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Brahms & Christmas - Together Again for the First Time

My dad and I drove down to High Point, North Carolina, a couple years ago. We were going to take a look at a pipe organ in a Methodist Church there. I wasn’t sure what my dad and I would talk about for the three-and-a-half hour drive; his dementia and memory issues had become pretty pronounced by that point. So, I brought a stack of CDs of Brahms orchestral music: four symphonies, a pair of serenades, and a couple overtures. As I drove, we listened, and we talked. We talked about Brahms’ love of cross rhythms and the beauty of having the cellos play above the violas for certain passages and how sometimes the trombones were like Jesus. We talked about moments we heard the ghost of Beethoven and moments we heard the influence of Bach. This wasn’t a normal conversation at this stage in my dad’s struggle with dementia; holding onto a complete thought was painfully difficult for him. But, he’s a musician, and music has a peculiar power to make rough places plain.

And, if music has that power, the music of Brahms would seem to have it in quantity. Brahms is big. Bach is perfect, and Mozart is brilliant, and Beethoven is revolutionary, but Brahms is all of those things. Brahms is big.

Despite his legendary white beard, Brahms was not a composer of Christmas music. Assembling a lessons and carols service of music by Brahms seemed impossible at first glance. There is the thick and thorny Advent motet, “O Savior Rend the Heavens Wide”, which will follow the first lesson with suitable gravitas. There is a lovely early setting of Ave Maria, which the women of the choir will sing from the balcony. “The White Dove” is a simple Marian text set exquisitely to a German folksong. I could find nothing to complement the lesson about Jesus’ birth until I ran across Brahms’ miniature canon setting of an old German lullaby: “The sky draws the sheep, the little stars are the little lambs, the moon, that is the little shepherd.” It is not about Christmas, but it will be ready to be suspended in that moment in the narrative like a tiny, hand-painted ornament on a tree.

Brahms never set a Gloria, but he composed a phenomenal setting of a secular text that snags the drama of the shepherds feeding their flocks by night perfectly: “Do you hear, apprehensive heart, the whispering voices of angels?” And, the distinctively Love Feast text, the passage from 1 John about love, can be answered beautifully with the last of Brahms’ Four Serious Songs. These were his Opus 121, out of a total of 122; it seems fitting to end that portion of the service with his final setting of a text, the familiar passage about love from 1 Corinthians. Not wanting to leave out the composer’s symphonic voice, I programmed the organ to perform the much-loved finale from his first symphony to accompany the feasting at the end of the service.

So, Brahms and Christmas will come together like never before, and I hope you will find beauty in this unusual pairing. The Love Feast service will be at 6:30 PM on Sunday, December 18, in the Ginter Park Presbyterian Church sanctuary.

Doug Brown has been our music director at GPPC for 12 years. In his spare time, he fills the random spaces in his home with custom-made cabinets.

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