My date book showed I was to attend a performance of Brahms’ Requiem one afternoon at San Francisco’s Davies Symphony Hall.
The hall, of course, is closed; there was no performance. Yet can the Requiem somehow still lift my spirits?
Donning the Bose headphones my family had given me, I asked my remote to find a performance on YouTube. It presented several choices. I selected the one by Claudio Abbado.
I clicked the button and suddenly was in Vienna in the ornate Musikverein where each Jan. 1 the Vienna Philharmonic welcomes the new year.
From the first note, it was Brahms unmistakably. Somberly so. I was plunged immediately into a setting of human mortality, the fragility and impermanence of earthly existence.
Might I have been feeling this even more so because of the uncertain times in which we’re living just now?
With the unperturbed pace of Francis Thompson’s Hound of Heaven, the chorus chanted and rechanted, “Alles Fleisch ist wie Gras,” “All flesh is as grass.”
After digressing to sing of the promise of harvest, it returned, this time full chorus, fortissimo, “Alles Fleisch!” (OK, Johannes! I get the point!)
But there’s no letup.
I hear again the existential question the psalms are asking on my behalf, “Lord, make me to know mine end, and the measure of my days.”
If in this lament there’s to be some uplift, some quieting of the soul, where will it come from?
I find it in the soaring affirmation, “How ‘lieblich’ (lovely, amiable) is thy dwelling place!” It left me resonating with the cry that followed, “My soul longeth, yea even fainteth for the courts of the Lord.”
Had I forgotten that Brahms treated the same great passage from 1 Corinthians that Handel had used in his Messiah about the “mystery” and the sound of the trumpet?
Yet in Brahms I sensed no celebration, no assurance, of resurrection.
Indeed, in a minor key he seemed to grapple with the trumpet perhaps as the sound of judgment. And, doesn’t “Posaune” sound even more ominous in a way than “trumpet” ever does?
I came to this familiar work anticipating elevation of my spirit, but I found it a sober reflection on our fleeting life. Necessary, realistic and matching our times.
Comfort comes, at least for me, in Brahms’ final word about those who “die in the Lord” and Revelation’s hopeful speculation that “rest[ing] from their labors … their works do follow them.” Perhaps. Can we hope for more in this life?
I put down my headphones. Not exhilarated, but newly in touch with the profundity in which we must live, and which may point us toward the ground of our being.
Dale Edmondson is the retired pastor of Judson Memorial Baptist Church in Minneapolis, having previously served the First Baptist Church of Berkeley, California. He is an alumnus of American Baptist Seminary of the West (then, Berkeley Baptist Divinity School) and Regents Park College, Oxford University. He was a founding member of the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America and in retirement taught in the College of Theology at Central Philippine University. He lives in San Leandro, California.