The Lansing Symphony Orchestra's next concert features a collaboration with choirs from the MSU College of Music. WKAR's Melissa Benmark spoke with MSU Director of Choral Programs, David Rayl, about the program, which features Brahms' "German Requiem" and Haydn's Symphony No. 104.
DAVID RAYL: First of all, it’s more complicated musically and contrapuntally than some of his symphonies but it retains that sense of Haydn’s optimism, his love of life. It’s sort of ebullient. It’s like Champagne. It’s very celebrative.
The second movement, the slow movement, is very beautiful, very tender. There are also a few moments of drama, because that’s what Haydn likes to do is surprise us with some moments of drama. But overall, it’s a very lighthearted, positive, optimistic piece.
MELISSA BENMARK: And that would make a good contrast to the “German Requiem.”
RAYL: Exactly. And it’s not that the Requiem is at all pessimistic. In fact, the Requiem is actually a very optimistic piece and also has some very uplifting music. But it’s fairly serious. It’ll be sung in German, and as I’ve been talking to the members of the choir, it’s really a sermon in words and music from Brahms. So I think the Haydn is actually a great foil for that piece.
BENMARK: Well, for one thing, the Requiem is not actually in the shape of a traditional requiem. It’s more kind of a collection?
RAYL: Correct. So it’s not the typical Catholic requiem mass in the same way that, for example the Mozart Requiem or the Verdi Requiem set those liturgical texts. It’s a text that Brahms himself came up with. He was not working with a theologian or pastor.
We know that Brahms owned five different Bibles, and he basically compiled this text himself. And he’s using all kinds of books of the Bible. He uses a lot of exile literature from the Old Testament, both from Isaiah and the Psalms, and he uses New Testament texts as well. And he weaves those together basically to create a sermon in words and music.
BENMARK: My understanding is that he wrote the “Requiem” during a time of real hardship. His mother died. Robert Schumann, his friend, tried to kill himself. And yet apparently it also kind of put him back in the spotlight, which is kind of one of those funny things. He’s writing it out of personal pain and suddenly it makes him famous.
RAYL: Right. And so Schumann is the person who sort of predicts that Brahms will be a great force in Western European music. And yeah, the “Requiem” is the piece that sort of catapults him into fame all over Europe. And then the rest of his career sort of builds on that, but it is ironic.
Part of it is written after the death of his mother. A lot of writers talk about the fact that it’s written to comfort the living, and I think that’s kind of a limited view of it. I actually think that it’s Brahms’ wrestling with the idea of being in exile, of being separated from God, whatever God was to him. And it constantly moves back and forth from this idea of being separated, being in exile, and then going back to Zion, going back to Jerusalem—the impermanence of this world and the permanence of Heaven.
BENMARK: When you’re doing something of this magnitude, both emotionally and in terms of physically, it’s a long piece…what do you tell your choirs about doing something that’s this intense, both physically and emotionally.
RAYL: Well, in terms of emotionally, I’d like to talk a lot about the music so that they’re approaching it with a fairly serious understanding of what it’s about and a sense of what the arc of the piece is about.
Physically, they just have to pace themselves. And one of the things that you do in rehearsal, for example, there are two very long, taxing fugues—those are things we started working on the first night of rehearsal, and did a little of those every single rehearsal. So part of it is just like preparing to run a marathon. You have to build up some endurance. I think you also hope that their sense of what the piece is about will carry them through emotionally and physically to some extent.