Requiem

The local public-radio station has a Choral Showcase every Sunday night, and tonight’s feature is Robert Shaw’s English translation of Brahms’ German Requiem, and I am sitting with my dead.

The second movement is the one that stays with me. With apologies to Robert Shaw, no one gets it right.

Denn alles Fleisch ist wie die Gras
Und all den Herrlichkeit des menschen wie die Grases Blumen…

Not “all the glory of mankind,” but “all the lordliness.” All the fleeting belief that human will can control anything, rule anything, direct anything. Or is there a boomerang clause in there? The flower of grass, die Grases Blumen, dries up and falls. And comes again. It was an interesting verse for Brahms to choose.

I am sitting with my dead.

Her name was Linda, and she had the perfectly black wiry hair and waxy complexion of the beautiful Jewess in folksongs (Brahms set one of those, too), fingers a joint too long, too much familiarity with the crass ways that human beings sell their hearts for fairy gold. We were finger and thumb from the year I was eight till the year I was eighteen. I believed in enchanted castles, she read William Burroughs. I don’t know what pulled out the rug: too much expectation (go to pre-med at Brown and get all A’s or else)? too much private misery (I heard later her thuggish older sister beat her black and blue)? too much everything (weeks before she died, she said to me in the tones of someone snapping an iron bar in two: “I’m tired of talking to people who think they know me”)? She drove the family car — she emphasized once to me, oh so particularly, that it was a “sport coupe” — into the garage, shut the door, and left it running. They found her on the garage floor, half way to the door that led into the house, with the keys in her hand. I was away at college, and not one of my sorry excuses for family or friends had the guts to tell me for a solid month. I missed the funeral.

Her name was Nancy and she had red hair and, in the end, breast cancer, and I always was sorry I wasn’t related to her. When she got very ill, I used to drive a few miles to her house with a portable table and give her a massage while her small, obnoxious dog cavorted around the room, to include jumping up on my back while I broke the table down. Any other dog that ever tried that with me would have ended up as a radio satellite. She was sketching out a book about Calamity Jane when her chemo stopped working. I really wanted to read it.

Her name was Nancy and she had red hair and, in the end, breast cancer. Second in a series. She ran a little body-care salon type place and we swapped clients and services, and she was wonderfully gutsy and pragmatic except that she and her husband believed in one of those modern “applied religious philosophies” that tell you enough dedication to the Church will keep you from ever needing a doctor or, naturally, medical insurance. She went in for a kind of herbal therapy that works quite nicely (I have tried it on the dog, meaning me) for extirpating a wart or the like, but for a breast neoplasm it was pretty gruesome, let me tell you, the entire fucking primary tumor lifted out one day looking big and sly and hideous as a tree fungus, though of course it was all over her by then.

And there was my onetime husband. We went together, once, to a performance by the choir of the Unitarian church up the street, not shabby for a neighborhood ensemble, doing an English version of the Requiem predating Robert Shaw’s, though it still used that unprepossessing “flow’r of graa-ass” in place of the squarely sturdy German “Grases Blumen.” “The horn section was good,” he said.

I still look over at the chair where he used to sit, expecting him to say something.

You read that Brahms was an atheist, or close to it, that he selected the Bible verses used in the Requiem for the way they spoke to the living, rather than of the dead. Living, I try not to cry crudely like a doofus, thinking instead of what he might have been saying to me when he chose his texts.

The farmer waits
for the precious crop from the earth
being patient with it
until it receives
the early and the late rains.

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13 thoughts on “Requiem

  1. I had the great honor of hearing this live a couple of months ago, conducted by the great Helmuth Rilling, and with a wonderful text translation. The Amazon and I remarked to each other that it’s one of those rare pieces of music that makes even people like us — like her and me, and like you too, I think, Sled — feel like we are part of the human community.

    A correct translation makes a lot of difference — the soprano solo is far too often mistranslated as “Now ye are sorrowful.” No. That’s not it. “Now you have sorrow.” It’s been given to you. It’s a burden. You’re carrying it and holding it. That’s different. You know?

  2. Wow.

    German doesn’t translate, unfortunately. I think it’s because of the word order.

    My personal requiem music when a friend goes is an organ version of Komm Susser Tod by Bach.

    • I’ve always thought it would be perfectly okay to arrange the text

      and all the lordliness of men is as the grasses’ flower

      which would scan perfectly against the melodic line, but no one was asking me.

      Different English versions of the verses involved use different language, but Martin Luther chose Herrlichkeit and I think he had a reason.

      • I like that.

        This reminds me of John Ness Beck’s “Canticle of Praise”–

        As for man, his days are as grass
        As a flower of the field so he flourisheth
        And the wind passeth over it
        And it is gone, gone, gone

  3. Hmm. I don’t have many of them. I’ve said that already. But yesterday I felt sad about something (or nothing), listening to Simon and Garfunkel’s The Only Living Boy in New York.

    I’m sorry, sled.

  4. Well, all of these people have been gone a while — forty years, ten, and nine, and a little over four since I closed my ex-husband’s eyes for him. Forty years is very long. But we all have our dead, once we have lived long enough, and sometimes they come and sit with us. It is good, really, to know we can contain the grief and remember the beauty.

    @Jenny — it’s conceivable that Norwegians can be funnier than almost amyone — at those latitudes you have to have humor or you succumb to seasonal depression, no?

    There was a great story about a Finnish military base on the Russian border that staged a mock firing-squad execution of their cook (in his full culinary regalia)… it drove the Russians so crazy they finally admitted they had the base under 24 hour surveillance and asked WTF the cook did. When it gets cold and dark, crazy takes hold.

    • Sled, you’re right! And your story reminds me of this joke (and that Russians are also very funny):

      So, two guys in a Siberian labor camp, comparing notes:

      –Fifteen years I’m gonna be in this hell hole, and just for robbing a lousy grocery store! How ’bout you, what’re you in for?

      –Me? I didn’t do anything. Ten years they gave me, for nothing at all.

      –That’s nothing but slander of our Soviet justice system. They don’t put people away for ten years for NOTHING. Everybody knows you only get five for that.

  5. I too have a Nancy with red hair and I hope she outlives me. I’m very sorry you lost two; and I do not mean to be flippant. The first story, though: My God.

    • Yeah. It still hurts forty years later, no matter how long I reflect in the light of experience on everything that was going on.

      About a year after I got out of college I was working in a deli (typical Ford Recession post-graduate shit-job) and her mother came in and ordered a turkey sandwich. I made it and wrapped it and sent her up to the register. Neither of us said anything to the other.

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