A Human Requiem

We attended a another moving classical concert Sunday evening at Washington Cathedral in honor of the people of war-torn Ukraine. A friend had gotten the precious tickets for his wife and Andrea and me some weeks ago. Andrea drove us to pick up him and his wife outside of their apartment building in downtown Bethesda and then down Wisconsin Avenue through the heart of northwest DC to the cathedral site. It was impressive arriving at the immense church and grounds, including the lovely English garden. It was sunny and hot, but a steady breeze made it bearable.

The concert was given by the City Choir and Orchestra of Washington and was the last one to be conducted by the legendary choral director Robert Shafer. It included the world premiere of a new Shafer composition, “A Prayer for Ukraine”, as well as one of Elgar’s Enigma Variations (“Nimrod”). The main fare was the monumental “Human Requiem” of Brahms.

The Cathedral was a worthy place for the concert — the site of so many state funerals for fallen leaders. I recalled being there with Andrea 30 years earlier for a dramatic pageant of Native Americans commemorating Columbus Day from their perspective.

At the start, the Ukrainian ambassador to the U.S., Oksana Markorova, spoke her heartfelt appreciation for this supreme honoring of her countrymen and women, presenting sunflowers as a symbol of her country’s beauty, spirit, and gratitude.

Shafer’s “Prayer for Ukraine” was a marvelous little choral piece, reflecting the rich harmonics of Eastern European music. Elgar’s “Nimrod” is a well-known 20th century orchestral work that evokes deep feelings of solemn affirmation of boundless joy emanating from great suffering.

The Brahms Requiem is unique among pieces of this genre, most of which follow the liturgical structure of the Catholic Requiem Mass. Brahms’ follows its own organic structure, using assorted quotations from Martin Luther’s original German translation of the Bible. It has passages of deeply resonant feeling that I was able to tap into better after having done some preparatory listening beforehand.

The second of the piece’s seven sections is the most evocative for me, beautifully expressing a sense of purpose and joy emerging from long suffering. A translation of its text points to this liberating feeling:

“For all flesh is as grass
And all the glory of man
as the flower of grass.
The grass withers
and the flowers fall away.

“Be patient, therefore, brothers,
unto the coming of the Lord.
Behold, the husbandman waits
for the precious fruit of the earth,
and has long patience for it,
until he receive
the early and the later rain.

“But the word of the Lord endures forever.

“And the ransomed of the Lord shall return,
and come to Zion with songs
and everlasting joy upon their heads;
they shall obtain joy and gladness,
and sorrow and sighing shall flee.”

John Bayerl, 6/27/2022

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