Ein deutsches requiem

Press “play” on the clip at the bottom to hear the first movement while you read, if you so desire.

Yesterday we were rehearsing the Brahms Ein deutsches requiem, and it really wasn’t what one would call a “good” rehearsal.  It was the kind of rehearsal all musicians have to go through at some point, where one feels like the choir can obviously see the summit, and perhaps even the way to get to the top of Mt. Excellence, but where they are all slogging through the base of the slopes, picking up rocks out of the path and hauling all the gear on the backs of every singer (though they won’t need the gear).  I’ll come back to that idea later.

At any rate, this was one of those long and intense rehearsals which you come out without hearing the fruits of your progress, or wondering if there was any ground gained.  Even when the music is Brahms, it can still feel like wading through hip-deep sludge while your choir founders for purchase… Excellence at those moments can feel insurmountable.  But through all of this, I found myself wondering and musing over the genius of Brahms in the construction of his lines, his voice-leading and the skill and deftness of his writing.  It made me grateful to have ears.

We rehearsed the first movement last, which I found interesting because I have always felt like the first movement is the place where Brahms sets up the tone for how he perceives Death as a force within Life.  I have always been able to feel the presence of the sacredness Brahms accorded grieving and death.  Leaving this movement until last in a three-hour rehearsal means that the singers are tired and past listening for sacredness or for anything other than the correct pitch.  At that point singing something as subtly powerful and moving as the first movement feels like a lost cause.  I hear sacredness because of how Brahms handles bringing in the choir for the first time after an instrumental prelude that is escapes the assignation of “kitsch” by the placement of Brahms in history rather than any efforts of his own.  It’s true that I find the interplay of the instruments and the choir in the entire requiem brilliant, but this opening, as I’ve said, is almost “kitsch” in the way he unfolds the melodies and passes them from one instrument to another.  If Mahler had done this I would call it “kitsch”.

But there was no subtlety left in the choir after 2.5 hours of singing, and the end of the rehearsal was a blessed oncoming of silence after so much concentrated effort toward “beautiful” sound.

One never knows when Death will come and turn aside a life.  I had no idea that as I rehearsed the requiem yesterday morning, a family member of mine was waking to see his last dawn.  It seems strange and very surreal to me that the last time I spoke with him in January was the last time I would see him alive.  I was the maid of honor at their wedding and I still have and sometimes wear the bracelet they gave me to thank me, and now his wife is alone.  I was singing the requiem and he would be dead before noon in Wisconsin though noon came and went in Amsterdam while I dashed to a florist to buy flowers for another person’s birthday.

It reminds me of the title of a piece by a former conductor of mine, Dr. Richard Hynson, “In the midst of Life”.  We are ever in the midst of Life while Death walks with his hand upon our shoulders because what seems so incredibly vital and vivid in our worlds is something that is, in all actuality, a fragile web of humans that live more fragile lives both in concert and in contest with one another.  I hate to even think of it, but Death has his hand on each shoulder I love, even my son’s, and at any moment may turn us aside from life to join him in whatever awaits us after…

To say that I was in shock after learning of my uncle’s death would be an understatement.  To say that I was grieved would be more of an understatement because, though I will miss him, I grieve most for his wife and less for my own loss.  We who are blessed to love others pay a deep and heavy price to have the privilege of loving them and being loved fully in return: we will miss them horribly when they are gone, and nothing will fill that void though the sting of its pain will lessen over time.

In the thirteen years that have passed since my father’s death I can say that the anguish of losing him has dimmed over the years, but the emptiness whenever I want to hear his voice is yet so viscerally present and the knowledge that I can’t ever hear him laugh or see him smile still gives me, what I have termed over the years as “the walking lonelies” at the moments when I or my son have “firsts” that I would have liked my father to see. “The walking lonelies” come for me whenever I wish I could sing with my father.  He would have truly loved that I’ve given my life to singing and being able to do that and yet not being able to share it with him leaves me feeling hollow when I hear basses sing their parts with musical and spiritual conviction.

I recently wrote on a friend’s wall on FB that I no longer believe in these narratives of “endings” in life.  The reason I cited to her was that such narratives fill Life with narratives that mimic the power of Death.  Since yesterday I now have greater clarity on my thoughts regarding this and I will say that Death, I now believe, is the only true ending, but it is still only an ending in the corporeal sense.  I carry my father in my heart, along with all the other people I’ve loved and lost over the years.  I want to amend that final clause, however, because I did not lose the people!  I lost the chance to share the moments that signify preciousness to me with that soul, but I have not lost the sense of that human because such things are indelible in the human life.

Yesterday’s news has altered me in ways I couldn’t have known my perceptions would be altered, or perhaps I should say that it has solidified what was always going to be my nature faster than if I had been left to meander this path for a few more years without Death and Grief as catalysts toward understanding and reflection.  The mean effect has been to make me profoundly grateful and aware of all the lives that have touched mine in some way, shape or form in the past, and to be convinced that endings are only firmly settled when Death enters and claims one of those whom we love.

When I was about to turn 14, my mother and father gave me a book for Christmas.  It was a poetry book, of course, and in it was Longfellow’s A Psalm of Life.  One particular verse comes to my mind now:

Art is long, and Time is fleeting,
And our hearts, though stout and brave,
Still, like muffled drums, are beating
Funeral marches to the grave.

Art is long… I remember the feelings of “slogging” through one of the many great works written for choir and orchestra that I’ve been privileged to sing over the years never dreaming that while I was practicing a requiem, a family member would be dead only a few hours later.  Earlier I mentioned the choir bringing gear to the base of the slopes of Mt. Excellence.  All choirs of every level do this to a certain extent in the rehearsal process.  I have come to see that the rehearsal process of a choir is not simply the learning of notes, but rather the understanding that we are going to set down our mental baggage which hampers us in the experience of singing and sharing a work of art.  A truly excellent choir (one that moves you to tears with its sound) has mastered the art of setting aside all semblance of a shell or the hardened exterior of a performer.  They lose themselves to the music and the listener is transported outside of themselves.  There can be no “gear” there, no appearance of the technique required.  All must be a seamless stillness within, an interior calmness and synchronicity with each other and with the love of sharing their combined sound.  Mind you, I’ve only heard this twice before in my life, and I have never been part of such a thing.  I have had glimmers of moments of what I’m speaking of in performance, but the actual achievement has never been there for the length of a concert.  No gear comes to the concert, just the humans and the sound they have fully embraced surrounding the notes they have fully mastered.

It strikes me that humans at death are a lot like this too: nothing comes with us.  We move on as a naked soul while the shell of our lives and all its material accoutrements that seemed to matter so much (and don’t get me wrong, conveniences DO matter in life) cannot come with us into death.  Longfellow speaks of these qualities that possibly move forward.  Of bravery, of stout hearts… My uncle was a brave man.  He was a US veteran, he had a sense of humor, and still I remember that it was my father who once said in my hearing that truly brave men also know how to cry.  I know my uncle knew how to do that too, and now he’s in a place where there are no more tears.  Longfellow speaks of the time invested in works of Art, and the fact that we can measure our lives in heart beats that lead to only one place.

Even in the midst of our lives we can be turned aside to Death, and the lives standing around the gaping emptiness that was a living soul are the ones left with tears.  I don’t think I’ll ever feel the same way about the Brahms Ein deutsches requiem again, and now I know that I’ll never feel the same way about endings or dialogues describing endings.  I have always been what I call a “solutions” person.  If anything, this has strengthened me in that resolve: that only Death can prevent resolutions.  And what is a person who will not resolve something, but someone for whom Hope was turned aside to Death while the soul went on living?

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~ by Rebecca Erickson on March 4, 2012.

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