Brahms and the need for God to be a part of everything we do

December 1, 1992

Dear Friends and Benefactors,

Advent is here again, a new Church year has begun, summer is approaching fast, the years spin by and "now is the hour for us to rise from sleep", "denn alles Fleisch es ist wie Gras", "for all flesh is as grass, and all the glory of men as the flower of grass. The grass withereth, and the flower thereof falleth away".

These words of Scripture (I Pet. 1,24) were chosen by the famous classical composer, Brahms, for the second chorus of his "German Requiem", written in the 1860's to commemorate the death of his master and friend, Robert Schumann. The chorus is a mighty piece, with the melody for these words expressing a mighty sadness. It was well chosen as background music for a video-tape recently made on the desolation of the battle of Verdun, where in 1916 hundreds of thousands of the bravest young Frenchmen and Germans slaughtered one another to no apparent purpose. The desolation within one musician's breast in 1866 had become the desolation of half a million soldier's lives fifty years later. Thus life follows art. Why? Because both follow religion. In his "German Requiem" Brahms deliberately omitted any mention of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Thereby hangs the tale.

The music of Brahms may be unknown to many of you. Generally it is liked or disliked for a similar reason, because of its autumnal cast. Always solid and well-carpentered, often sombre, like a late Victorian house of the same period, it appeals to those who, like the poet Keats, enjoy the;

"Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun..."

but whoever resents the season of the dying of the year will prefer less dark-hued music, music that maybe ripples with spring or pretends that life is an endless summer's morning, or prattles of an endless beautiful feeling that everything's going my way.

There is no such superficiality in Brahms who in his Requiem squarely confronts the great problem of life and death by means of a series of texts chosen by the composer himself from Holy Scripture. Indeed the Requiem contains some of his darkest music, and yet the climax comes in the sixth chorus with the setting of I Corinthians XV 52-55: "For the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall rise incorruptible: and we shall be changed ...then shall come to pass the saying that is written, `Death is swallowed up in victory, O death, where is thy sting?"' And the music is full of heart, with melodies of warmth and consolation — then did Brahms believe in the Resurrection, and if he did, how could his music at other moments be so dark?

Interesting question. Asked once about his choice of texts, Brahms replied that it was meant to be a human, not a Christian, Requiem. How, then, texts of the Resurrection? - "I have selected many things because I am a musician, because I needed them, because I can't argue with the venerable writers or cross out their `hereafter'. I say no more..." However, at the end of his life he said the more: "Neither when I wrote my Requiem (1866) did I, nor now (1896) do I, believe in the immortality of the soul". The quotation from Corinthians referring to the resurrection of body and soul had merely "made a deep impression" on him, "as a symbol that could be set to music".

Clearly, by his own testimony, Brahms was a humanist with no faith in the Light of the World, which explains the darkness in his music, and Scripture was for him not a book of real truth but a quarry of texts to serve as vehicle for noble sentiments in music. On the other hand equally clear from the music is that his sentiments were noble. When death cuts men down like the grass of the field, Brahms presents no facile solution - how he would have despised the Novus Ordo with its white-vested funerals! Death is as tragic as life is grand, but the music feels their meaning: grief and desolation, consolation and calm.

"Oh, Brahms," said his fellow composer Auton Dvorak, "What a great man, and he does not believe!" Dvorak might have said, what a warm heart for such coldness in the head. In Brahms' head is the darkness of unbelief, but carrying over from his heart into his music is the after-glow of the light and warmth of the belief of preceding generations.

However, the heart is not designed to stay warm indefinitely when the head is in darkness. That is why Brahms has been well called, as far as classical music is concerned, the last of the Caesars. Directly after him come Schoenberg and moderns, empty heads and empty hearts, because "the fish rots from the head", says the proverb, and as the head is today, so the heart is tomorrow. Disbelieved Scripture could still tell the sentiments of Brahms, but not those of his successors. Where a head would no longer lead, the feelings were bound to run out. Unless Germany returned to believing, the emptiness and coldness were bound to come out in something like the battlefield of Verdun. Life follows art follows religion.

Thus war and peace, politics and music, all activities of man as man and not just as an animal, are done by man's faith or his lack of it, and that does not mean, just any faith. It is an insult to man to hold that just so long as he fills his head with some nice convincing delusion, then everything will come out fine. Yet how many people think that just so long as one believes in something, or Someone, it matters little what or who one believes in. All such people have a low opinion of men. No. Men need the truth. They can recognize it. They may refuse it But it is what it is, independently of them, it is what they need and upon it they flourish, whereas upon a diet of lies, however flattering and cozy, men wither.

Now there are certainly truths within the reach of man's reason, which he needs and cannot live without, for instance water is not gasoline and gasoline is not water. But if it turns out to be true also that the main truths are above the reach of his reason — not contrary to it, but above it — then he will have to reach for them with something more than just reason, but they will still have to be truths and not just withering delusions.

Now Catholics know by their reason that there is one Supreme Being, God, just as they know by their Faith, with an absolute certainty of possessing the truth, that he is three Persons in one Being, that the second of these Persons took flesh, that he founded one church (not two, let alone two thousand), and that within that Catholic Church the divine condescension to men that began with his Incarnation continues in the most incredible manner in the sacraments, so that for instance he who in his human life handed himself over once into his enemies' hands in the Garden of Gethsemane, now in his sacramental life puts himself - now literally! - into their hands times without number every day whenever he is for instance mistreated in the Holy Eucharist

Nor is this view of the Master of the Universe a comforting delusion, kidology, feel-goodery or sentimentality. It is rock-solid supernatural fact. Whoever denies it, Protestant or Jew or Communist or atheist or Hindu or whoever, the Catholic knows with an absolute certainty that they are wrong, and he prays to be ready to shed his blood, if necessary, to witness to the truth, for their sake. Upon no less solid a foundation of truth was built the musical tradition and the noble culture to which Brahms was heir. The tradition and the nobility he in turn handed down, but no longer with their foundation, Like the grin of the Cheshire cat without the cat, of the same period. It could not last. It did not last. To think that it could have lasted is to insult man. That it did not last is a testimony to man, to his need of truth. Wreckers like Schoenberg were bound to arise who would pull the house down for its lack of foundation. Today's world is full of such wreckers who at least testify to the demand for truth and to the refusal of illusion.

So what are the wreckers clamouring for? Clear. The foundational Truth, fully and clearly professed. They need witnesses to the fullness of the Faith. Blood-witnesses may be the only ones that can convince them, because there are too many words out there already, most of them lies. It will take blood to coagulate such a hemorrhaging of the truth

Brahms did not return to the foundation of the warmth of which and off which he composed. Nor did his countrymen, in general. They were given a terrible lesson at Verdun, but instead of returning to God, they fumed to national socialism, only to be given an even more terrible lesson in World War II. Chastened for a while, under Catholic Chancellor Adenauer the Germans rebuilt, but misled like everyone else by Vatican II they mostly gave up the Faith and Church of Adenauer and so they are now again rending one another in search of the solution on which they turned their backs - the situation comes daily closer to a cosmic re-run of Verdun, Cosmic, because of course the problem is not confined to the country of Brahms (but maybe some readers needed to see some other country than theirs coming under fire!) - the problem is universal. Dear, dear Catholic readers, the solution is in our hands, as Catholics. It is in nobody else's.

Here is Advent again, the season to prepare for the coming of the Light into the world. He must have entry into our hearts and lives, into our music and politics. How can he solve their problems if we shut him out? He belongs in our homes, in our schools, in our hospitals, in our music, in our politics. We say no to the separation of Catholic Church and State, no to the promotion of filth in the arts, no to that hypocritical refusal of censorship which vigorously censors and cuts out any thought of God, let alone mention of the divine name.

The latest election in the U.S.A. surely shifts the programme of the wreckers from forward to fast forward. It is up to every one of us that has the true Catholic Faith to put back into circulation by our example that truth, purity and transcendence of Jesus Christ which alone can persuade the wreckers that they are making a mistake, and if it has to be with our blood, so be it! They have the prison-camps ready for us in the Dakotas? So help us God, we will be ready for them: Today's music is in our hearts, and tomorrow's is in the Faith in our minds.

One preparatory session for men, boot-camp of the spirit, St. Ignatius' Spiritual Exercises, will be held here at the Seminary from December 26 to 31. Make use of the opportunity. The date of the priestly ordinations this summer wavered for a moment, but is now confirmed on Saturday, June 19.

With all good wishes and blessings for Christmas and a Happy New Year, with our unusual Christmas card enclosed, a summary of the Epistle to the Romans,

Sincerely yours by the cradle of Bethlehem,