2018 December 23: Brahms "Lo How a Rose E'er Blooming"
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) was born into a poor family. He showed musical aptitude, and his father provided music lessons. Brahms himself later told stories about himself as a teenager earning money for his family by playing piano in bars and houses of ill-repute (there being no recorded music at the time, so if music was wanted, someone had to play it).
For his entire life Brahms was a tortured individual – with a reputation for being generous to a fault to his friends and miserly towards himself. He never married, though there was an engagement at one point which was broken off. One lasting friendship was with Clara Schumann, wife of the famous composer Robert Schumann – from afar, writing music for her to play. (The arrangement of the Bach Chaconne for piano left hand I played a few months ago was by Brahms for Clara’s benefit.) Also, when Robert was committed to an insane asylum after throwing himself off of a bridge into the river below, regulations at the time forbade Clara from visiting Robert, but Brahms could, so he acted as a go-between.
Brahms wrote almost no sacred music. One exception is when he was age 23 his mother died, and he wrote one of his more famous works ‘The German Requiem’ based entirely on Biblical texts (‘German’ because the text was in German instead of Latin – quite cutting edge at the time).
When Brahms was age 63, Clara passed away. Brahms, who considered Clara to be the "greatest wealth" in his life, was so devastated that he bungled his travel arrangements and missed the funeral. Then Brahms’ health took a turn for the worse. And he began work on his Eleven Chorale Preludes for organ (imaginative arrangements of hymns), his only substantive contribution to the organ literature, and his last musical utterance.
One of these Chorale Preludes is on "Lo How a Rose E’er Blooming". The melody is so decorated that it’s hard to spot (I have trouble!) but it is IMHO nevertheless just lovely and magnanimous in feeling. It certainly reflects the intent of the hymn text. And it arranges very nicely for brass ensemble!
I suppose one could argue that this story is a little ‘dark’ for Christmas. But, why do we have Christmas in the first place? Why was it that the Son of God had to insert Himself into human history in the first place? Was it because everything is so wonderful here, that we humans have everything under control? I think not. And as much as we may idealize the first Christmas (wait, what’s so idyllic about Mary and Joseph couldn’t find a motel so they and their newborn had to sleep in their car?), there is also the sense in which Christmas is something like Normandy – God establishing a beachhead with humanity on a level we might be able to understand.