Sunday, April 20, 2008

Brahms on Christian Comfort

The first paragraph of the liner notes says Johannes Brahms’s A German Requiem “may be the most comforting, humane requiem ever written.” What exactly is meant by “humane” is beyond the bounds of inquiry, but “comforting” is certainely borne out by the text. The central, and most moderately paced sections invoke the promise of comfort explicitly: IV. Mäßig bewegt: “Wohl denen, die in deinem Hause wohnen; die loben dich immerdar!” (Well-being to those who dwell in your house; who praise you forever!) and V. Langsam: “Ich will euch trösten, wie einen seine Mutter tröstet.” (I will comfort you, as one’s mother comforts him.)

Identifying the theme, however, is less then half the battle. To say Brahms’s piece is a study in, or a presentation of, comfort begs the question: what does he mean, exactly, by comfort? I will modify this question and ask, what does Brahms have to say to us about Christian Comfort?

The Requiem opens with a text (the texts for the Requiem are all selections from the German Bible) from the Beatitudes: “Selig sind die da Lied tragen; denn sie sollen getröstet werden.” (Blest are those who bear grief, for they shall be comforted.—Matthew 5.4) It is interesting that Brahms begins a requiem with the focus on those who have gathered, on the still-living: you here, you are blessed; because you grieve (for the dead), you will be comforted. In other words, you who have come here, rejoice for you will go back in joy (“kommen mit Freuden”). Fantastic. Thank you Herr Brahms, and I genuinely look forward to a 90 minute exercise that will turn wailing in the streets into armchairs and hot cocoa.

Brahms, however, is not a sentimentalist and hot cocoa does not make an appearance, which is a relief for anyone who was hoping for real life comfort that does not run away from dealing with very real death. The introductory passage above is gramatically parallel to the first and last clauses of the work’s final piece (VII. Feierlich): “Selig sind die Toten, die in dem Herren sterben, von nun an. ‘Ja,’ der Geist spricht, ‘daß sie ruhen von ihrer Arbeit; denn ihre Werke folgen ihnen nach.’” (Blessed are the dead … for their works follow after them.) This seems anything but comforting, and instead somewhat haunting for we who have now been forced to think of dying ourselves. Most of us, I believe, would rather our works not follow us into the afterlife, or at least that we would be able to chose the few works that tag along. We are now both a bit pensive about our own impending death, and still agrieved for our friend’s.

The complete text of the final stanza offers a bit more on how Brahms desires to explain comfort: “Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on. ‘Yes,’ the Spirit spake, ‘that they rest from their labor; for their works follow after them.’” Thus, the beginning and end stanzas together offer:
To the Living: Those grieving will be blessed (thanks to their grieving) with comfort.
To the Dead: Those dead in the Lord will gain (thanks to their works) rest.

This final stanza is taken from the Apocalypse of John, chapter 14 where the Lamb and the one hundred and forty four thousand redeemed pure ones are revealed, three angels proclaim, in succession, God’s coming judgment, the fall of Babylon, and the punishment coming for those who enslaved themselves to her. The subsequent verse (14.12) restates two ideas already mentioned in chapters 12 and 13: “Here is the perseverance of the saints (13.10b); here are those who keep the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus (12.17b).” Previously these phrases had referred to the saints martyred by the Beast; now they refer to those same saints who are rendered the pure ones in light of God’s judgment. The point: remember those who were persecuted and killed? Here they are, the ones not tortured but blessed in the end. This is the context of the Requiem’s conclusion, which I will give once more: “Then I heard a voice from heaven saying to me, ‘Write: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.’ ‘Yes’ says the Spirit, ‘that they may rest from their labors for their works follow them.’”

By paralleling these passages (and there are also musical parallels, so it is clear on multiple levels that they are meant to be understood in conjunction), Brahms has emphasized the eschatological context of Matthew’s Beatitudes. I believe that the Beatitudes quite clearly have an eschatological context all on their own, but a parallel with the Apocalypse makes that even more clear. We living will be comforted. But this Christian Comfort that Brahms explicates has an eschatological timeframe: we are to be comforted in Christ’s kingdom, not—at least not fully—at this instant. If the comfort is to come when we dead in Christ shall rise, then we must look at the description of that final time for an explanation of how our grieving will bring about comfort in Christ. In summary, Brahms presents Apocalpyse 14.13 as an explanatory gloss on the promise in Matthew 5.14, probably the most natural passage for a Christian to turn to for comfort, but one that needs explaining.

To expand a bit further, I believe Brahms to be saying several things. The grieving in the Beatitudes is not just any grieving: it is grieving as a labor, a work unto Christ because that is the context of the explanatory gloss of Apocalypse 14.12-13. Even more specifically, one could argue an interpretation that it is grieving for those who are actually martyrs, though I think Brahms intended the idea more for Christians generally. Therefore, the grieving that we do now, for the sake of Christ and in Christ, for anyone who has died, will be one of those very works that follows us through that great and final judgment, and which helps to bring about our heavenly rest: when we possess that final and true comfort. Or, in Brahms’s text: “Sehet mich an: ich habe eine kleine Zeit Mühe und Arbeit gehabt, und habe großen Trost funden.” (Look at me: I have had toil and labor for a little time, and have found great comfort. Ecclesiasticus 51.27)

Christian Comfort, then, is an obedience to Christ here and now that is motivated by an eschatological expectation that our labor is not in vain. Brahms offers that we can take comfort in the knowledge of this relationship, but that the true comfort that is promised in the Beatitudes comes only when we have followed those we mourn into the hereafter, having faithfully obeyed the commands and will of Christ. This idea sends us back once more to the Sermon on the Mount: “Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. Many will say to me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophseied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!’ Therefore, whoever hears these sayings of Mine and does them, I will liken him to a wise man who built his house on the rock …” (Matthew 7.21-24). Christian, take the promise of comfort in grief, says Johannes Brahms, but know that Christian Comfort is a first of all a command; though a command with a promise.

1 comment:

Kenneth Burchfiel said...

The question is, however: was Brahms religious at all? At least one site suggests that he was an agnostic.

In other words: do any parts of his music refer explicitly to God or Christ?