Short Biographies


When Advent is here again, a new Church year will have begun, Winter is approaching fast, the years spin by and "now is the hour for us to rise from sleep", "denn alles Fleisch, es ist wie Gras", "for all flesh is as grass, and all the glory of men as the flower of grass.  The grass withereth, and the flower thereof falleth away."

These words of Scripture (I Pet. I.24) were chosen by the famous 19th century classical composer, Johannes Brahms (b.Hamburg Germany May 7, 1833, d. Vienna, April 3 1897) for the second chorus of his "German Requiem", written in the 1860's to commemorate the death of his master and friend, Robert Schumann.  The chorus is a mighty piece, with the melody for these words expressing a mighty sadness.  It was well chosen as background music for a video-tape recently  made on the desolation of the battle of Verdun, where in 1916 hundreds of thousands of the bravest young Frenchmen and Germans slaughtered one another to no apparent purpose.  The desolation within one musician's breast in 1866 had become the desolation of half a million soldier's lives fifty years later.  Thus life follows art.  Why?  Because both follow religion.  In his "German Requiem" Brahms  as Geiringer noted deliberately omitted any mention of Our Lord Jesus Christ.  Thereby hangs the tale.

The music of Brahms may be unknown to many of you.  Generally it is liked or disliked for a similar reason, because of its autumn cast.  Always solid and well-carpentered, often sombre, like a late Victorian house of the same period, it appeals to those who, like the poet Keats, enjoy the   "Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun..."  Brahms is known either as a 'classical romanticist' or a 'romantic classicist' for his compelling and personal yet basically traditional idiom, which resolves the problem of form in his four symphonies, four concertos (of symphonic proportions), and some two dozen major works in varying chamber combinations, as well as in more than 250 songs and a rich legacy of piano pieces. Whoever resents the season of the dying of the year will prefer less dark-hued music, music that maybe ripples with spring or pretends that life is an endless summer's morning, or prattles of an endless beautiful feeling that everything's going my way.

There is no such superficiality in Brahms who in his Requiem squarely confronts the great problem of life and death by means of a series of texts chosen by the composer himself from Holy Scripture.  Indeed the Requiem contains some of his darkest music, and yet the climax comes in the sixth chorus with the setting of I Corinthians XV 52-55:  "For the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall rise incorruptible: and we shall be changed ... then shall come to pass the saying that is written, 'Death is swallowed up in victory, O death, where is thy sting?"  And the music is full of heart, with melodies of warmth and consolation - then did Brahms believe in the Resurrection, and if he did, how could his music at other moments be so dark?

Interesting question.  Asked once about his choice of texts, Brahms replied that it was meant to be a human, not a Christian, Requiem.  How, then, texts of the Resurrection?  - I have selected many things because I am a musician, because I needed them, because I can't argue with the venerable writers or cross out their 'hereafter'.  I say no more..."  However, at the end of his life he said the more:  "Neither when I wrote my Requiem (1866) did I, nor now (1896) (on setting the work 'O welt, ich muss dich lassen';'O world, I must take my leave of thee') do I, believe in the immortality of the soul".  The quotation from Corinthians referring to the resurrection of body and soul had merely "made a deep impression" on him, "as a symbol that could be set to music".

Clearly, by his own testimony, Brahms was a humanist with no faith in the Light of the Word, which explains the darkness in his music, and Scripture was for him not a book of real truth but a quarry of texts to serve as vehicle for noble sentiments in music.  On the other hand equally clear from the music is that his sentiments were noble.  When death cuts men down like the grass of the field, Brahms presented no facile solution - how he would have despised the Novus Ordo with its white-vested funerals!  Death is as tragic as life is grand, but the music feels their meaning:  grief and desolation, consolation and calm.

"Oh Brahms,"  said his fellow composer Anton Dvorak, "What a great man, and he does not believe!"  Dvorak might have said, what a warm heart for such coldness in the head.  In Brahms' head is the darkness of unbelief, but carrying over from his heart into his music is the after-glow of the light and warmth of the belief of preceding generations. After-glow which includes such settings as the 'Benedictus' for a 'Missa Canonica', together with an 'O bone Jesu', his 'Adoramus Te' and the 'Regina coeli' (Opus 37).

However, the heart is not designed to stay warm indefinitely when the head is in darkness.  That is why Brahms has been well called, as far as classical music is concerned, the last of the Caesars.  Directly after him come Schoenberg and the moderns, empty heads and empty hearts, because "the fish rots from the head", says the proverb, and as the head is today, so the heart is tomorrow.  Disbelieved Scripture could still tell the sentiments of Brahms, but not those of his successors.  Where the head would no longer lead, the feelings were bound to run out.  Unless Germany returned to believing, the emptiness and coldness were bound to come out in something like the battlefield of Verdun.  Life follows art follows religion.

Thus war and peace, politics and music, all activities of man as man and not just as an animal, are governed by man's faith or his lack of it, and that does not mean, just any faith.  It is an insult to man to hold that just so long as he fills his head with some nice convincing delusion, then everything will come out fine.  Yet how many people think that just so long as one believes in something, or Someone, it matters little what or who one believes in.  All such people have a low opinion of men.  No.  Men need the truth.  They can recognize it.  They may refuse it.  But it is what it is, independently of them, it is what they need and upon it they flourish, whereas upon a diet of lies, however flattering and cozy, men wither.

Now there are certain truths within the reach of man's reason, which he needs and cannot live without, for instance water is not gasoline and gasoline is not water.  But if it turns out to be true also the the main truths are above the reach of his reason - not contrary to it, but above it - then he will have to reach from them something more than just reason, but they will still have to be truths and not just withering delusions.

Now Catholics know by their reason that there is one Supreme Being, God, just as they know by their  Faith, with an absolute certainty of possessing the truth, that He is three Persons in one Being, that the second of these Persons took flesh, that He founded one Church (not two, let alone two thousand), and that within that Catholic Church the divine condescension to men that began with His Incarnation continues in the most incredible manner in the sacraments, so that for instance He who in His human life handed Himself over once into His enemies' hands in the Garden of Gethsemane, now in His sacramental life puts Himself - now literally! - into their hands times without number every day whenever He is for instance mistreated in the Holy Eucharist.

Nor is this view of the Master of the Universe a comforting delusion, kidology, feel-goodery or sentimentallity.  It is rock-solid supernatural fact.  Whoever denies it, Protestants or Jew or Communist or atheist or Hindu or whoever, the Catholic knows with an absolute certainty that they are wrong, and he prays to be ready to shed his blood, if necessary, to witness to the truth, for their sake.  Upon no less solid a foundation of truth was build the musical tradition and the noble culture to which Brahms was heir.  The tradition and the nobility be in turn handed down, but no longer with their foundation, like the grin of the Cheshire cat without the cat, of the same period.  It could not last.  It did not last.  To think that it could have lasted is to insult man.  That it did not last is a testimony to man, to his need of truth.  Wreckers like Schoenberg were bound to arise who would pull that house down for its lack of foundation.  Today's world is full of such wreckers who at least testify to the demand for truth and to the refusal of illusion.

So what are the wreckers clamouring for?  Clear.  The foundational Truth, fully and clearly professed.  They need witnesses to the fullness of the Faith.  Blood-witnesses may be the only ones that can convince them, because there are too  many words out there already, most of them lies.  It will take blood to coagulate such a hemorrhaging of the truth.

Brahms whose oeuvre  was brought to a close in 1896 with the Eleven Chorale Preludes for Organ (Opus 122) did not return to the foundation of the warmth of which and off which he composed.  Not did his countrymen, in general.  They were given a terrible lesson at Verdun, but instead of returning to God, they turned to national socialism, only to be given an even more terrible lesson in World War II.  Chastened for a while, under Catholic Chancellor Adenauer the Germans rebuild, but misled like everyone else by Vatican II they mostly gave up the Faith and Church of Adenauer and so they are now again rending one another in search of the solution on which they turned their backs - the situation comes daily closer to a cosmic re-run of Verdun.  Cosmic, because of course the problem is not confined to the country of Brahms (but maybe some readers needed to see some other country than theirs coming under fire!) - the problem is universal.   Dear, dear Catholic readers, the solution is on our hands, as Catholics.  It is in nobody else's.

As Advent comes again, it is as always , the season to prepare for the coming of the Light into the world.  He must have entry into our hearts and lives, into our music and politics.  How can He solve their problems if we shut Him out?  He belongs in our homes, in our schools, in our hospitals, in our music, in our politics.  We say no to the separation of Catholic Church and State, no to the promotion of filth in the arts, no to that hypocritical refusal of censorship which vigorously censors and cuts out any thought of God, let alone mention of the Divine Name.  Veni, Veni Emmanuel! 

+ Bishop Richard Williamson

"O Prince of Peace  
'May heads of nations
O Christ, Subdue  
Fear Thy name
Those rebel hearts    
 And spread Thy honour
Thy peace restore     
 Through their lands,
Into Thy sheep fold     
Our nation's laws,
Lead anew 
Our arts proclaim
The scattered sheep,    
The beauty of
To stray no more.   
Thy just commands."

Eminent composer of the late 19th century: b. Hamburg, Germany, May 7, 1833; d. Vienna, April 3, 1897.  The standard biographies  have traced the influences of poetry and sordid childhood circumstances on the composer's youth, character, and creative intuitions.  It is clear that his lifelong friendships and correspondence with Clara Schuman (see Schumann, Robert) and the music amateur Theodor Billroth, among others, testify t his capacity for warm personal loyalties; and that in matters of musical opinion he remained true to the inner necessities of personal conviction , despite strong opposition from partisans of *Liszt, R. *Wagner, R. and *Bruckner.  (Brahms was championed by the critic Eduard Hanslick, whose reviews kept the musical world of that day in a lively ferment of pro- and anti-Brahms debate.)  From a religious point of view, however, still to be settled are (1) the relation, if any, between Brahm's "form-consciencness" and his ethical background, and (2) the influence of his type of Protestant piety on such works as A German Requiem, a non-liturgical setting of texts from Luther's translation of the Bible (1857-63).  "The chaste Johannes," as Wagner called him, may, in rejecting the Symphonic Poem of Liszt and the Music Drama of Wagner, have been motivated by ethical convictions that favoured the "orderliness" of Beethovenian sonata-form over the more amorphous cyclic utterances of *Berlioz and Liszt, although the idée fixe  of Berlioz and the ""motivic cell" of Liszt, like the leitmotiv of Wagner, led to a "formlessness" that was more apparent than real.  Brahms, too, offered a contemporary and personal yet basically traditional solution to the problem of form in his four symphonies, four concertos (of symphonic proportions), and some two dozen major works in varying chamber combinations, as well as in more than 250 songs and a rich legacy of piano pieces.  It may perhaps still be argued whether he should be labeled as a "classical romanticist" or a "romantic classicist" within his own compellingly expressive but rigourously disciplined personal idiom.  Schoenberg saw in Brahms's epic-lyric mastery of structural techniques a "development of the musical language"  unequaled since Mozart.

The mid-20th-century attitude of professional musicology toward the philosophical discipline of aesthetics hardly admits, yet, of a style-critical analysis that could "prove" the point of Brahms's Protestant piety as a tangible factor in the Requiem.  One may instinctively sense, nevertheless, not only the presence of the elegiac, but also of the pessimistic in this and corresponding works, nothing with Geiringer that in the Requiem  "all mention of the name of Christ is expressly avoided."  An early Missa canonica  (c. 1855) survives in only its brief Benedictus.  Settings of O bone Jesu, Adoramus te, and Regina coeli  (Opus 37) are among the composer's somewhat unjustly neglected minor works.  Eleven Chorale Preludes for Organ (Opus 122) brought his oeuvre  to a close (1896) with a setting of "O welt, ich muss dich lassen" (O world, I must leave you).

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