Bristol Choral Society was formed in 1890 and gave its first concert in May of that year. When the young choir gave Brahms’ German Requiem its Bristol premiere at its third concert on December 13 1890, it was still a relatively new composition. It was composed between 1865 and 1868 when Johannes Brahms was in his thirties. Brahms was still alive, aged 56, at the time of the Bristol premiere, and would live just over another seven years.
The Requiem was given its first full performance in 1868 at Bremen Cathedral. While the work is a much loved staple in the choral repertoire now, it did not receive universal acclaim then, with George Bernard Shaw, for example, who was a devotee of the music of Richard Wagner, stating that “it could only have come from the establishment of a first-class undertaker.”
The themes of the work revolve around death, loss, grieving and reconciliation: to the deaths of loved ones, and, ultimately to one’s own. The Requiem, while deeply spiritual, is humanist in perspective, and written without reference to a specific ideology. It comprises music that is in turns powerful, agonised, reflective, tender, compassionate and accepting: music which well reflects our emotions on contemplating our own mortality. The “German” in the title refers to the language in which it is sung, not to the German nation – which did not come into existence until 3 years after the Requiem’s completion.
The choir’s second performance of the Requiem was at the Queen’s Hall, London (a beautiful building destroyed in 1941 in an air raid). This concert took place on April 15, 1899. According to the Bristol Observer, the 500-strong combined forces of orchestra and choir proceeded to London by special train. The Requiem, and the accompanying work, Mendelssohn’s Hymn of Praise, were “received with the utmost enthusiasm and it was asserted that for all round effiency and excellence the performance had not been surpassed”.
With over a dozen performances by the BCS in its 127 years, the German Requiem is also one of the choir’s most performed pieces.