Gifts & the Giver – RPC Music Notes, Sun 26 Jan 2020

“How lovely is thy dwelling place” – IV. from Ein Deutsches Requiem – Johannes Brahms
The Mormon Tabernacle Choir

“The idea comes to me from outside of me – and is like a gift. I then take the idea and make it my own – that is where the skill lies.”

– Johannes Brahms

Much thought has been expended, and ink spilled, on the question of just where creativity comes from, and Johannes Brahms, the composer of one of today’s anthems, is confident and clear that it emanates from outside of himself. Following the example of Bach (whom he idolised, and to whose some compare his genius) he dwelt much more in the category of humble craftsman than anointed artist (itself another paradigm well-known in the musical world of the late 19th century).

I find composer interviewers (especially when one extends the term ‘composer’ to include modern songwriters of many genres) often seem obsessed with this question, and the culture likes to place the source of inspiration squarely on the shoulders of the artist. Though like Newton who conceded “seeing further by standing on the shoulders of giants,” they are often effusive in acknowledging the support and influence of others, artists seem mostly happy with this view. Composers of sacred music on the other hand (with Brahms as a famously, although perhaps complexly atheistic outlier) tend to depart from it.

Stay with me here: Canada’s first Grey Cup game was not the only news of 1909: on January 24th a few blocks south of where, and a few months before, that historic game would be played, Rosedale Presbyterian Church met for its first service of public worship.

In honour of this 111th anniversary, Brahms’ beautiful setting of a few verses of Psalm 84 (a scripture passage long associated with church dedication and celebration) is offered in today’s service. It forms the brief central movement of his sacred masterpiece, Ein Deutches Requiem, the seven movements of which will all gradually appear in our services throughout this winter and spring.

It seems obvious that a worldview including an ultimate Creator would make one tend to ascribe the gift of creativity outside of oneself, and indeed to that Creator. Indeed Rosedale Presbyterian Church itself, despite its considerable achievements in over a century of ministry prefers to think of the grace of gifts it has received. But what, then are we to make of Brahms?

Brahms would never up to his death in 1896 be any clearer on from just where, if not from God, the gift of inspiration flows. But one notes it was gradually premiered from 1866-1868 (five movements in Vienna, six in Leipzig and finally seven in Bremen) – it was a sort of ‘revelation.’ If despite Brahms’ insistence, it was indeed somehow God that led him gradually to its final form, and especially the completing fifth movement with soprano solo dedicated to his late mother who had died back in 1865, it seems as though the journey may have continued to his Opus 122 choral preludes for organ on Lutheran hymns, his final compositions before he died.


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