One of the themes of Compline is remembering our mortality — and several experiences have kept this subject on my mind over the last three weeks.
On August 30, I sang in a performance of the Requiem by Johannes Brahms (1833-1897). It was not given in a church or concert hall, but at an intimate gathering at the home of friends Al and Janet Berg. Thirty singers rehearsed the piano-four-hands version, had dinner, then performed the work from beginning to end without pause. Since then, one section of the Requiem has been playing over and over in my head; it’s the beginning of the second movement:
|Denn alles Fleisch es ist wie Gras und alle Herrlichkeit des Menschen wie des Grases Blumen. Das Gras ist verdorret und die Blume abgefallen.||For all flesh is as grass, and all the glory of man as the flower of grass. The grass withereth, and the flower thereof falleth away. (I Peter 1:24)|
You may well remember how this goes, but if not, there is a lovely performance of it here by the Radio Symphony Orchestra and Choir of Denmark (click on “SHOW MORE,” then on the “10:07” link).
I particularly love how Brahms presents the first sentence of the text, sung in unison by the choir in a slow, somber, triple meter. Then comes an orchestral interlude which builds and builds until the choir repeats the text at full volume — powerful and inexorable, as if to say, “No, no — death comes to us all – we can’t escape it!”
A week after singing the Brahms, I attended my 50th high school reunion — a serious reminder of how quickly time passes, as well as a joyous celebration of life and common memories, especially of classmates who have died. I also thought of Carl Crosier, whose Requiem Mass was taking place in Honolulu at the same time. I had written about Carl in my previous post , and the service booklet and music for his Mass (which included the traditional Gregorian Requiem chants, sung by a women’s schola) can be found here.
The following week, at the beginning of Compline, we sang “The duteous day now closeth” (words by Paul Gerhardt, 1648,
translated by Robert Bridges, 1899). Its three verses speak of gratitude at the end of the day, the beauty of the universe, and our “mortal blindness,” in which we lose sight of life’s preciousness and meaning:
The duteous day now closeth,
each flower and tree reposeth,
shade creeps o’er wild and wood:
let us, as night is falling,
on God our Maker calling,
give thanks to him, the Giver good.
Now all the heavenly splendor
breaks forth in starlight tender
from myriad worlds unknown;
and we, this marvel seeing,
forget our selfish being
for joy of beauty not our own.
Though long our mortal blindness
has missed God’s lovingkindness
and plunged us into strife;
yet when life’s day is over,
shall death’s fair night discover
the fields of everlasting life.
The melody of “The duteous day now closeth” was originally a secular song of parting called “Innsbruck, ich muss dich lassen,” by Heinrich Isaac (c. 1450–1517), but the version we sang was harmonized by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750). Bach knew it as the Lutheran chorale, “O Welt, ich muss dich lassen” (“O world, I must leave you”). Here is the first verse:
|O Welt, ich muß dich lassen,
ich fahr dahin mein Straßen
ins ewig Vaterland.
Mein’ Geist will ich aufgeben,
dazu mein’ Leib und Leben
legen in Gottes gnädig Hand.
|O World, I must leave you, I travel from here along my way to the everlasting fatherland. I will give up my spirit so that my body and life lie in God’s merciful hand.|
From the Gerhardt text, to the Isaac tune, to the Lutheran chorale text — in so many ways this hymn sums up the thought that we need to be mindful that life passes quickly, and we should live as though this day might be our last. Perhaps Johannes Brahms had this in mind, when in the final year of his life he wrote the Eleven Chorale Preludes for organ, which include two settings of “O Welt, ich muss dich lassen.” It was, as some say, his final goodbye.