The word "requiem" might bring to mind a solemn ceremony in Latin.
Listeners headed to hear Brahms' German Requiem, performed by the Missoula Symphony Orchestra and Chorale next weekend at the University of Montana's Dennison Theatre, should keep in mind the composer's preferred title.
"He apparently would've liked to have called it 'A Human Requiem,'" said Thomas Heuser, the performance's guest conductor.
And that hour-long requiem, considered one of the great masterworks, requires a congregation's worth of musicians. Between the symphony and chorale, there will be more than 200 musicians on stage to bring the piece to life.
Heuser, who was assistant conductor on the piece in college and sang in it as a vocalist, noted that the composition is intended to be sacred but non-liturgical.
"It's all about how we, the living, can comfort ourselves and comfort one another at the loss of death," he said.
Brahms derived the text from the Lutheran Bible, including Psalms and portions of the Old Testament, giving it a unique quality as a non-Latin requiem mass.
"It's a very uplifting and joyful work, actually," Heuser said, adding that it contrasts the sometimes downtrodden and tense tone of requiems. "This is much more about having an ethereal connection with God.
"It appeals to people of all faiths, all musical backgrounds. It's not a Christian work by any means, it's all about the human spirit, more than anything else," Heuser said.
Brahms, whom he described as very celibate and introverted, wanted to convey the "message that by living with an inner peace and an inner joy you can prepare yourself for the difficulties in life, and they won't be surprising to you," Heuser said.
Musically, Heuser said the composer creates "a hopeful and peaceful atmosphere" that's "subdued and reverent toward the sublime."
Those moments are juxtaposed with moments of great intensity, he said, such as the second movement's timpani-led funeral march.
He notes the composer does "quite a bit of word painting," in which the music matches the tone of the text.
"When he talks about the intensity of judgment in the afterlife, he creates a lot of musical intensity. That's unique to this piece. You do get the sense that the text is being painted by Brahms, in a way," he said.
Dean Peterson, conductor of the chorale, offered a few examples.
"He'll do a particular melody that is ascending as if to take you to heaven," he said. Or he'll employ the rhythmic pattern of triplets, which corresponds to the Christian concept of the trinity.
Another noteworthy feature Heuser pointed out is that it's a "Requiem for Chorus with Orchestra."
"The chorus is the main storyteller of this piece. They are the most central part of the work. It's a work for chorus, with orchestra, not the other way around," he said.
For those who don't speak German, next weekend's performance will have broadcast super-text so the audience can follow along. It's not a direct translation, he said, as Brahms used the Lutheran Bible, and English speakers rely on the King James version. They've tried to slightly adapt the King James to more contemporary English.
Peterson said he and Butorac have been discussing a performance of the Requiem for the past eight years.
Some members of the chorale performed it in 1974, when famed conductor Robert Shaw guest-conducted it here in Missoula, and still have Shaw's original score markings.
Heuser is filling in as guest conductor while MSO artistic director Darko Butorac is away on paternity leave.
Heuser acts as music director for the Idaho Falls Symphony. A few highlights of his resume include a Fulbright Scholarship for orchestral conducting in Germany and a doctorate in orchestral conducting from the University of Cincinnati College Conservatory of Music.
Heuser gave some background on the Requiem.
Brahms wrote the piece during the High Romantic period when Wagner was pushing harmony into new directions.
Brahms, while younger than Wagner, was more interested in Baroque and Classical styles of Bach, Mozart and Beethoven.
He said the Requiem has "moments of modern, forward-looking harmonies" but also has some techniques that were looked to his predecessors.
"It showcases a lot of counterpoint. A lot of fugues are used in the climax. To have a fugue in the climax in a work written in the 1860s was sort of old-fashioned in a way. I think he's trying to give a sense that there's a timelessness to the music. It's supposed to hark backwards and forwards and connect future and past in a way," he said.
Brahms was under considerable pressure, internally and externally. His friend and fellow composer Robert Schumann had dubbed him the second coming of the Classical era, and he spent a decade on the Requiem before conducting the premiere himself in his mid-30s.
"It was really an important concert for him, but the critics were mixed because there was this sense that he was not advancing music. He was being too conservative in his approach. ... It's ironic that today it's one of the most beloved and performed pieces of the Romantic period, but it doesn't have a lot of the Romantic elements," he said.
Despite the reservations of critics at the time, it remains unique in Brahms output and is one of the most popular choral orchestra pieces from the period, he said.
During the writing of the Requiem, Brahms lost both his mother and his friend and champion Schumann, which leads many to interpret the work as a consolation.
"He's experienced loss and he's trying to come up with a way to soothe himself and comfort himself in the face of that loss," he said.
One of the most famous sections was added after his mother's passing.
The fifth of its seven movements features a soprano soloist, who Heuser said isn't highlighted in the same fashion as the soloist in an aria.
"This is more about the soloists telling a different part of the text and creating a more personal narrative as one voice instead of a chorus," he said.
What's more, they have only 10 minutes in the spotlight.
"It's a very sparse use of the soloist, but absolutely sublime," he said.
The soloists are Christina Pier, who has traveled across the U.S. performing with symphonies, and baritone Charles Robert Stephens, who has performed with the New York City Opera and at Carnegie Hall.
The symphony is dedicating the piece to Jean Bowman, a longtime supporter of the MSO who died in January.
"She was such a wonderful support of the symphony and incredible supporter of the arts," said Peterson, who knew her for several decades.
“This requiem is an anomaly in the fact that it honors life more than it mourns death – this seemed a fitting concert to dedicate to the vibrant and meaningful life of our friend Jean and the many people who miss her," MSO president John Driscoll noted in a press release.