Bach has never gone away, so bringing his music back is easy. But bringing back Bach’s influence on another composer’s music – that is more of a challenge.

Bach is not everywhere. Beethoven, Berlioz, and Bartok, to choose just a few “B” composers, are not Bach’s musical children.

But Brahms is.

Preparing for last night’s rehearsal with the Burlington Choral Society I was struck by how much of Bach’s musical language is still present in the Brahms “Requiem.” Obvious are the fugues. Less obvious are the smaller gestures: the appogiaturas, the suspensions. Most interestingly and surprisingly, though, was the discovery of the similarity between Bach and Brahms’ text-derived rhythmic gestures and phrase shapes.

Baroque music and “performance practice” have become a broadly spoken musical language of many experienced singers, instrumentalists, and conductors, but for whatever reason, I had not thought of Bach’s music and our modern understanding of Baroque performance practice to be a part of the language of the “Requiem.” But it is.

(I must confess I like the sequence of that realization. Very often, at least in my case, one gets good ideas from others. But this one was mine!)

Sadly for my ego, it turns out that I am hardly the first to explore this idea. There is a recording of the Requiem conducted by John Elliot Gardiner that uses a great deal of this early music mentality. I found it interesting and “authentic,” but somehow without the emotional authenticity of a really great performance.

The challenge, I think, is to try and think like Brahms. He loved the music of Bach, but his respect for Bach was not made manifest by literally copying Bach’s language. His respect was more subtle. Bach’s language had endured for over 100 years when Brahms wrote the “Requiem” and one senses that the ghost of Bach is there in 1868, the year that the “Requiem” was completed, but Brahms is in control. As Shakespeare wrote in Henry IV, Part I,  there is “the line and the predicament / Wherein you range under this subtle King!”

Brahms’ “Requiem” is both beautifully original and beautifully respectful of Bach’s subtle musical language. I aspire to bring that to light – and to sound – in the upcoming performances.

 

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