deutsches Requiem, nach Worten der heiligen Schrift”) by Johannes Brahms at Carnegie Hall in New York. The work was composed between 1865 and 1868 and consists of seven movements. The work is, as noted in a Wikipedia entry, “sacred but non-liturgical,” which can be seen in the fact that it is not in Latin and is not based on the Latin mass.
The program notes state:
Unlike the traditional Requiem, a prayer for the dead, Ein deutsches Requiem speaks to the mourners, comforting them and reminding them that the inevitability of death makes it a part of life. … Bypassing the traditional prayers for the dead, Brahms selected his text from the German Lutheran Bible and the Apocrypha. In so doing, he expressed his own feelings toward death, which were not governed by a formal sense of religion. Ein deutsches Requiem focuses on the needs of the living — Brahms had considered calling it a “human” requiem — on the brevity of life and the expectation of “evige Freude,” eternal joy.
This brought to mind other famous requiems, namely Mozart’s and Berlioz’s requiems. Both use the traditional liturgy and, what is most notable, both are masses for the DEAD. They are solemn, mournful — without, I would say, a hint of joy, and, in the case of the Berlioz requiem (which is a masterpiece), I would say, scary, almost terrifying.
I could not help thinking also about the parallels with Walt Whitman and his views of death. Below are some excerpts from the text of the Brahms requiem and some observations about Whitman’s views on death and excerpts from his poems.
EIN DEUTSCHES REQUIEM (TEXT)
Selig sind, die da Leid tragen, denn sie sollen getröstet werden. (Blessed are they that mourn; for they shall be comforted.) – Matthew 5:4
Die mit Tränen säen, werden mit Freuden ernten. Sie gehen hin und weinen und tragen edlen Samen, und kommen mit Freuden und bringen ihre Garben. (They that sow in tears shall reap in joy. He that goeth forth and weepeth, bearing precious seed, shall doubtless come again with rejoicing, bringing his sheaves with him.) – Psalm 126:5,6
Denn alles Fleisch ist wie Gras und alle Herrlichkeit des Menschen wie des Grases Blumen. Das Gras ist verdorret und die Blume abgefallen. (For all flesh is as grass, and all the glory of man as the flower of grass. The grass withereth, and the flower thereof falleth away.) – 1 Peter 1:24
Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit; aber ich will euch wieder sehen und euer Herz soll sich freuen und eure Freude soll neimand von euch nehmen. (And ye now therefore have sorrow; but I will see you again, and your heart shall rejoice, and your joy no man taketh from you.) – John 16:22
Ich will euch trösten, wie Einen seine Mutter tröstet. (As one whom his mother comforteth, so will I comfort you.) – Isaiah 66:13
Siehe, ich sage euch ein Geheimnis: Wir werden nicht alle entschlafen, wir werden aber alle verwandelt werden; und dasselbige plötzlich, in einem Augenblick, zu der Zeit der letzten Posaune. Denn es wird die Posaune schallen, und die Toten wervandelt werden. Dann wird erfüllet werden das Wort, das geschrieben steht: Der Tod is verschlungen in den Sieg. Tod, wo ist dein Stachel? Hölle, wo ist dein Sieg? (Behold, I shew you a mystery; We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed. In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed … then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is they sting? O grave, where is they victory?) – 1 Corinthians 15:51, 52, 54, 55
WALT WHITMAN ON DEATH; COMMENTARY
Walt Whitman is a great poet of the joys of life, but he is equally a great poet of death. Few poets have been immersed in the mystery of death or lived so close to death as he did. Fewer still have treated death with such an eloquent voice or created such an awesome persona. Death is a major component of the richness and variety of Leaves of Grass. …. Whitman’s poetry illustrates the universal truth that death is not only the most overwhelming and the least understood event of our existence but also the most intriguing. He realized from the outset of his poetic career that if his poetry were to reflect the essence and scope of our life experiences — and those of his own life — it must speak of death openly, imaginatively, and unswayed by clichés or established doctrines. He became a sensitive student of death and dying, familiar with disease, anguish, violence, and the displays of both fear and courage among the many dying persons he observed.
“Death is a vital part of [Whitman’s]s gospel of universal brotherhood and sisterhood, of his luminous vision of the progressive unfolding of the human race … and of his profound spirituality. And it is a vital element in the yearning for love that permeates the poems. … He viewed death as an eternal and benign mystery. … At times his poems treat death gladly, as if to embrace it; at times they treat it quizzically.
Throughout Leaves of Grass he proclaimed his faith that death was not a plunge into the terminal nada and was convinced that we can live our life fully only if we are prepared to welcome death as a transition in a continued, but still mysterious, process of spiritual evolution. Underlying this conviction was his belief that death promises some kind of future continuity for everyone—and particularly for himself. And, as the poems reveal, this belief did not come easily but was part of a trying personal and ideological struggle. Moreover, he felt that a profound respect for death was fundamental to his aesthetic and to all great art. … [Whitman’s] “Song of Myself” contains some of the most affecting death scenes in all poetry. — Harold Aspiz, So Long! Walt Whitman’s Poetry of Death (The University of Alabama Press, 2004)
Whitman had an intimate acquaintance of death as a volunteer nurse in Civil War hospitals. — Roger W. Smith
From the beginning Whitman seems to have recognized his ability to comfort the ailing immigrants and later the hospitalized horse-car drivers and injured firemen and soldiers by speaking with them in the humble manner that characterized his — and their — humble origins and by entering into their mode of thinking. — Harold Aspiz, So Long! Walt Whitman’s Poetry of Death
WALT WHITMAN ON DEATH (QUOTATIONS FROM HIS WORKS)
The grave—the grave—what foolish man calls it a dreadful place? It is a kind friend, whose arms shall compass us round about, and while we lay our heads upon his bosom, no care, temptation, nor corroding passion shall have power to disturb us. Then the weary spirit shall no more be weary; the aching head and aching heart will be strangers to pain; and the soul that has fretted and sorrowed away its little life on earth will sorrow not any more.
I do not dread the grave. There is many a time when I could lay down, and pass my immortal part through the valley of the shadow, as composedly as I quaff water after a tiresome walk. For what is there of terror in taking our rest? What is there here below to draw us with such fondness? Life is the running of a race—a most weary race, sometimes. Shall we fear the goal, merely because it is shrouded in a cloud?
– “The Tomb-Blossoms,” The United States Magazine and Democratic Review, January 1842
I wish I could translate the hints about the dead young men and women,
And the hints about old men and mothers, and the offspring taken soon out of their laps.
What do you think has become of the young and old men?
And what do you think has become of the women and children?
They are alive and well somewhere,
The smallest sprout shows there is really no death,
And if ever there was it led forward life, and does not wait at the end to arrest it,
And ceas’d the moment life appear’d.
All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses,
And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.
— Leaves of Grass
I know I am deathless,
I know this orbit of mine cannot be swept by a carpenter’s
I know I shall not pass like a child’s carlacue cut with a burnt stick at night.
— Leaves of Grass
[A carlacue (variant of curlicue) is a fancifully curved or spiral figure.]
I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again, look for me under your boot-soles.
You will hardly know who I am, or what I mean,
But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,
And filter and fibre your blood.
Failing to fetch me at first, keep encouraged,
Missing me one place, search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you.
— Leaves of Grass
If all came but to ashes of dung,
If maggots and rats ended us, then Alarum! for we are betray’d,
Then indeed suspicion of death.
Do you suspect death? if I were to suspect death I should die now,
Do you think I could walk pleasantly and well-suited toward annihilation?
— Leaves of Grass
Great is Death—sure as Life holds all parts together, Death holds all parts together,
Death has just as much purport as Life has,
Do you enjoy what Life confers? you shall enjoy what Death confers,
I do not understand the realities of Death, but I know they are great,
I do not understand the least reality of Life—how then can I understand the realities of Death?
— Leaves of Grass
I do not know what follows the death of my body,
But I know well that whatever it is, it is best for me,
And I know well that what is really Me shall live just as much as before.
— Leaves of Grass
O the beautiful touch of Death, soothing and benumbing a few moments, for reasons;
O that of myself, discharging my excrementitious body, to be burned, or rendered to powder, or buried,
My real body doubtless left to me for other spheres,
My voided body, nothing more to me, returning to the purifications, further offices, eternal uses of the earth.
— Leaves of Grass
Whereto answering, the sea,
Delaying not, hurrying not,
Whisper’d me through the night, and very plainly before day-break,
Lisp’d to me the low and delicious [italic added] word death,
And again death, death, death, death,
Hissing melodious, neither like the bird nor like my arous’d child’s heart,
But edging near as privately for me rustling at my feet,
Creeping thence steadily up to my ears and laving me softly all over,
Death, death, death, death, death.
— “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking.”
And if the memorials of the dead were put up indifferently everywhere, even in the room where I
eat or sleep, I should be satisfied,
And if the corpse of any one I love, or if my own corpse, be duly rendered to powder, and poured
in the sea, I shall be satisfied,
Or if it be distributed to the winds, I shall be satisfied.
— Leaves of Grass
Death is beautiful from you, (what indeed is finally beautiful except death and love?)
O I think it is not for life I am chanting here my chant of lovers, I think it must be for death,
For how calm, how solemn it grows to ascend to the atmosphere of lovers,
Death or life I am then indifferent, my soul declines to prefer,
(I am not sure but the high soul of lovers welcomes death most,)
Indeed O death, I think now these leaves mean precisely the same as you mean.
— Leaves of Grass
My dead absorb or South or North—my young men’s bodies absorb, and their precious precious blood,
Which holding in trust for me faithfully back again give me many a year hence,
In unseen essence and odor of surface and grass, centuries hence,
In blowing airs from the fields back again give me my darlings, give my immortal heroes,
Exhale me them centuries hence, breathe me their breath, let not an atom be lost,
O years and graves! O air and soil! O my dead, an aroma sweet!
Exhale them perennial sweet death, years, centuries hence.
— Leaves of Grass
I saw battle-corpses, myriads of them,
And the white skeletons of young men, I saw them,
I saw the debris and debris of all the slain soldiers of the war,
But I saw they were not as was thought,
They themselves were fully at rest, they suffer’d not,
The living remain’d and suffer’d, the mother suffer’d,
And the wife and the child and the musing comrade suffer’d,
And the armies that remain’d suffer’d.
– “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d”
I make a scene, a song, brief (not fear of thee,
Nor gloom’s ravines, nor bleak, nor dark—for I do not fear thee,
Nor celebrate the struggle, or contortion, or hard-tied knot),
Of the broad blessed light and perfect air, with meadows, rippling tides, and trees
and flowers and grass,
And the low hum of living breeze—and in the midst God’s beautiful eternal right hand,
Thee, holiest minister of Heaven—thee, envoy, usherer, guide at last of all,
Rich, florid, loosener of the stricture-knot call’d life,
Sweet, peaceful, welcome Death.
“Death’s Valley” (published in Harper’s Monthly Magazine, April 1892):
Selig sind, die da Leid tragen (Blessed are they who bear suffering)
the opening of Ein deutsches Requiem
Denn alles Fleisch, es ist wie Gras (For all flesh, it is as grass)
the second movement of Ein deutsches Requiem
This extraordinarily powerful, lyrical movement never fails to move me. I had long thought that the lyrics must mean something like: Let’s face it, everyone is going to die; death and decay are inevitable. But the words from scripture are actually consoling:
Denn alles Fleisch ist wie Gras und alle Herrlichkeit des Menschen wie des Grases Blumen. Das Gras ist verdorret und die Blume abgefallen.
So seid nun geduldig, lieben Brüder, bis auf die Zukunft des Herrn. Siehe, ein Ackermann wartet auf die köstliche Frucht der Erde und is geduldig darüber, bis er empfahe den Morgenregen und Abendregen.
Aber des Herrn Wort bleibet in Ewigkeit.
Die Erlöseten des Herrn werden wieder kommen, und gen Zion kommen mit Jauchzen; ewige Freude wird über ihrem Haupte sein; Freude und Wonne werden sie ergreifen und Schmerz und Seufzen wird weg müssen.
(For all flesh is as grass, and all the glory of man as the flower of grass. The grass withereth, and the flower thereof falleth away.
Be patient therefore, brethren, unto the coming of the Lord. Behold, the husbandmen waiteth for the precious fruit of the earth, and hath long patience for it, until he receive the early and latter rain.
But the word of the Lord endureth for ever.
Those whom the Lord delivers shall return, and come to Zion with songs and everlasting joy upon their heads: they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.)
The music perfectly matches these sentiments.
from Mozart, Requiem in D minor, K. 626
Requiem aeternam and Kyrie
from Berlioz, Grande Messe des morts (or Requiem), Op. 5
from Gabriel Fauré, Requiem in D minor, Op. 48
The focus of this “choral-orchestral setting of the shortened Catholic Mass for the Dead in Latin … is on eternal rest and consolation. … Fauré wrote of the work, ‘Everything I managed to entertain by way of religious illusion I put into my Requiem, which moreover is dominated from beginning to end by a very human feeling of faith in eternal rest.’ … He told an interviewer: ‘It has been said that my Requiem does not express the fear of death and someone has called it a lullaby of death. But it is thus that I see death: as a happy deliverance, an aspiration towards happiness above, rather than as a painful experience.’ (Wikipedia)
— posted by Roger W. Smith