This year’s featured time period for our History through Worship Series is the Romantic Period. The Romantic Period began approximately in 1820. Some of the first signs of the Romantic movement occurred in Germany at the beginning of the nineteenth century through the writings of Goethe and Schiller. Music tends to be a more traditional art and often follows movements in visual art or philosophy by years or decades. Such was the case for music in the Romantic period. This evening’s concert will feature works from a mature Romantic Period. To some degree Mendelssohn serves as a bridge to late Romantic writers, having served as a mentor and supporter of their music. No doubt Brahms was influenced by the elder Mendelssohn. Mendelssohn by way of his interest in reviving the music of J. S. Bach became perhaps the most important organ revivalist of the Romantic Period. The primary piece featured in this evening’s concert is Brahms’ Requiem.
Brahms began writing musical reflections on death after the passing of his mother in 1865. Some have suggested that the death of Schumann, his close friend, almost a decade earlier was also an inspiration for the piece. Although Brahms was probably not a Christian, the exemplary artistic setting of powerful scriptures related to death reflects the hegemonic influence of Lutheranism in Brahms’ setting. The work is distinctly Lutheran in two senses: 1) The piece clearly reflects an intimate knowledge of scripture by Brahms, as opposed to preselected text, which are featured in Catholic Requiems and 2) The work is distinctly hopeful in comparison to Roman Catholic Requiems. One can hardly imagine that Brahms did not believe in the Resurrection when listening to the sixth movement, and it must be recognized that Brahms was possibly struggling with belief in a time of deep German theological questioning of fundamental Christian beliefs. If Pelikan noted that Bach wrote in a challenging Enlightenment mindset of “I believe, O Lord, Help my unbelief,”¹ just imagine the challenging philosophical milieu in which Brahms wrote.
Brahms’ writing, like Mendelssohn, is a historical review in and of itself. For example, movements II and IV end with fugal celebrations of highest praise, reminiscent of Bach or Handel. The brief but stunning a cappella sections might reference gentle and controlled counterpoint by Palestrina.² Brahms also assimilated the best of writing from his era. For example, the fourth movement contains sparkling otherworldly orchestration that is similar to early orchestrations by Mendelssohn.
Yet, Brahms’ writing had matured by the time of the Requiem to a summation far beyond the juxtaposition of past models. Indeed, he was a giant among his peers.
This work holds personal significance for me tonight. Just as a composer releases emotions associated with death into his or her craft, so I have felt compelled in recent months to turn to one of the greatest reflective works of art on death in human history. Forty-two years ago my parents brought me to my first home, my first community just a few steps from where I stand tonight, on Iroquois Street, the street where I now live. My father, Charles Alan Woodward, completed a ThD in New Testament here at NOBTS in 1980. At a time when some of our seminaries were facing challenges to theological thought, Alan pursued a dissertation to defend the veracity of Christ’s words in Mark 4:10-12. Truly, Alan’s passion for the Word defined him in home and in the church. He demonstrated an extraordinary servant-laced love for his wife, Frances and served four churches as pastor for over thirty years, including what was formerly Highland Baptist Church in Metairie for seven years and First Baptist Ellisville for twenty-three years. He ended his ministry serving the MS Baptist Convention as the Pastoral Leadership director, serving for eight years until just three months before his passing. I will never forget that one of Dad’s last pleas was for prayer that he would honor His Lord as his brain tumor and treatment began to have devastating effects on his conscious decisions. God answered our prayer as Dad passed from glory to glory.
One of the most important lessons I learned from my father was that the academic process, even at a doctoral level, mainly teaches one how to learn. Even with the drastic changes in method for research and writing since his time at NOBTS, which included placing dissertation drafts on Greyhound buses, to get clean copies back in time, the principles of excellent research and writing have not changed. In a similar manner, although Church Music has changed a good deal since the time of Brahms, the principles for essential musicianship have remained relatively stable. While musicians in Europe and particularly in Germany were marching quickly to the apex and end of Western common practice, American musicians were seeking to establish communities of functional musicianship that could appreciate great works of art and fully participate in congregational singing. A key pioneer in this effort was Lowell Mason, who is widely considered the first American public music educator.
Mason convinced the Boston Public School System to include music in their curriculum partly because it would increase and enhance students’ participation in church and community music. Mason believed every child should experience music, reflecting a unique commitment to musical independence. One could view Mason’s zeal as an extension of Luther’s desire for all Germans to be able to read the Bible.
1. Jaroslav Pelikan, “Bach Among the Theologians” (Philadelphia: Fortress Press).
2. Virginia Hancock, “Brahm’s Choral Compositions and His Library of Early Music” (Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press), 12, 65; Brahms library contained personal transcriptions of Palestrina as well as transcriptions of Palestrina by Robert Schumann.