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A Requiem For All Mankind

BPO concerts feature the Buffalo Philharmonic Chorus and soloists in A German Requiem

On Saturday, May 15 at 8pm and Sunday, May 16 at 2:30pm, BPO music director JoAnn Falletta will be on the podium of Kleinhans Music Hall for a program featuring Johannes Brahms’ choral masterpiece A German Requiem (Ein Deutsches Requiem) and a recently composed work, Popule Meus, by the English composer John Tavener. The performances of A German Requiem by Falletta will be her first on the BPO classic subscription series; Max Valdes led the last BPO classic series performance of the work in 1995.

BPO cellist Roman Mekinulov.

Brahms first sketched music for what would evolve into his German Requiem in 1856, following the death of his friend and mentor Robert Schumann. The death of his mother in 1865 may have provided the impetus for his again taking up the idea of writing a requiem, but in later life Brahms insisted that he wrote the work for all humanity. The text of the liturgical requiem mass in Latin had been codified in the mid 16th century by the Catholic Church at the Council of Trent; it was set many hundreds of times by Europe’s greatest composers. Brahms, who was born in Hamburg, had been raised as a North German Protestant, but he became an agnostic. Rather that setting the traditional Latin requiem text, with its emphasis on the Day of Judgment, Brahms chose passages from the Lutheran bible, with which he was very familiar, to comfort those left living in the world: the first verse is “Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Matthew 5:4). The very title that Brahms chose, A German Requiem, emphasized that the work is not the traditional Latin requiem, or even a German translation of the Latin text but rather the composers’ own private testament to death: a personal requiem, not the requiem.

Of course, free thinking makes some people nervous. Before the first performance of the complete work at the cathedral in Bremen on Good Friday, 1868, the otherwise enthusiastic conductor hesitantly told Brahms that the work never mentions Jesus Christ, and respectfully asked him to correct this error. Brahms replied: “As far as the text is concerned, I confess that I would gladly omit even the word German and instead use Human. On the other hand, I have chosen one thing or another because I am a musician, because I needed it, and because with my venerable authors I can’t delete or dispute anything.” Brahms did not change the text, the premiere was an overwhelming success, and the work has remained immensely popular with audiences worldwide. The act of composing his German Requiem gave Brahms both the experience and the confidence he needed to eventually compose his first symphony.

The power of the work to give comfort still resonates. When NY Philharmonic music director Kurt Masur conducted a memorial concert for the victims of 9/11 a few days after that tragic event, he chose the German Requiem, and according to the New York Times, “the serenely beautiful Brahms performance he conducted brought healing and solidarity to a wounded city.”

Receiving its Buffalo premiere is Popule Meus, a work for solo cello, timpani and strings by the profoundly spiritual English composer John Tavener (b.1944). The work had its premiere in February in Winnipeg and JoAnn Falletta subsequently performed it with the Virginia Symphony, with that orchestras’ principal cellist Michael Daniels as soloist; BPO principal Roman Mekinulov will be the soloist for these performances. According to Tavener, “Popule Meus is a meditation on the Judaic and Christian text “O my People, what have I done to you?”, but it is also a Universalist contemplation of the wholesale rejection of God by modern man. In this work the solo cello is the all-compassionate one, while the timpani represent man in his vain and pointless rejection. Although the solo cello and strings, and the timpani, share the same material (four ideas are gradually revealed, and they revolve four times during the piece), the timpani music is violent and becomes increasingly frenzied and contracted, while the cello and strings remain still and serene.”

For tickets, call 885-5000 or visit

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