WHEN JOHANNES BRAHMS first played his German Requiem in Vienna in 1867, the audience was shocked. In fact, scholars report that some “hissed and booed and behaved quite boorishly.”
This October, when the St. Louis Symphony performed the same piece along with German composer Detlev Glanert’s arrangement of Brahms’ Four Preludes and Serious Songs, it elicited a similar response.
Not to the work itself, but to what occurred during intermission.
As conductor Markus Stenz took the stage, two audience members began to sing. In strong, clear voices, they performed Florence Patton Reece’s famous justice hymn: “Which side are you on, friend? Which side are you on?” Nearly a dozen more scattered throughout Powell Hall joined in. While the audience watched in stunned silence, a banner unfurled from the balcony with a silhouette of a man’s face. It said: Requiem for Mike Brown 1996-2014.
As in Vienna, there were some boos from the audience and a few expletives—more disruption following the Aug. 9 shooting death of Michael Brown, an unarmed African-American teenager, by white police officer Darren Wilson. While the Vienna audience complained that Brahms’ music was too religious for a secular setting, one St. Louis symphony-goer asked, “Is Powell Hall a proper venue for a protest?” And a Catholic priest challenged: “Instead of chanting ‘Which side are you on?’ further dividing the community, try singing ‘How can we heal?’”
“A concert hall is a public place, and public protest is possible there,” composer Glanert told Sojourners. “Perhaps [Brahms] would have quoted the Bible: ‘Whoever hates his brother is a murderer ... no murderer has eternal life within him.’”