Navigating life after losing a loved one is something most of us eventually experience. For composer Johannes Brahms, the death of his mother in 1865 and the loss of his mentor Robert Schumann nine years earlier deeply affected him, and likely fueled the composition of what would become among his most significant works, the German Requiem.
“The piece is supposed to bring comfort to the people that are left on Earth,” Westminster Choir director Joe Miller said.
It's based on passages from the Luther Bible, but is not liturgical. It can't be performed as a proper Requiem Mass. Rather, it's meant as a concert piece. The selected texts reveal the composer's “desire to draw particular truths from the Christian tradition,” scholar Michael Musgrave writes in his book “Brahms, A German Requiem.”
The choir will be joined by soprano Natalia Pavlova, the Charleston Symphony Orchestra Chorus and the Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra on June 5 at the Gaillard Center for a performance of the seven-movement requiem, conducted by Miller.
The 75-minute work, Brahms’s longest, is demanding for the choristers.
“One of the real challenges for the singers is the stamina of the piece,” Miller said. “Brahms asks a lot of the individual singer, and of the section.”
Brahms infused the work with themes of life and death, peace and mourning.
“He called it a human requiem, a requiem for the people,” Miller said.
Countertenor Andrew Cooper, who sings alto in the choir and conducted the first five movements of the requiem for his graduate conducting recital, said the piece is a challenge for younger vocalists.
“It’s not like an oratorio where it’s broken up with a bunch of solo arias and recitatives,” he said. It’s pretty much choral singing the whole time.”
The choir is receiving support from the Charleston Symphony Orchestra Chorus. “They’re a little older than us and a little more experienced than us, so it’s good to share the load with them,” Cooper said.
The piece also has long, sustained lines for the vocalists. Miller compared the choir’s preparation for the piece to the way athletes train for competitions.
“You’re training your body, you’re training your voice to be able to run all the way from one end of ‘the court’ to the other, over and over,” he said.
Westminster Choir members keep busy at the festival. They perform two choral concerts, appear in the opera productions and participate in large-format concerts like this one.
“Coming to the festival becomes part of their DNA,” Miller said. “It becomes part of the fabric of what they’re going to do as they move on into the professional world.”
Pavlova performed in Tchaikovsky’s opera “Eugene Onegin” in last year’s Spoleto Festival.
“Our entire community fell in love with her beautiful voice and incredible musicianship,” Miller said.
Brahms' Requiem was performed by the Charleston Symphony Orchestra and Chorus in 2011 in honor of David Stahl, the former CSO music director who died shortly after, and again in 2016, so the Chorus is well-acquainted with the work.
Miller said the Requiem is one of his favorite pieces because of Brahms' ability to understand the human condition and convey both joy and sadness through his music.
“Conducting this piece is like connecting to something greater than yourself,” he said. “My hope is that people will find a sense of tranquility and serenity.”
Jonathan Williams is a Goldring Arts Journalist at Syracuse University.