For the next few weeks I’m teaching Sunday school, and I thought it would be an interesting change of pace to share the lessons I’ve prepared here on the blog, both for the general blog audience, but also for anyone else who is following along in the class. I’ve always wanted to take a crack a teaching, and our summer Sunday school class is kind of a hodge-podge, a couple of weeks with one teacher, a few more with another, and now three with me.
In particular I’ve always been interested in the relationship between scripture and music, both in traditional ways like Hymns and contemporary, but also choral settings, chants and even popular music. As a choral singer I think the best music to sing is always sacred. Secular pieces, even great works like Carmina Burana, lack the spirituality, the contemplative nature of sacred music. Some of the best of this can be found in the Psalms, and it’s here where we’ll start our first week with Psalm 84, and one its best known settings in music, Brahms’ “How Lovely Is They Dwelling Place.”
Hopefully by the end of these three weeks we can gain a new perspective on how scripture is set in music, and the ways in which music can increase our understanding of scripture. This is a little bit of an unfinished thought for me, one I’m hoping to refine over these few weeks and possibly in a longer series sometime in the future.
Before we dig into the meat of the Psalm, take a minute to listen to the piece. Try to think of the recurring themes, the ways in which those themes are emphasized, and anything else that stands out to you or moves you.
Note: For my class I’m using Robert Shaw’s version which you can find here.
Brahms composed “A German Requiem” between 1865 and 1868, shortly after the death of his mother. It is commonly believed that this is one of the influences for his choosing to write the requiem in addition to resolving feelings over the death of his friend and mentor Schumann. “How Lovely is Thy Dwelling Place” is the fourth of seven movements, and serves as the center of a fairly symmetrical piece, though it was the first composed. Other movements contain a combination of modern and classical influences, as well as some material thought to be composed shortly after Schumann’s death.
The title “A German Requiem” refers to the original language of the libretto, and Brahms himself contended that this could be considered “A Human Requiem” as well. It differs from most classic Catholic Requiems in that Brahms wrote the libretto himself, using the Luther Germanic Bible as a basis instead of the Latin Vulgate used by the Catholic Church. (The Vulgate can be found in English as the Douay-Rheims Bible, whereas the Lutheran Bible appears to be only available in German). The practice of using the Lutheran Bible is common among composers of this period after Brahms in part because it is more vernacular or accessible to the people of the time.
Instead of emphasizing the salvation of the dead through Christ, Brahms’ requiem emphasizes comfort and solace to the living. It contains parts of the Beatitudes and blessings are a common theme throughout. There is a plaintive cry by humanity that is comforted through God. This was controversial at the time, and even led to some performances adding portions of the Messiah “I Know My Redeemer Liveth” in an attempt to appease some clergy.
“How Lovely is Thy Dwelling place” takes the first stanza, verses 1,2 and 4 from Psalm 84 as its basis, and is the only piece in the entire requiem to be composed from a single scriptural source.
Read the first four verses of the Psalm again looking for recurring themes, emphasis, and anything else that pops out to you as interesting. What are the different ways David refers to God and what do you think are the differences in meaning?
Note: For my class I have a handout which you can read here. It includes an RSV translation of the full text (which is pretty close to most English translations of the song), as well as Google’s attempt at translating the original German for the first four verses.
While it is generally difficult to put a specific date to any of the Psalms around the events in David’s life, there is some thought that he is exile at this point, his throne usurped by Absalom, and in any case the Tabernacle and holy of holies is a place for priests and not for kings. This is particularly emphasized in verse three, envying the sparrows that can build their nests in the house of God, and again in verse ten where he would rather be a doorkeeper in the Lord’s house, then dwell anywhere else. In verse four “Blessed are they that dwell within thy house.” David seems to be referring both to the Church in general, but also to the Lord’s house in heaven.
Why do you think Brahms leaves out verse three and does it alter the thought of the first four verses in any way? What do you think of both David’s and Brahms emphasis on the soul AND body crying out for the lord? Why do you think (other than maybe for symmetrical musical purposes), Brahms concludes the piece by repeating verse 1 (as well as repeating it throughout in the middle)?
Listen to the Brahms piece again, this time stopping after each verse. How does this setting correspond with how you read the Psalm? Does the music change how you perceive the verse or vice versa? Do you agree (or are you moved by) Brahms’/Shaw’s emphasis in terms of volume, tempo, and which parts sing where?
Now take a look at the rest of the Psalm. What connections can you make? How does David expand on the thought started in verses 1-4, or is he going in a completely different direction? (Lovers of contemporary Christian worship music might recognize Verse 10 right off).
For Brahms “A German Requiem” was really where his career took off, his work taking on greater prestige after its performances in 1868 and 1869. For David, Psalm 84 may chronicle a difficult period in his life which he would go on to overcome though not without cost. What can Psalm 84 say to us in times of trouble? Are there times when we long for the Lord in the way David did? What are the ways God helps us through such times and how do David and Brahms explore this?
A couple of other references you might want to explore are Charles Spurgeon’s Treasury of David, a commentary of the Psalms written about twenty years after the Requiem, as well as these two excellent commentaries on the piece as a whole. You can also download the sheet music from here.