Brahms Comes To Life At Transy

by Rachel Williams

Piling into Dr. Ben Hawkins’ van at 5:15 p.m. last Tuesday evening, everyone was anxious and exited. With two French horns, two oboes, a violin and a flute in tow it was a tight fit for the seven of us. Yet somehow we managed, and (once we escaped Lexington traffic) it was smooth sailing to Danville, Ky.

Around 6:30 we arrived at Centre College for the first official orchestra rehearsal for the performance of Johannes Brahms’ “A German Requiem.”

This performance features musicians from Transylvania, Centre, Asbury University and Berea College as well as professional musicians from the Lexington Philharmonic Orchestra. The full choirs from all four schools are participating in the performance, and several members of the orchestras and bands from these schools make up the instrumental section.

I, along with the five other Transy instrumentalists who are participating, got involved because Dr. Hawkins, Transy’s band and orchestra conductor, asked if I would be willing to play in the ensemble. Naturally, I said yes.

Initially, I was a bit nervous because we would only have two rehearsals to perfect this 70-minute piece of music that requires upwards of 100 musicians. The music itself is not terribly difficult for the most part, but the beauty is in the nuances. There are several very exposed moments throughout the piece, several sensitive tuning places where a critical ear is crucial. These moments are gorgeous when played correctly but a train wreck if something is off.

Following the first rehearsal, which was only the orchestra, I felt at least 10 times better about the final outcome. By no means was our rehearsal perfect, but we played well together as a group and I felt like we really listened critically to each other.

Being the only person on the second oboe part, unison tuning wasn’t an issue for the most part but I still had to figure out where I fit into each chord, if I fit into a chord at all. But that was fun; I enjoy puzzles.

The choir joined us at the second rehearsal on Thursday night, which of course added several more layers of complexity. Playing with the voices adds new perspective to the entire piece, it and calls for even more critical listening.

Written over the course of 11 years, “Ein deutsches Requiem, nach Worten der heiligen Schrift,” opus 45, (“A German Requiem, to Words of the Holy Scripture”) by Johannes Brahms was born out of less-than-pleasant events. Brahms began to write the requiem in 1857; he drew inspiration from his depression, which was due to the death of his mentor, Robert Schumann. In 1865, Brahms was inspired by the grief he felt following the death of his mother to complete the requiem.

The text of the requiem is not the traditional Latin but instead is German, as indicated by the title. Brahms compiled a series of scriptures from Martin Luther’s German vernacular translation of the Bible to use as the text for his greatest work. The scriptures offer comfort to those who must deal with the deaths of loved ones.

I knew very little about “A German Requiem” before I played it. Now having heard it, played it and learned a little bit of the story behind it, however, I feel I am better able to understand and appreciate the piece.

The experiences of playing and learning about the piece were both enjoyable, and I’ve only been to the rehearsals. The first performance is tonight at 8 p.m. in Haggin Auditorium, and we are performing again at Centre tomorrow night at the same time, in Newlin Hall.

Even if music isn’t your proverbial cup of tea, I strongly encourage attending one or both of these performances.

Hopefully some of the history provided here helps others to appreciate the piece as I have come to. “A German Requiem” is a powerful piece of music. In my opinion, it would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to listen to this piece and not be moved by it in some way.

It has been a great experience playing with musicians of this caliber; I have thoroughly enjoyed the preparation for these performances. I hope we are able to convey to all listeners the emotion Brahms put into this masterpiece.


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