A Very Special Requiem for David Stahl
JOHANNES BRAHMS’ A German Requiem and I go way back—all the way to 1966, when, as a member of the Citadel’s Cadet Chapel Choir, I sang the luminous and moving fourth movement, “How Lovely is Thy Dwelling Place” (arranged for men’s voices) at a memorial service. The music really got under my skin and refused to let go of me: I even dreamed through it one night. So, the following year, after acquiring my first hi-fi stereo equipment, one of the first LP’s I bought was Otto Klemperer’s glowing recording (still widely considered to be the finest) with the Philharmonia Orchestra & Chorus. And I was hooked; my love affair with this towering masterpiece had begun.
Still, it’s ultimate value and meaning to me didn’t surface until quite a few years later when the death of my Grandmother left me seriously pondering my own mortality and the human cycle of life and death for the first time. Then, a sudden memory of the Requiem’s opening lines hit me: “Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted.” I immediately dug out the LP and spent the next hour-plus listening—and weeping. It was a supremely cathartic experience; I felt tremendous comfort throughout… somehow, my soul was suddenly cleansed of doubt and fear, and my grief’s sharpest edges were blunted. Now I could begin to put my loss behind me.
Thus, ever since, this very great, very tender music has been the heart of my own personal mourning ritual. Whenever I lose someone dear to me, I can turn over my outrage and bereavement to it, and it never fails to help me hurdle my crippling emotions and deal with the worst of my pain so that I can get on with my life. Ever willing to share a wonderful thing, I have often gifted bereaved friends with a recording of it—as a sort of musical sympathy card. What drippy doggerel on frilly parchment can even begin to match its transcendent healing power and sweet, nurturing sense of comfort? If such a friend is close enough to cry with, I’ll join him—and, invariably, we are both blessed.
So now the Charleston Symphony Orchestra and Chorus seek to help bring a sense of final closure to a community that is still hurting from the loss of David Stahl: the primary personification of Charleston’s artistic soul. And what better music is there to realize that purpose than the Brahms Requiem? It was always one of David’s favorite big choral-orchestral works (he conducted it in Charleston at least twice). Unlike some of the “fire-and-brimstone” requiems out there—like the one by Verdi—it’s a work of deep spiritual reflection and solace. And it’s not a liturgical work, beholden to Christian dogma or meant for church use. The texts are not in the usual Latin, but German (from the Lutheran bible). Even so, Brahms—who was not a conventionally religious person himself—managed to avoid any direct scriptural references to Christian belief. In fact, in a letter to a friend, he confessed that he had seriously considered naming the work “A Human Requiem.” (see the program notes below)
As with quite a few requiems from other composers, this is an intensely personal work—most of which Brahms composed after the death of his mother. Like most composers, he realized that requiems (defined as “masses for the dead”) were actually not for the deceased, but for the living: the people left in grieving after a loved one’s demise. Brahms, while he never spoke of his personal devastation at his mother’s passing, almost certainly added the fifth movement for solo soprano (“Ye Have now Sorrow”) specifically in her honor; why else would he have selected a scriptural passage that ends with the words, “I will comfort you, as one whom his mother comforts.”
There is no better person to lead (and conduct) this memorial effort than Dr. Robert Taylor, the College of Charleston’s director of choral activities—and, for the past 12 years, the Charleston Symphony Chorus director. As such, he was David’s close collaborator, having prepared choruses for all of his choral-orchestral concerts during that time. To boot, he was one of David’s close personal friends. So this concert is definitely a labor of love—and not just his own, as he pointed out to me in a recent phone conversation. He told me that just about all of the planning and behind-the-scenes work for the event (marketing, tickets, etc.) has been carried out by Charleston Symphony Chorus members themselves—about 25 of whom have been singing in the chorus ever since David assumed directorship of the CSO in 1983.
In CharlestonToday’s recent video interview (click to watch), Taylor asserts that this concert is shaping up to be an event of truly international-class quality. As he tells us, the CSO and its chorus—recent tough times notwithstanding—remains one of America’s finest regional symphonic organizations. Numbering around 100 regular singers, the Charleston Symphony Chorus will be further reinforced by Taylor’s own CofC Concert Choir and members of his crack professional Taylor Festival Choir—and both are nationally recognized choirs. Add some voices from the wonderful CSO Spiritual Ensemble, plus quite a few accomplished local vocalists who simply want to be a part of this tribute, and the chorus’s total numbers will top 200. Our recently resurrected orchestra sounds as good as ever. The scheduled soloists are absolutely top-notch as well: Soprano Saundra DeAthos—making her Charleston debut—and our own CofC Opera director David Templeton (baritone) are both nationally-esteemed opera veterans. As Taylor put it, “I expect that the quality of our choral, orchestral and solo forces should make this a performance of truly international caliber.”
Thus, if you are one of Charleston’s many music lovers who still feel a sense of helpless, angry loss in the wake of David’s untimely passing, here’s your chance to gain some measure of final solace and closure. If you move fast, there may still be time to get tickets (click to buy). Every effort is being made to accommodate a large crowd: the Memminger Auditorium’s entire interior space will be opened up for this performance, and extra bleacher seating will be installed.
Whether you approach matters of bereavement from a strictly religious standpoint or not, I don’t think any prospective attendee will deny that David’s unquenchable spirit will be there at the Memminger this Saturday, moving among the hearts and souls of musicians and listeners alike. So be there, and share in this unique opportunity to dissolve your lingering sorrow in one of the greatest works of music ever written. We’ll all be much the better for it.
Photos of David Stahl courtesy of www.David-Stahl.com
Program Notes on Johannes Brahms’ Ein Deutsches Requiem
by Dr. Jorgens
The Deutsches Requiem or “German Requiem” is arguably the best known, and for many the best loved, of the works of Johannes Brahms (1833-1897). The premier of the full, seven-movement Requiem took place in Leipzig in February of 1869, but by this time the composer had been working on portions of the piece for a decade or more. Brahms’ inspiration for creating this monumental and highly original work included the death of his mother, with whom he was very close, in February of 1865, and much earlier, the attempted suicide of his friend and mentor, Robert Schumann, in 1854 through his death in 1856. As with all great composers, however, such personal motivation is at best a stimulus to deeper aesthetic and in this case philosophical goals that drive creative endeavor.
This German Requiem is not a true requiem, eschewing the traditional Latin, liturgical text (which is not Biblical but the words of the Roman Catholic Mass for the Dead, from the Roman Missal) for Brahms’ own selection of passages from Martin Luther’s vernacular German translation of the Bible. Those familiar with the Latin requiem—whether through the liturgy itself or through the dramatic musical settings of Mozart, Verdi and many others—will note that while the requiem is a prayer for the salvation of the dead, beginning “Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine” (“Grant them eternal rest, O Lord”), Brahms is concerned instead with the solace of the living who must continue on. The piece has aptly been described as a “requiem of consolation.” Brahms himself said he would prefer the title to refer to “Humanity” rather than to its German language.
Musically, the German Requiem balances tradition with originality. The seven movement structure is entirely Brahms’ own, a monumental arch with a number of unifying devices (prominent use of harp in the first and final movements, use of soloists in the third and fifth movements, fugues in the third and sixth movements, dark orchestral scoring in the somber second and sixth movements, and the comforting centerpiece in Movement IV, the exquisite “How Lovely Is Thy Dwelling Place”—“Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen”). Tying the entire piece together, the three note motif, F-A-B flat, is announced by the sopranos at the very beginning and permeates every movement.
Critical reception of the German Requiem today is always respectful and generally very positive as regards the piece itself. But this was not always the case. The great English playwright, George Bernard Shaw, whose acerbic comments were frequently on view in his many reviews of music and musical performance, wrote of the piece that it “could only have come from the establishment of a first-class undertaker.” History has not agreed with Mr. Shaw. The German Requiem is a favorite today with conductors, performers and audiences alike. It was a favorite of Maestro David Stahl, making it a fitting tribute as we perform it tonight in his memory.