Our newest book on the music of Johannes Brahms is R. Allen Lott’s Brahms’s A German Requiem: Reconsidering Its Biblical, Historical, and Musical Contexts, a detailed examination of the contexts of Brahms’s masterpiece. The book demonstrates that, contrary to recent consensus, it was performed and received as an inherently Christian work during the composer’s life. Here Dr. Lott shares how the idea for his book came into being.
It’s always nice when a topic finds you. This one came to me through my students, who were quoting recent scholarly opinions on Brahms’s A German Requiem as if they were irrefutable. I had been teaching the work for twenty years and knew it well. I had read some of the current research early on but quickly felt that I knew enough about Brahms, about the scripture passages he selected, and the typical ways that a composer would set such texts that I instinctively understood the work. When students repeatedly stated matter-of-factly that Brahms’s biblical verses were carefully chosen to avoid any reference to Christianity, I knew that whatever Brahms’s intentions might have been, he had not succeeded in compiling such a text. I wrote sassy marginal notes to the students asking if they really believed the judgments they were citing and encouraged them as graduate students in a seminary to have their own perspectives. More and more often I thought, “someone needs to write a rebuttal,” and then eventually I realized that the “someone” was perhaps me.
I originally imagined a brief opinion piece was all that was needed, just enough to persuade listeners to redirect their thoughts on a different path. I soon realized that I would need as much documentation as possible to support a complete reappraisal of such a cherished but often misunderstood work. A few years later, when a couple of friends encouraged me to turn my then- hefty scholarly article into a full-scale monograph, I was completely disheartened, thinking that there was perhaps nothing more to say. I slowly and eventually realized I was absolutely wrong. And for the next several years as I continued to dig, more and more material surfaced to support my thesis that the Requiem cannot only be viewed logically as a Christian work but was accepted as such by almost everyone during the composer’s lifetime. Even at the same time that I was challenging the interpretation of recent scholars on the Requiem, I had made the mistake of accepting their claims about opinions about the work expressed in Brahms’s own day. Their claims were perhaps naïve or simply based on a couple of biographies published notably after the composer’s death, but they had essentially hidden a vast treasure of opinions by critics, scholars, conductors, and musicologists, many of them friends of Brahms, who attested to the Christian essence of the work. In addition, my research into the work’s early performance history, with its frequent use on Good Friday, and analysis of the music itself, with its numerous references to earlier sacred works and Lutheran musical traditions, reinforced a Christian interpretation. My teaching of the work now has an added depth to it and includes important admonitions to evaluate scholarly opinions critically and to read primary sources for oneself.
Perhaps the topic found me because so much of my life had prepared me to write about the Requiem, with my longstanding love for the music of Brahms, my entire life of engagement with the Bible (the source of the work’s text), my teaching sacred choral music at a seminary for more than thirty years that helped provide a significant amount of context for my research, and my acquaintance with grief (the point of departure for the work), including the loss of my wife more than twenty years ago. I know personally what these beautiful biblical words of comfort mean to believers. It is an honor to provide a more thorough interpretation of a much-beloved piece, an interpretation that I believe is biblically informed, historically aware, and musically relevant.
This guest post was written by R. Allen Lott, a Professor of Music History in the School of Church Music and Worship at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth.