Brahms Requiem

Saturday, April 22, 2017 • 7:30 p.m.
First Free Methodist Church (3200 3rd Ave W)

Orchestra Seattle
Seattle Chamber Singers
Clinton Smith, conductor
Stephen Binondo, piano
Rebecca Nathanson, soprano
José Rubio, baritone


Wolfgang Amadè Mozart (1756 –1791)
Ave verum corpus, K. 618

Frédéric Chopin (1810 –1849)
Piano Concerto No. 2 in F minor, Op. 21

— intermission —

Johannes Brahms (1833 –1897)
Ein deutsches Requiem, Op. 45

About the Concert

Brahms’ German Requiem deals with the fleeting nature of life, the need for solace following loss, the hope of a final attainment of peace, and a reward for struggle. The composer intended it not as a mass for the dead, but rather to offer comfort and consolation for the living. According to Michael Steinberg, “Mozart never invented anything more affecting” than his brief Ave verum corpus. OSSCS once again partners with the Chopin Foundation of the United States to present the winner of their annual competition in concert.

About the Soloists


Fifteen-year-old pianist Stephen Binondo, gold medalist in the Chopin Foundation of the Northwest’s 2017 Festival concerto division, is a student of Judy Baker. Stephen has garnered many honors in piano including first place at the SCMTA concerto competition, second place in the Sonatina-Sonata Festival, first place in the Anna Rollins Johnson Scholarship competition and first place in the Performance Arts Festival of the Eastside concerto competition. Stephen was the silver medalist at the 2016 Chopin Festival concerto competition and gold medalist at the 2015 Chopin Festival solo competition. In addition to his musical pursuits, Stephen enjoys crabbing and fishing, and playing with his pet dogs, Max and Harley.


Hailed by Opera News as “nothing short of orgasmic” with a tone of “mezzo-y richness,” soprano Rebecca Nathanson returns to the Santa Fe Opera this season to join their prestigious Apprentice Artist program and to cover Donna Anna in Don Giovanni. Other highlights include a company and New York City debut with the Center for Contemporary Opera as Constance in Nicola Moro’s Love Hurts. Last season also saw her debut in a title role in Roméo et Juliette at the Castleton Festival, for which The Washington Post praised her as an “emotional force” with a “dramatic sound … tapping a deep vein of despair.” Career highlights include an international debut at the Royal Opera House Muscat under the baton of Lorin Maazel in La bohème, for which the Times of Oman praised her “delightful, fiery, independent Musetta” and “layered and decadent” singing, and Myrtale in Thaïs with LA Opera, where she trained as a Domingo-Colburn-Stein Young Artist. While there, she covered Marie Antoinette in the West Coast premiere of John Corigliano’s The Ghosts of Versailles and Renée Fleming as Blanche Dubois in A Streetcar Named Desire. Learn more:


Baritone José Rubio is equally comfortable in the concert hall and on the operatic stage. His Carnegie Hall recital debut met with great acclaim, The Opera Insider proclaiming it “nothing short of stellar” and describing the performance as “an hour of intensely passionate singing and playing. It could have gone on forever without complaint.” Mr. Rubio’s recent engagements include Tonio in I Pagliacci with Vashon Opera, Falke in Die Fledermaus with Tacoma Opera, bass solos in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony with Philharmonia Northwest at Benaroya Hall, and the role of notorious gangster Legs Diamond in Evan Mack’s opera Roscoe with the Albany Symphony (featuring Deborah Voigt as the female lead). He is featured on recordings of two Philip Glass operas on the Orange Mountain Music label, Orpheé and Galileo Galilei, and can also be heard on Albany Records’ world premiere recording of Evan Mack’s Angel of the Amazon. Learn more:

Program Notes

Wolfgang Amadè Mozart
Ave verum corpus, K. 618

Joannes Chrisostomus Wolfgang Gottlieb Mozart was born in Salzburg on January 27, 1756, and died in Vienna on December 5, 1791; he began calling himself Wolfgango Amadeo around 1770 and Wolfgang Amadè in 1777. He composed this motet for chorus and strings at Baden bei Wien, Austria, on June 16 and 17, 1791. It likely had its first performance the following Sunday at St. Stephen’s, the local parish church.

Numerous composers have set to music the brief Latin Eucharistic poem Ave verum corpus (“Hail, true body”), which dates from the 1300s. It sets forth the Roman Catholic belief in the “real presence” of Jesus in the bread and wine of the Eucharist and the identification of our own suffering and death with Jesus’ passion, and is often sung during the liturgy of Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament, when Christ’s presence in consecrated bread, displayed in a decorated open or transparent receptacle, is acknowledged and adored by the congregation.

The autograph of Mozart’s tranquil, intimate setting of the Ave verum corpus text is dated June 17, 1791, a week before the celebration of the Feast of Corpus Christi (“the Body of Christ”), which commemorates the Last Supper that Jesus shared with his friends and family on the night before his crucifixion. Mozart, occupied at this time with his opera The Magic Flute, was visiting his wife Constanze, who was expecting their sixth child and enjoying the famous hot springs at Baden about 16 miles south of Vienna.

For his friend Anton Stoll, the master of music at Baden’s 13th-century parish church, Mozart wrote his moving, 46-measure motet on a piece of paper he is said to have found in the small garden pavilion of the house at 4 Renngasse, in which his wife and young son Karl had taken rooms. Six months later, sadly, Mozart was dead. This masterly miniature, one of Mozart’s best known and most popular pieces, might thus be experienced by listeners today as a farewell and also as both a love song and a lullaby: for the composer’s wife and coming child, and for Jesus, whose suffering and death bring consolation and life.

— Lorelette Knowles

Frédéric Chopin
Piano Concerto No. 2 in F minor, Op. 21

Chopin was born March 1, 1810, in Żelazowa (near Warsaw) and died October 17, 1849, in Paris. He began composing this work in 1829 and was the soloist at its premiere on March 17, 1830, in Warsaw. The accompaniment calls for pairs of woodwinds, horns and trumpets, bass trombone, timpani and strings.

Fryderyk Franciszek Chopin, the Polish-born son of a French father and Polish mother, began playing piano in public at age seven, by which time he had already composed two polonaises (improvised at the keyboard and notated by his teacher). Seemingly destined for the life of the a traveling virtuoso, an 1829 trip to Vienna brought him great acclaim. Upon returning to Warsaw, he began work on the first of his two piano concertos (his only works involving orchestra, aside from a Grand polonaise brillante of 1834).

Chopin premiered his F-minor concerto (known as “No. 2” due to its delayed publication) in March 1830 at the first public concert of his own music in Warsaw. “The first Allegro of my concerto — unintelligible to most — received the reward of a ‘bravo’ from a few,” Chopin reported to a friend. “But the [second and third movements] produced a very great effect. After these, the applause and the ‘bravos’ seemed really to come from the heart.” The young pianist-composer was suddenly a national hero. After his E-minor concerto received a less enthusiastic response, Chopin relocated to Paris (where he would spend the rest of his life), changing his name to Frédéric Franĉois and giving a limited number of public concerts, preferring to display his brilliant improvisational talents in private settings.

The F-minor concerto opens with a customary orchestral introduction laying out some of the first movement’s principal themes, one of which suggests the rhythms of the mazurka, a triple-meter Polish folk dance with “strong accents unsystematically placed on the second or third beat” (according to The Harvard Dictionary of Music). When the soloist begins to play, the orchestra largely recedes into the background: unlike Beethoven, whose piano concertos (the last composed around the time of Chopin’s birth) pitted piano against orchestra in a dynamic dialogue, Chopin has the keyboard offer up an eloquent soliloquy.

At the heart of the concerto lies a poetic slow movement inspired by the composer’s love for a soprano, Konstancja Gładkowska, who attended the Warsaw Conservatory with young Chopin. “I already have my perfect one whom I have, without saying a word, served faithfully for a year now, of whom I dream, in whose memory the [Larghetto] of my concerto has been put up.” The love affair was decidedly one-sided: while Gładkowska knew of Chopin and admired his music, she only learned of his infatuation with her decades later from a biography of the composer. The rondo finale returns to the 3/4 meter of the concerto’s opening, as well as the rhythms of the mazurka (and another Polish dance, the kujawiak), to conclude a concerto that Franz Liszt called a work “of ideal perfection, its expression now radiant with light, now full of tender pathos.”

— Jeff Eldridge

Johannes Brahms
Ein deutsches Requiem, Op. 45

Brahms was born in Hamburg on May 7, 1833, and died in Vienna on April 3, 1897. He may have been sketching new ideas for his German Requiem as early as 1861 (eventually reusing material composed as early as 1855), but Brahms produced the bulk of the composition between February and October of 1866. The first three movements premiered in Vienna during December 1867, and Brahms had added another three by a concert on Good Friday 1868 at Bremen Cathedral. He then composed the fifth movement, first heard at a private concert in Zürich on September 12, 1868. The full seven-movement work had is first performance in Leipzig on February 18, 1869, with Carl Reinecke leading the Gewandhaus Orchestra. In addition to soprano and baritone soloists and four-part chorus, the work calls for pairs of woodwinds (plus piccolo and contrabassoon), 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, harp and strings.

As a student of music history, the agnostic Brahms knew Latin Requiem masses of earlier composers, but he found Lutheran liturgies in the German language more congenial. The idea for the German Requiem, the work that first won Brahms musical fame throughout Europe, seems to have been quite clear in his mind by April 1865, when the composer mentioned it in letters to Clara Schumann. Brahms had been thinking about composing such a work for some time, and he had drafted sections of the opening movements as early as 1861. He appears by 1865 to have settled on the basic structure of the piece, and to have selected the individual texts.

Brahms began the composition of the Requiem in earnest during February 1866. The four movements of an earlier Bach-style cantata for solo baritone, chorus and orchestra eventual became movements 1, 2, 3 and 7 of the Requiem, and by August of that year the bulk of the piece (all but the eventual fifth movement) was complete. Brahms revised the work over the next several months, discussing the changes with some of his correspondents, including violinist Joseph Joachim and Clara Schumann, to whom he presented the vocal score on December 30, 1866. The first three movements debuted in Vienna on December 1, 1867, while a concert in Bremen on Good Friday 1868 included three more. Brahms then revised these six movements and completed what became the fifth movement during May 1868. The Requiem received its first complete performance at Leipzig in February 1869.

What impelled the relatively young Brahms to compose a work dealing with the subject of death? His motives appear to have been complex. Brahms’ musical moods often tended to be dark: Joseph Hellmesberger, who as longtime concertmaster of the Vienna Philharmonic was able to observe the composer closely, commented: “When Brahms is in extra good spirits, he sings ‘The grave is my joy.’ ” Brahms wrote his Requiem without having received a commission, and with no clear prospects for a performance. Its composition probably arose, therefore, not out of a desire for profit, but out of Brahms’ need to express his own thoughts and feelings about mortality.

Serious labor on the piece likely began as a result of the death of his mother in 1865. Brahms did mention that his work was spurred on by her memory, and the textual excerpts from Martin Luther’s German translations of the Old Testament, the New Testament and the Apocrypha that he chose to set refer to a motherly consolation of the bereaved. Brahms had also been deeply affected by the 1856 death of Robert Schumann, his friend and benefactor, and had considered composing some sort of musical memorial to him. (The Requiem’s second movement had its genesis as a rejected slow movement from Brahms’ first piano concerto, composed shortly after Schumann’s death.) As Brahms scholar Michael Musgrave has concluded, “it seems unlikely that there was only one personal influence on the Requiem”; the deaths of his mother and of Schumann were for Brahms “a stimulus to the completion of existing ideas, rather than the source of them.”

Brahms insisted that his Requiem was intended for all humanity: in 1867, he would say about the title of his work, “I will admit that I could happily omit the ‘German’ and simply say ‘human.’ ” Its themes of melancholy, acceptance of death, and comfort to the living apply to many occasions. It appears that Brahms chose his texts according to personal preference and cultural identity rather than religious conviction. He spoke of the Bible as “not a dogmatic interpretation of religious commandments, but a cultural and emotional repository of views and values.” He avoided in his Requiem any specific reference to Jesus Christ or God’s salvation, focusing instead on the very human emotions elicited by the death of a loved one. The Requiem, like many other vocal works of Brahms, deals with the fleeting nature of life, the need for solace following loss, the hope of a final attainment of peace, and a reward for struggle. It is not intended to be a mass for the dead, but instead offered as a comfort and consolation for the living.

The Vienna debut of the Requiem’s first three movements was not exactly a resounding success. A percussionist misinterpreted Brahms’ printed dynamics, playing the repeated D’s in the third movement’s mighty fugal section so loudly that he drowned out the rest of the ensemble. Jeers and catcalls sounded in the audience, while reviewers proved equally vociferous. Critic Eduard Hanslick, after commenting that he “felt like a passenger rattling through a tunnel in an express train,” nevertheless wrote:

The German Requiem is a work of unusual significance and great mastery. It seems to us one of the ripest fruits to have emerged from the style of the late Beethoven in the field of sacred music. Since the masses for the dead and mourning cantatas of our classical composers the shadow of death and the seriousness of loss have scarcely been presented in music with such power. The harmonic and contrapuntal art which Brahms learnt in the school of Bach is inspired by him with the living breath of the present.

The subdued “baritone” instruments of the orchestra begin the first movement of the Requiem with music that creeps almost imperceptibly out of the void. Chorus enters alone and initially alternates with orchestra as Brahms weaves a blanket of comfort in the key of F major around texts taken from St. Matthew’s account of the Sermon on the Mount and from Psalm 126.

The B♭-minor second movement deals with death’s inevitability and counsels patience, concluding in hope. It opens with a funeral march (albeit in triple meter) for full orchestra with a pulsing timpani at its heart. The chorus sings the chorale “All flesh is like grass” four times, with increasing force. At the movement’s end, however, a jubilant B♭-major passage assures the Lord’s redeemed of eternal joy and gladness.

Brahms paints the opening of the third movement with a D-minor brush in dark, stony colors, as a baritone soloist and chorus discuss the frailty of humanity, the futility of life and the the fear of death. In response, to this gloomy dialogue, the composer builds a great four-part choral fugue in the strong key of D major upon the solid foundation of a persistent low D sustained for 36 measures. The fugue’s comforting text comes from the Wisdom of Solomon: “But the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God and no torment shall touch them.”

The beloved chorus that follows, with a text from Psalm 84, forms the pivotal center of the Requiem. In contrast to the drama of the preceding fugue, this lyrical E♭-major movement simply shimmers. A fughetta marked by shifting rhythmic accents appears near the end.

A solo soprano appears only in the fifth movement, which presents the ideas of the Requiem’s final three movements: the redeeming power of faith and the promise of eternal life. At the 1868 Bremen performance (prior to this movement’s composition), soprano Amelie Joachim (wife of Joseph) sang “I know that my redeemer liveth” from Handel’s Messiah, perhaps suggesting to Brahms that a similar aria had a place in his own work. The composer might have had his mother in mind when he selected the text from Isaiah, which repeats over and over: “I will comfort you, as one whom his own mother comforts.”

The sixth movement is the Requiem’s most dramatic, featuring the solo baritone’s flamboyant oration and the triumphant “last trumpet” heralding the death of Death. (Martin Luther’s Bible uses the word posaune — trombone — rather than the more familiar trumpet, thus Brahms allows the trombone section a moment of glory.) A masterful fugue follows, perhaps exceeding in magnificence the fugue of the third movement.

The German Requiem’s finale brings the work full circle, returning to the opening key of F major. Both outer movements pronounce benedictions: the first upon those who mourn the dead, the last upon the dead themselves. In the closing measures, sopranos soar to a high A before the harp (an instrument rarely heard in Brahms’ orchestral music) follows them skyward and the chorus whispers a final beatitude.

After Brahms gave Clara Schumann the German Requiem’s score, she wrote to him: “I am completely filled with your Requiem. It is an immense piece that takes hold of one’s whole being like very little else. The profound seriousness, combined with all the magic and poetry, has a wonderful, deeply moving and soothing effect.” Brahms thus fulfilled Robert Schumann’s 1853 prophecy, made when the two composers first met: “When he lowers his magic baton before the combined forces of chorus and orchestra, they will give him strength to reveal even more marvelous insights into the secrets of the spiritual world.”

— Lorelette Knowles