22 Bringing Texts Together

In this chapter you will

  • explore how new meanings emerge as texts from different literary contexts are combined in the context of a new work
  • discover how the choice from among possible texts, as well as their arrangement in relation to one another and their musical accompaniment, conveys meaning and shapes the listener’s experience
  • consider specific examples by German composer Johannes Brahms and English composer Herbert Howells

We have already mentioned the new layers of meaning that may emerge when several different psalms are selected to become part of one larger work. We shall also have an opportunity in a later chapter to consider one of the most famous instances of multiple texts from all over the Bible being woven together into a single work—namely, Handel’s Messiah. Here we provide an introduction to how the juxtaposition of different biblical texts, sometimes interwoven with material from outside the Bible, creates new meaning that is at once biblical and goes beyond what any of the texts on their own would likely be understood to mean if considered in isolation.

In later chapters, we will consider not only Handel’s Messiah but another work that places biblical and extrabiblical material together: John Rutter’s Requiem. In chapter 11 about David and those around him, we discussed some music by Herbert Howells. Here we have an opportunity to consider yet another of Howells’s works, Hymnus Paradisi, which includes words from Psalm 23, Psalm 121, and Revelation together with mass texts and others. It arose out of Howells’s own personal experience of the tragic death of his son from meningitis. Andrew Green writes about Howells’s Hymnus Paradisi:

Howells was later to describe himself as having been “frozen” by Michael’s death, although he threw himself back into his teaching at the Royal College of Music in an effort to come to terms with the unanswerable. As far as composition was concerned, Hymnus Paradisi became what he called “a medical document,” helping him to work through his grief…a deeply personal masterpiece which transfigured that grief into a whole range of emotions—hope, defiance, consolation, even ecstasy—while still giving eloquent expression to the pain of bereavement. For many years it was not realized that Hymnus is also in large part a transfiguration of what is now known to be a pre-existing work: Howells’s unaccompanied Requiem.

Hymnus Paradisi was finished by 1938, but remained hidden away. It was, Howells said, “a personal, secret document.” Eventually his idol Vaughan Williams encouraged him to offer the work for performance, resulting in a premiere at the Three Choirs Festival in Gloucester in 1950, almost fifteen years to the day since Michael’s death, with Howells conducting.[1]

Howell’s song King David (which is mentioned in chapter 11 about David) is a meditation on the biblical figure and how music and sorrow related to one another in the story of his life. As such, it relates to the work you just listened to and its connection with Howells’s own experience of finding an outlet for his grief in and through music.

Brahms’s Ein Deutches Requiem (A German Requiem) is another famous example of texts from the Bible being brought together.[2] Brahms chose texts based on their theme, often a key word that connects them, such as the language of sorrow or comfort. A requiem was a traditional mass for the dead with a text in Latin that connects and draws on the Bible in places but is not entirely biblical. Brahms’s choice to craft one with words in German drawn only from the Bible reflects the influence of the Protestant Reformation. Brahms’s influence by and interest in Martin Luther’s translation of the Bible into German is well known. While the traditional Catholic requiem was a prayer for the dead, the verses Brahms chose focus on comforting the living who are left behind to mourn. As Michael Steinberg writes,

The words that begin the Mass for the Dead in the Catholic liturgy are “Grant them eternal rest, O Lord” but that is not the concern on Brahms’s mind. The dead are not mentioned in “A German Requiem” until the penultimate section, and then it is in the phrase “the dead shall be raised incorruptible.” And when the last movement begins with the words from “Revelation,” “Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord from henceforth,” we hear not anxious or ardent prayer, but the voice of assured faith. Brahms’s address is to us, the living who remain to mourn and suffer. The verse from “Revelation” which ends “A German Requiem” closes the circle that begins with the Beatitude “Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted.”[3]

Daniel Beller-McKenna writes, “The possibility that the promise of comfort might be located simultaneously within human (worldly) time and beyond it in (divine) eternity is central to the temporal framework of the Requiem and, by extension, to the work’s relevance to broader modes of thinking in nineteenth-century Germany.…By personally selecting sixteen separate passages from the Old and New Testaments as the text for the work, Brahms also strongly identified himself in the Requiem as a reader of Luther’s Bible and—by extension—as a lover of the German language and the Protestant culture in which it developed.…Brahms’s religiosity is hard to pin down, but it is best described as cultural Protestantism; his deep interest in the words of Luther’s Bible, even the faith therein, were more a matter of learned culture than of practiced religion.”[4] Whatever his personal convictions may have been, Brahms’s choice of texts provides evidence of the composer’s theological as well as musical astuteness. In particular, the parallelism between the blessing upon those who mourn drawn from the Beatitudes early in the work (Matthew 5:4) and the blessing on the dead drawn from Revelation 14:13 toward the end is extremely effective, noting a verbal similarity that lies near the beginning and end of the New Testament and using it to frame the message of his work.[5]

In later chapters, you will have a chance to take a close look at a couple more works for choir and soloists that bring together a number of texts from the Bible, including (as already mentioned) George Frideric Handel’s Messiah and also John Rutter’s Requiem.[6]

For Further Reading

Beller-McKenna, Daniel. Brahms and the German Spirit. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004.

———. “Brahms, the Bible, and Robert Schumann.” American Brahms Society Newsletter 13, no. 2 (1995): 1–4.

Grimes, Nicole. “Philosophy.” In Brahms in Context, edited by Natasha Loges and Katy Hamilton, 277–85. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2019.

Jacques, Reginald. “Howells’s ‘Hymnus Paradisi.’” Music & Letters 33, no. 3 (1952): 193–97.

Lott, R. Allen. Brahms’s A German Requiem: Reconsidering Its Biblical, Historical, and Musical Contexts. Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 2020.

McManus, Laurie. Brahms in the Priesthood of Art: Gender and Art Religion in the Nineteenth-Century German Musical Imagination. New York: Oxford University Press, 2021.


  1. Andrew Green’s notes appear in the album notes of Chandos Records’ 1999 release of the work. The performance in the video embedded here was recorded at the annual Proms concert at the Royal Albert Hall, August 29, 2012, featuring soloists Miah Persson (soprano) and Andrew Kennedy (tenor) together with the BBC Symphony Chorus, London Philharmonic Choir, and BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Martyn Brabbins.
  2. Betty Carlson and Jane Stuart Smith, The Gift of Music: Great Composers and Their Influence (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1995) 140–41, discuss Brahms’s religious influences and perspective with particular focus on the Requiem.
  3. Michael Steinberg, Choral Masterworks: A Listener’s Guide (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 70.
  4. Daniel Beller-McKenna, Brahms and the German Spirit (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004), 69, 75–76.
  5. Beller-McKenna, Brahms and the German Spirit, 94–95. Performance by the New England Conservatory Concert Choir and Philharmonia at Jordan Hall on December 2, 2014, and shared by the New England Conservatory on their own YouTube channel.
  6. Many liturgies incorporate biblical words in key places, although the majority of the words are extrabiblical. Thus one can find diverse biblical and extrabiblical material combined in the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, which has been set by composers such as Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Rachmaninov, and the list could go on and on. Einojuhani Rautavaara’s Vigilia also falls in this category. Many other examples could be mentioned, including William Croft’s Burial Service, Margaret Allison Bonds’s Scripture Reading, James Lentini’s Three Sacred Meditations, Johan Franco’s Seven Biblical Sketches, and Anthony Milner’s The Water and the Fire. In addition, many hymns and contemporary worship songs fit under this heading as well.


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The Bible and Music by James F. McGrath is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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