Is singing Brahms Requiem a good thing or a bad thing?

Tonight, I may or may not go to a summer sing of Brahms Requiem. (Summer sings are things choral people go to, so they can sing their favorite pieces while we’re all on summer break.)

Brahms Requiem is a favorite of mine, as are all requiems. The first time I sang this though, was right after a cat of mine died, and yeah, a cat, but it devastated me. I was singing it again about six months later when my mother died. Usually requiems are redemptive, but because of the timing, this one reminds me of bad things you can’t do anything about, and how some things suck no matter how you look at it.

This reminded me of a piece I wrote which was killed, alas, by the magazine I was writing it for. It was about change. At the end I talk about a time in my life when I was spending most of my time sitting on my couch in a stupor. Something happened that just flattened me. Here’s the part I like:

I would have been thrilled to change and end my suffering, but I didn’t have a clue about how to begin. So I just sat there, trying to watch television, with this ever present ache. Of all things, a TV movie about alien abduction called Taken came on, and the main character said, “We’re all standing on the edge of a cliff. All the time, every day. A cliff we’re all going over. Our choice isn’t about that. Our choice is about whether we want to go kicking and screaming or whether we might want to open our eyes and our hearts to what happens once we start to fall.” For the first time in months, the ache began to subside.

Sometime after my alien-abduction-TV-movie-epiphany, I was watching a rerun of Sex and the City. (I get all my best wisdom from TV, apparently.) At the end, Carrie Bradshaw comments about her imperfect, ever-changing life. “Maybe the best any of us can do is not quit, play the hand we’ve been given, and accessorize the outfit we’ve got.”

It was time to get up off the couch. Don’t quit. Embrace the fall. And wear a nice outfit.

Ever since, whenever I feel bad, I just chant this over and over: don’t quit/embrace the fall, don’t quit/embrace the fall, don’t quit/embrace the fall.

I bring this all up because sometimes it’s hard to tell if singing Brahms Requiem is equivalent to laying on the couch in a stupor, or embracing the fall.

Stacy Horn

I've written six non-fiction books, the most recent is Damnation Island: Poor, Sick, Mad, and Criminal in 19th-Century New York.

View all posts by Stacy Horn →

9 thoughts on “Is singing Brahms Requiem a good thing or a bad thing?

  1. First off, I think there should be a magazine that prints all the articles that have been axed by others. It would probably be the best thing around.

    But mainly, had to say my head is spinning at today’s topic. When my dog was dying a couple of years ago, I listened to Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” over and over while crying great soul-wracking sobs. For some reason, I put that tape (a compilation of Cohen & 3 other artists singing the song) on last night and listened to it. It wasn’t the anniversary of Jake’s death or anything that I can consciously link to that time or feeling. What struck me was how calm the music made me feel. Long way of saying it seems like embracing the fall to me.

  2. Buffy sez: “The hardest thing to do in this world is to live in it.”

    Makes sense to me.

  3. That is one of my favorite Buffy lines EVER!! I used it in an NPR piece once, I believe.

    Along the same lines, I love this line from Angel:

    “In the greater scheme, the big picture, nothing we do matters. There’s no grand plan, no big win … If there’s no great, glorious end to all this, if nothing we do matters, then all that matters is what we do. Cause’ that’s all there is – what we do now, today … now I just want to help. I want to help because people shouldnÕt suffer as they do. Because if there isnÕt any bigger meaning, then the smallest act of kindness is the greatest thing in the world.”

    And Deb, Cohen’s Hallelujah, gorgeous and heartbreaking. I would have been crying soul-wracking sobs listening to it after a pet died, too.

  4. Isn’t it amazing how music can deliver such memory associations? On a brighter note, one time on a Hawaiian vacation we bought a cd of Hawaiian music to listen to in the car as we toured the island. Now all I have to do is listen to that cd and I’m right back in my Hawaiian vacation…
    Also regarding that Leonard Cohen “Hallelujah” song, I heard it the first time on a movie soundtrack (an arms dealer movie w/ N. Cage) and stayed to watch all the credits since they put the music credits last, to find out what it was and immediately went home and ordered it. It was done by Jeff Buckley who I also had never heard of. But I love it.

  5. I did go to sing the Brahms. I almost always choose to do stuff, rather than staying at home feeling like a loser for not doing something. I’m glad I did, but it made me miss my cats (the ones that died). I still remember singing that on stage, knowing Veets (my cat) would never know any pleasures ever again, it was over, done. Beams died a couple of months later (and so did my mom!).

    But you know how these things are, bittersweet. Live live live.

    I just checked, the Hallelujah I have is sung by Rufus Wainright.

  6. holy cow. I never meant to create a hallelujah blog stream, but…my versions are by Cohen, Wainright (Shrek soundtrack), John Cale (Scrubs tv show soundtrack), and k.d. laing (Hymns of the 49th parallel). And now, thanks to Michelle, I have the version by Jeff Buckley on the way.

    What I meant to say with my original post, Stacy, was that I feel your pain (as much as one person can feel another’s). My mother died 8 years ago from pancreatic cancer. Several other friends and family members died or were stricken with ultimately terminal things during that same period. During my mother’s illness and all the other chaos, I had a moment of complete clarity, where I realized I had to choose — either give up or embrace life. In the space of an inhalation and an exhalation, I chose the embrace — I wrote about it later, saying I brooked streams of sorrow and beauty both, and at the same time: bittersweet. It only now occurs to me that we are tacitly socialized to view it as an either/or rather than a both/and kind of thing.

    A couple of years after my mother died, her older sister, my “other mother” died, and I came across a book titled “The Orphaned Adult.” Even though my father is still living, that book was immensely helpful to me in working through all my grief. It talks about how people, even some of our closest friends, who have not lost a parent, will pull away from us at a time when we need them most; and how strangers who have lost a parent can make a gesture that means so much. I couldn’t remember the author’s name, so I got online to look it up: Alexander Levy. I also didn’t remember the subtitle: Understanding and Coping with Grief and Change after the death of our parents. Change. Exactly what you were talking about.

    A few years before my mother died, I came across a quote by Scott Russell Sanders, where he said that his list of home maintenance repairs seemed to grow exponentially, like adult grief… I sat staring at the last part, thinking that it is indeed grief that separates the young me from the old me, and me from younger people I know (I don’t even want to think about young people who have probably already exprienced more grief than I’ll ever know). shit. and a cold and broken “hallelujan.”

  7. I like that one, too, Mike.

    Deb, my mom died of pancreatic cancer! She was diagnosed and dead within five weeks. A number of friends parents have died of pancreatic cancer. I swear it seems like I hear about it all the time.

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