Rain, Requiem and Resonance: The Barnard-Columbia Chorus performs Brahms’ German Requiem

By Olivia Hull

Composer Johannes Brahms is best known for his lullabies, such as the “Cradle Song” (“Lullaby and good night!”), but his emotional German Requiem (or Ein deutsches Requiem) is more likely to keep you awake.

Photo courtesy of Olivia Hull

Despite the evening-long downpour Saturday night, an impassioned Barnard-Columbia chorus performed the hour-long German Requiem in a small chapel inside the gates of the Union Theological Seminary (Broadway and 122nd street). Outside the tall stained glass windows, the wind howled and umbrellas tried to break free from their handles. Inside, an ensemble larger than the audience tuned their instruments while the choir members studied their black folders. When the chorus members rose to sing and the violists placed their bows, the audience quieted and the conductor, Barnard College Music Director and Professor, Gail Archer, raised her arms. 

The piece began with a low rumbling from the bass and timpani, like the reverberations before a thunderstorm. The voices rose together, the room filled with the sounds of the trumpet, French horns, violas and cellos. The song was both celebratory and sorrowful; there were elements of premonition and joy as well as anticipation and praise. The violinists’ wrists vibrated furiously on the necks of their violins. The solo baritone’s voice was passionate, even angry, while the solo soprano’s was high-pitched and resonant. Together, the voices converged and diverged in powerfully altering dynamics.

The requiem, written in 1865 following the death of Brahms’ mother, is the composer’s longest composition and considered a defining moment in his career. While Brahms used a sacred text which was adopted from the Luther Bible for the Requiem, the text of the piece, most polemically, doesn’t mention the name Jesus, reflecting Brahms’ secular intent. The Requiem’s first words are “Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted.” In general, the piece focuses on the living. Although “requiem” denotes a piece written in memory of the deceased; in fact, the word “joy” (or “freude”) is the most commonly used in the libretto.

The piece has seven movements and represents an entire semester of twice-a-week rehearsals for the Barnard-Columbia Chorus. The ensemble includes musicians from the entire Columbia community—undergraduates at all four schools, students from the professional schools, professors and alumni. This past February the Chorus had the opportunity to perform Bach’s Mass in B minor at Carnegie Hall alongside L’Ensemble Medical, a group of students and faculty from the two medical schools in Munich.

The piece was long, and met with yawns, covert texting and premature clapping. The chorus members didn’t have a chance to drink water between movements and the orchestra members barely got a chance to put down their instruments. Both groups were, however, totally unfazed and exhibited the same energy and passion at the end of the piece as at the beginning. At the end of the ninth movement, out of a mix of admiration, congratulation (and possibly relief for some), the audience applause for the musicians lasted seemingly as long as the piece.

Olivia is a sophomore at Barnard and a staff writer for The Nine Ways of Knowing.

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