A journey to joy: Unusual requiem hails optimism of Easter

In Roman Catholic liturgy, a requiem is defined alternately as a mass for the repose of the soul of a dead person or as a musical setting or celebration for such a mass.

If Johannes Brahms' "A German Requiem," the Easter weekend offering by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra at Temple Square, is, in fact, a requiem, it is an unusual one indeed.

"A composition more for the living than for the dead, it aims to console and lead the living to accept death as an inevitable part of our lives, to show that death is not the end, and to celebrate death as that great transition in our progress to a more joyous and blessed state," wrote musicologist Roger Miller in printed program notes for the concert, presented in the Salt Lake Tabernacle April 18 and 19.

Part of the composer's method to accomplish that aim was a libretto that draws liberally from books in the Old and New Testaments and from the apocryphal work Wisdom of Solomon. Scriptural passages are synthesized together and placed in musical settings, the effect being to convey the message of passing from adversity and travail to a state of illumination and joy, from the perishable state of mortality to eternal glory.

In the first movement, for example, the beatitude from Matthew 5:4, "Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted," is juxtaposed with Psalm 126:5-6, "They that sow in tears shall reap in joy. He that goeth forth and weepeth, bearing precious seed, shall doubtless come again with rejoicing, bringing his sheaves with him."

Subsequently, the observation in 1 Peter 1:25, "For all flesh is as grass, and all the glory of man as the flower of grass," sung in ominous tones, is paired with James's buoyant admonition in a more melodious and sublime musical setting, "Be patient therefore, brethren, unto the coming of the Lord. Behold the husbandman waiteth for the precious fruit of the earth, and hath long patience for it, until he receive the early and latter rain."

Conducted by Craig Jessop, the concert was sung entirely in the German in which it was composed. (Brahms took the text from Martin Luther's German translation of the scriptures as opposed to the traditional Latin translation; hence the name "German Requiem.") Diligent preparation by vocalists and musicians was reflected in a flawless performance, with the choir singing from memory the entire first movement.

Two soloists, soprano Celena Shafer and baritone Paul Whelan, joined the choir and orchestra for this performance.

The choir will give an encore presentation of the work, titled in German Ein deutsches Requiem , this summer with the Boston Symphony at the famous Tanglewood Festival.

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