Q: Let’s begin by talking about the Brahms Requiem. I don’t want to refer to the Brahms Requiem as your “party piece” but it is a work to which you continually refer and which is near to your heart.
RS: Tell me what a “party piece” is. Is it what you play when you sit down at a keyboard, when you get drunk enough?
Q: Something by which you are identify with. What does Robert Shaw do? I can think of more pieces than that which I would say are Robert Shaw party pieces, but if I think of one work that I identify with Robert Shaw, the Brahms Requiem is one of those. What is it about that piece that speaks to you?
RS: Well, you know enough about my religious background, that is my religious upbringing, I should say, so that Christianity was never a foreign language for me. I don’t think I have very much in agreement, I don’t find myself in agreement with very much of contemporary Christian, religious Sunday observance or Christian philosophy or religious, I want to say religious philosophy - religious theology. But my background was thoroughly and conservatively Christian, middle America religion. And so that’s the first – that at least when I came upon the words the first time, the words were familiar. I don’t suppose I could recall them all now in the King James version but in the early days I probably could ramble right through the text sort of just from memory after reading it sort of once. So that was a part of it.
I guess another part of it is the fact that it’s in a sense a Protestant piece, as distinct at least from a liturgical Catholic piece, and since my background was Protestantism rather than liturgical Catholicism, with which I now feel much more comfortable in later years than I did as a youth, that may be a part of it. But particularly I suppose, and I don’t know whether I want to relate this to Protestantism versus Catholicism, since its concern is with the living rather than with the dead. That’s the textual point - great difference between the pieces, of course. The Catholic Mass is a prayer for the souls of the departed and their further life in a hereafter. And the Brahms text, which he selected himself, was concerned with the care of the wounded, the wounded remaining. I also think somehow - I can remember the first sermon I ever preached was when I taking my father’s pulpit in his illness and during my later college years.
It was a thing called “Deeper Wounds” and it took off not from scriptures but from a poem by Edgar Lee Masters, I think, about the old soldier sitting in front of the grocery store and a little boy asks him, “how’d you lose your leg?” And the soldier is sort of stuck up for a moment and then his mind flies away to Gettysburg and the thunder of cannons, and finally the flash of the knives and the hospitals, and the long days in bed. But if he could describe it all, it would be what? But the point was if he could describe it, there would be deeper wounds of which he could not speak.
And somehow the condition of poor man always seemed to me the essence of and the point of religious utterance, and religious perplexity, in pondering and closer to all the spirituals - “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child”, “There’s a balm in Gilead to heal the sin sick soul” - and they’re full of pain and sorrow. And this is the condition which sort of most motivates man to consideration of his humanity and sort of what’s left for him. So the Brahms caring for the, or the fifth movement of the soprano solo as when his own mother comforteth and so forth, those are things which I find most telling about the human condition. I’m not talking about our sociological state or our political state, but just the circumstance of being man is a sad condition. And the dealing with it, whether man becomes noble and caring for others, justifies his manhood somehow. And so that piece does mean a lot to me.
I also find, I think, I find Bach most penetrating to me when he’s not celebratory but the Crucifixus of the B Minor Mass. The great Cantata for me really is Christ Lag in Todes Banden or Aus der tiefer, “Out of the depths, I cry”. I find Haydn just fascinating because he’s just unfailingly happy, and just unbelievably joyful. Yes, really it’s disturbing. And Bach of course can write a jig. And certainly the glory of the No. 4 in the B Minor Mass is a glorious piece and Lord almighty, and “Gratias agimus tibi”, “Lord, we thank thee” which becomes the Dona Nobis Pacem at the end, are just as grand and as full of hope as any music could be. But when he really considers man’s tragic areas, then I find him very moving.
Q: He asks the questions so deeply that the answers when they come, are believable.
RS: Yeah, yeah I think so. And even the questions are so deeply asked that they become an answer in themselves. I think that’s partly true too.
Q: One comment I was going to ask about the Brahms: Brahms felt as uncomfortable with the institutional church as you do. Do you think that that is reflected somehow in the music. He takes the text right out of scripture. Do his doubts, does his struggle and the struggle of his time, show in the music? Is it in any way psychologically autobiographical?
RS: Well it would almost have to be wouldn’t it? That is if music has any meaning at all, autobiography is impossible to escape for somebody as serious a composer as Brahms was. I don’t find anything over stressed for instance. That is to say, I don’t find any consolation over stressed. I find only the sort of exploration of sorrow noble. Unless the three eight thing just before the “Worthy art thou to be praised” in the sixth movement, “For the trumpet shall sound”. Now that’s vehement and that’s aggressive and it’s loud but I don’t think it’s brassy, sort of triumphant brassy. The other one - possibly the other fugato, in movement two, for de de te de dum –“the Lord shall return again and come rejoicing”... I don’t find that pushed beyond...I don’t think he was trying to convince himself because he had a doubt.
There was a fabulous professor of philosophy at Pomona College. He was at Scripps College actually and his name was Hartley Burr Alexander, and he was president of the Western Philosophical Association, which meant the western hemisphere not the western United States. And he was a Christian philosopher but his books were, because they had sort of Christian titles like, “God and Man’s Destiny” and “The Truth in the Faith” - but the point was he sort of accepted a central polarity of Christianity. But the God which he talked about was a fascinating figure because - I forget what they call him - he, she, or it, you know, or white or black or whatever. But it was a god which had the capacity to suffer and the capacity for heroism in the face of suffering, “or else he wasn’t as good as I am” (meaning Hartley Burr Alexander).
I have a feeling that when Brahms even becomes joyful about Die Erlöseten - “The saved of the world will come rejoicing as I am” - I think he was making a march that included God too, you know? You see he wasn’t seeking security for himself and trying to convince himself by being loud, but I think he was describing that sort of security of righteousness which is its own condition, and God and manhood, which are their own dignity.