Photography Rishi Coupland

Hackney Singers Brahms Requiem
Poster design by Thomas Matthews


Brahms German Requiem

Beethoven Egmont Overture

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Hackney Singers

Forest Philharmonic

Conductor  Dan Ludford-Thomas

Soprano  Helen Meyerhoff

Baritone  Philip Tebb

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7.30pm Saturday 25th October 2014

St John at Hackney,
Lower Clapton Road E5 0PD

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Hackney Singers presented a stunning performance of one of the world’s great choral works, Brahms’s epic masterpiece Ein deutsches Requiem, on Saturday evening in the Georgian splendour of St John at Hackney. Sung in German, Brahms’ lyrical and uplifting Requiem brilliantly melds classical structure and romantic harmony; the libretto is unusual for a requiem in that it was not intended as a religious mass for the dead, but rather as a secular work of comfort and consolation for the living.

Accompanied by leading community orchestra the Forest Philharmonic, under the baton of Dan Ludford-Thomas, the concert opened in dramatic style with Beethoven’s Egmont Overture, celebrating the veneration with which Beethoven was held by Brahms; in his home, he composed under the watchful eye of a marble bust of Beethoven.

Hackney Singers can next be seen at the Christmas Concert at St Peter de Beauvoir, Friday 19th December, followed by a performance of Mozart’s Requiem at the Royal Festival Hall on 10th March 2015. View Concerts

“I want to congratulate you all for a stunning performance of the Brahms Requiem. The Forest Phil set the tone with Beethoven’s thrilling Egmont Overture and then the Brahms was delivered by all with great passion and discipline. Our fantastic soloists who added magic were swept away by the whole day. Movement 6 was particularly electric and overwhelming. I am delighted and truly grateful to you, singers and committee for the hard work and dedication in rehearsals and organisation, resulting in this special concert, delivering such a spectacle to a very full house. Bravo to you all: Selig sind Sie alle.”   Dan Ludford-Thomas, Conductor

Beethoven and Brahms

Beethoven died in 1827, six years before his German compatriot Brahms was born, and their active composing lives were separated by three decades. Yet in many ways it feels as if the younger man’s work is a natural continuation of his predecessor’s (not for nothing was his first symphony nicknamed by some ‘Beethoven’s Tenth’). Brahms greatly revered Beethoven – as tonight’s conductor Dan Ludford-Thomas has pointed out, in his home he composed under the watchful eye of a marble bust of Beethoven – but there was more to it than mere ancestor worship. In the years since Beethoven’s death a new breed of composer had arisen, exemplified by Berlioz and Liszt, who liked their music to have literary connections and to tell a particular story. This was anathema to Brahms. He passionately believed in, for want of a better expression, ‘pure music’, and his own work was a conscious return to its great tradition – the lineage, as Dan Ludford-Thomas puts it, ‘from Bach to Haydn to Mozart to Beethoven to Brahms’. Two members of that pantheon are reunited tonight.

Ludwig van Beethoven Egmont Overture Opus 84

In 1810, Beethoven wrote incidental music to accompany performances of Goethe’s Egmont (1788). This play, about the 16th-century Flemish statesman and soldier Count van Egmont who opposed the persecution of Protestants in the Netherlands by their Spanish rulers and ended up being executed as a traitor, appealed strongly to Beethoven the champion of liberty, equality and fraternity – not least, perhaps, because those revolutionary principles had taken quite a knock in their country of origin (Beethoven had famously removed Napoleon’s name from the title of his Eroica Symphony (1804) when he heard that the Frenchman had had himself crowned emperor). The music includes nine vocal pieces for soprano and orchestra, but it is the overture – exhilarating and life-affirming, full of bold and tender gestures – that is most often heard today, and that begins tonight’s concert.

Johannes Brahms A German Requiem Opus 45

After the official première of Ein Deutsches Requiem (‘A German Requiem’) in Bremen on Good Friday, April 10, 1868, the most enthusiastic comment Brahms senior could manage was, ‘It went off quite well’. A phlegmatic family, the Brahmses. In fact, it was a triumph, and probably the crucial turning point in his son Johannes’s career.

Brahms had been far from an instant success as a composer. None of his earlier works had gained critical or popular acclaim, and his D minor piano concerto, written when he was 26, was a downright disaster. All this made him increasingly wary of committing himself musically (his first symphony did not appear until he was 43).

He did not give up on the piano concerto altogether, though. He decided to set words from the First Epistle to St Peter (‘For all flesh is grass …’) to the music of its first movement. This became what is now Part 2 of the Requiem. Over the next year or two he added three more sections, forming a four-movement cantata. In 1866 he composed two further movements (Parts 4 and 6), which brought the piece close to the Requiem as we now know it. It got its first public outing in Vienna in 1867, when only the first three movements were played. This was not an auspicious occasion. In the third movement, the timpani that are supposed to beat out the pulse of the fugue were so loud that everything else was inaudible, and some of the audience started hissing.

However, the Requiem’s full première the following year was, as we have seen, a great success. Audiences took to the new work (all the more so after, a month later, he added the tenderly beautiful Part 5), and things for Brahms began to look up. His music was now more in demand, he was making more money from it (thanks in part to finding an enterprising and efficient new publisher, Simrock), and he at last had the confidence in his own powers that was needed to liberate his genius. The rest is musical history.

One of the features of the Requiem that must have most forcibly struck its earliest audiences is that it is not a setting of the standard liturgical requiem (Kyrie, Dies Irae, and so on). Instead, Brahms made his own selection of German texts from the Bible – from the Gospels, from the Psalms, and from the Book of Revelation, among others. Why did he do this? He appears not to have been a conventionally religious man – certainly not a practising Christian. The fate of the soul after death, which is the main concern of a requiem mass, did not strike a responsive chord in Brahms.

What moved him more was the plight of the living in contemplating the reality of death and coming to terms with bereavement. It has been widely suspected that his grief at the death of his great friend and mentor, the composer Robert Schumann, in 1856, was the seed from which the German Requiem grew, and certainly the fifth movement was written as a memorial to his mother, who died in 1865. Ultimately, the message and purpose of the Requiem is consolation for those who are left behind: Ich will euch trösten, wie einen seine Mutter tröstet (‘As a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you’). Much of its music is sombre, but each movement ends optimistically. This is no anguished prayer for the dead, but, as William Mann wrote, ‘an act of consolation for the living, a hope that all may be well with us when we pass hence’.

© John Ayto 2014

BRAHMS GERMAN REQUIEM text
1. Selig sind, die da Leid tragen,
denn sie sollen getröstet werden.
Die mit Tränen säen,
werden mit Freuden ernten.
Sie gehen hin und weinen
und tragen edlen Samen,
und kommen mit Freuden
und bringen ihre Garben
Blessed are they that mourn,
for they shall be comforted.
They who sow in tears,
shall reap in joy.
Go forth and cry,
bearing precious seed,
and come with joy
bearing their sheaves
2. Denn alles Fleisch ist wie Gras
und alle Herrlichkeit des Menschen
wie des Grases Blumen.
Das Gras ist verdorret
und die Blume abgefallen.So seid nun geduldig, lieben Brüder,
bis auf die Zukunft des Herrn.
Siehe, ein Ackermann wartet
auf die köstliche Frucht der Erde
und ist geduldig darüber, bis er empfahe
den Morgenregen und Abendregen.Aber des Herrn Wort bleibet in Ewigkeit.Die Erlöseten des Herrn werden wieder kommen,
und gen Zion kommen mit Jauchzen;
ewige Freude wird über ihrem Haupte sein;
Freude und Wonne werden sie ergreifen
und Schmerz und Seufzen wird weg müssen
For all flesh is as grass,
and the glory of man
like flowers.
The grass withers
and the flower falls.Therefore be patient, dear brothers,
for the coming of the Lord.
Behold, the husbandman waits
for the delicious fruits of the earth
and is patient for it, until he receives
the morning rain and evening rain.But the word of the Lord endures for eternity.The redeemed of the Lord will come again,
and come to Zion with a shout;
eternal joy shall be upon her head;
They shall take joy and gladness,
and sorrow and sighing must depart
3. Herr, lehre doch mich,
daß ein Ende mit mir haben muß,
und mein Leben ein Ziel hat,
und ich davon muß.Siehe, meine Tage sind
einer Hand breit vor dir,
und mein Leben ist wie nichts vor dir.
Ach wie gar nichts sind alle Menschen,
die doch so sicher leben.Sie gehen daher wie ein Schemen,
und machen ihnen viel vergebliche Unruhe;
sie sammeln und wissen nicht
wer es kriegen wird.
Nun Herr, wess soll ich mich trösten?
Ich hoffe auf dich.Der Gerechten Seelen sind in Gottes Hand
und keine Qual rühret sie an
Lord, teach me
That I must have an end,
And my life has a purpose,
and I must accept this.Behold, my days are
as a handbreadth before Thee,
and my life is as nothing before Thee.
Alas, as nothing are all men,
but so sure the living.They are therefore like a shadow,
and go about vainly in disquiet;
they collect riches, and do not know
who will receive them.
Now, Lord, how can I console myself?
My hope is in Thee.The righteous souls are in God’s hand
and no torment shall stir them
4.Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen,
Herr Zebaoth!
Meine Seele verlanget und sehnet sich
nach den Vorhöfen des Herrn;
mein Leib und Seele freuen sich
in dem lebendigen Gott.Wohl denen, die in deinem Hause wohnen,
die loben dich immerdar
How lovely are thy dwelling places,
O Lord of Hosts!
My soul requires and yearns for
the courts of the Lord;
My body and soul rejoice
in the living God.Blessed are they that dwell in thy house;
they praise you forever
5. Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit;
aber ich will euch wieder sehen
und euer Herz soll sich freuen
und eure Freude soll niemand von euch nehmen.Sehet mich an:
Ich habe eine kleine Zeit Mühe und Arbeit gehabt
und habe großen Trost funden.Ich will euch trösten,
wie Einen seine Mutter tröstet
You now have sorrow;
but I shall see you again
and your heart shall rejoice
and your joy no one shall take from you.Behold me:
I have had for a little time toil and torment,
and now have found great consolation.I will console you,
as one is consoled by his mother
6. Denn wir haben hie keine bleibende Statt,
sondern die zukünftige suchen wir.Siehe, ich sage euch ein Geheimnis:
Wir werden nicht alle entschlafen,
wir werden aber alle verwandelt werden;
und dasselbige plötzlich, in einem Augenblick,
zu der Zeit der letzten Posaune.
Denn es wird die Posaune schallen,
und die Toten werden auferstehen unverweslich,
und wir werden verwandelt werden.
Dann wird erfüllet werden
das Wort, das geschrieben steht:
Der Tod ist verschlungen in den Sieg.
Tod, wo ist dein Stachel?
Hölle, wo ist dein Sieg?Herr, du bist würdig zu nehmen
Preis und Ehre und Kraft,
denn du hast alle Dinge geschaffen,
und durch deinen Willen haben sie
das Wesen und sind geschaffen
For we have here no continuing city,
but we seek the future.Behold, I show you a mystery:
We shall not all sleep,
but we all shall be changed
and suddenly, in a moment,
at the sound of the last trombone.
For the trombone shall sound,
and the dead shall be raised incorruptible,
and we shall be changed.
Then shall be fulfilled
The word that is written:
Death is swallowed up in victory.
O Death, where is thy sting?
O Hell, where is thy victory?Lord, Thou art worthy to receive all
praise, honor, and glory,
for Thou hast created all things,
and through Thy will
they have been and are created
7. Selig sind die Toten,
die in dem Herrn sterben,
von nun anJa der Geist spricht,
daß sie ruhen von ihrer Arbeit;
denn ihre Werke folgen ihnen nach
Blessed are the dead
that die in the Lord
from henceforthYea, saith the spirit,
that they rest from their labors,
and their works shall follow them