It's been almost a quarter of a century since the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus released a recording of Brahms' German Requiem - in fact, what some people called *the* recording of the German Requiem.
Then-conductor Robert Shaw was said to have an almost mystical connection to the work, which seemed to inspire his musicians to reach beyond themselves to find the very heart of Brahms.
Given the reputation of the 1984 recording and the reverence in which Robert Shaw is still held, it was a pretty nervy move for Robert Spano to rerecord the German Requiem with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.
A nervy move, but a good one. There's a particularly stunning moment in the second movement, For all Flesh is as Grass.
It begins as a reluctant funeral march. A relentless drumbeat accompanies us toward our inevitable end. But what is this? A shift to major, and an allusion to the passing of days and of the seasons, compared to the eternity of God.
The Requiem has been around for hundreds of years, with the earliest surviving manuscript from the 15th century.
Over these hundreds of years, composers have introduced slight variations into their expressions of the Requiem Mass, but the overall picture is more or less the same.
We begin with a prayer for the dead and requests for mercy and forgiveness. Also included are reminders of the Day of Wrath, and a look into the abyss that may await.
Although many requiems are exquisitely beautiful, there's a fire-and-brimstone element that can't be escaped.
So Brahms disregarded that established structure and traditional text, and created his own. Most notably, his Requiem abandons the Latin of a Catholic Mass in favor of his native German.
Although he wasn't a churchy kind of guy, he studied the scriptures like a regular zealot. Martin Luther's German Bible -- a translation of the Old and New Testaments and the Apocrypha -- was a lifelong favorite, and the source of the various texts throughout Brahms' Requiem.
Not only did he change the language of the Requiem, it's almost as though he turned the Requiem itself inside out. Instead of sending prayers for the dead to heaven, Brahms seems to bring from heaven words of comfort for the living.
"Blessed are they who mourn, for they shall be comforted," from the Gospel according to Matthew. "They who sow with tears will reap with joy," from the Psalms.
I think one of the sweetest elements of Brahms' Requiem is the fact that it was inspired by the death of his own mother. Essentially, he comforts himself -- in his mother's voice.
"You now have sorrow, but I will see you again." He reinforces the belief that no matter our travails, there's peace at the end.
One of the best metaphors I ever heard for the endless cycle of life and death was that of a sandbar in a river. It's a little island of sorts, but every second of every day the water washes away some sand at one end of the sandbar. But at the same time, it deposits some more at the other end.
So the contours of our little island change with time as people we love leave us, and new ones arrive for us to love.
Robert Shaw has left us, but Robert Spano capably leads the latest incarnation of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus a little further down the river.