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On the Brahms Begräbnisgesang, op. 13

In 1857 Brahms became the con­duc­tor of the choral soci­ety at Det­mold. The fine wind play­ers avail­able in this court are reflect­ed in a num­ber of Brahms’ com­po­si­tions at this time. Indeed, Flo­rence May, an impor­tant ear­ly biog­ra­ph­er of Brahms, indi­cat­ed that the Ser­e­nade Nr. 1 was orig­i­nal­ly com­posed for a wind octet.

It was at this time that Brahms com­posed his Begräb­nis­ge­sang for cho­rus and wind band, a work Brahms him­self con­duct­ed sev­er­al times, the first under his baton being a per­for­mance at the Gradener’s Acad­e­my in Ham­burg on 2 Decem­ber 2 1859.

Tra­di­tion­al­ly schol­ars have con­clud­ed that this work was a study for the sec­ond move­ment of the lat­er famous Requiem. But I believe there is a more impor­tant sto­ry behind this work. The read­er will recall not only the long friend­ship which Brahms had with Robert Schu­mann, but his debt to Schu­mann for the pro­mo­tion of his career. It is also well-known that Brahms had a close rela­tion­ship with Schumann’s wife, Clara, and lat­er wid­ow, one of the great love sto­ries of the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry. The three were very close dur­ing Schumann’s final ill­ness and death on 29 July 1856. There is a long tra­di­tion in the Catholic Church, observed in Europe and in South Amer­i­ca, that after one’s death the sur­vivors must wait one year or more before the end of mourn­ing and the cel­e­brat­ing a major Mass or com­mem­o­ra­tion. There­fore, one year after Schumann’s death would bring us to the gen­er­al peri­od when this work was writ­ten.

Since schol­ars have failed to find any oth­er spe­cif­ic rea­son, or for whom, Brahms wrote this very spe­cial com­po­si­tion, I believe it was com­posed for some spe­cial pri­vate occa­sion when he and Clara and oth­er fam­i­ly and friends gath­ered to remem­ber Robert Schu­mann. It seems clear to me that the six­teenth-cen­tu­ry text, Nun lasst uns den Leib begraben, which Brahms select­ed for this music had Schu­mann in mind, and seems too spe­cif­ic to be used for gen­er­al pur­pos­es. It speaks of “his work, sor­row and mis­ery” and his hav­ing been “weighed down by fear.” Now he is at peace and [his rep­u­ta­tion will become] “Radi­ant like the bril­liant sun.”

It is the music which Brahms sets to “his work” (Sein Arbeit), begin­ning in bar 49, which first brought this idea to mind. Here, reflect­ing “his work” we hear, at a piano lev­el, with half-cho­rus as if the angels were singing, music which sounds very char­ac­ter­is­tic of Schu­mann. Sud­den­ly hap­py, it reminds us of some of the sim­ple and buoy­ant char­ac­ter of some of Schumann’s music, for exam­ple the spir­it of his Träller­lied­chen [Hum­ming Song] found among his Album for Youth. Sure­ly this is a ref­er­ence to his friend and his music.

It is often quot­ed that Clara Schu­mann said of this com­po­si­tion that it was “most glo­ri­ous.” Per­haps, then, she was speak­ing not only of the com­po­si­tion, but the noble pur­pose it served.