On Storytelling and Tension

We’re in the final week of rehearsal for the Brahms Requiem, and I was going to use this blog post to share the lyrics to the piece and make an observation about how Brahms crafts a narrative arc that takes us from “I am mourning a loved one who has died” to “This mourning reminds me that I am anxious about my own death” to “I have accepted death by accepting God’s love.”

Of course, this particular narrative arc requires a little bit of interpretation on the listener’s part—I mean, Brahms doesn’t come out and say any of this in his lyrics, he just drops in quotes like this:

Lord, teach me
That I must have an end,
And my life has a purpose,
and I must accept this.

Translation © 2010 Ahmed E. Ismail

And then he lets us put the piece together (literally).

So I was all ready to write about what I thought Brahms meant to do with this piece and how it fit in with the Hero’s Journey, and then I had a conversation with our conductor.

Basically I babbled out a bunch of thoughts about whether Brahms was a character in his own piece, and whether Brahms-the-character was discovering that death had no sting or communicating something he had already discovered, and whether we, as a choir, should treat it as a revelation we’re just now learning or a statement meant to comfort others.

“Treat it like a release of tension,” the conductor said.

And my immediate thought was of course, that’s exactly what it is, I should have realized it myself.

Not just because it’s difficult, if not impossible, to do something like “sing the Requiem as if you were Brahms discovering its message in real time” in a way that effectively communicates that to an audience. (You could always write a note at the beginning of the program telling everyone how to interpret your interpretation, or put up some projections of an actor playing Brahms as he walks back and forth and worries—but if you have to explain it in a matter extraneous to the text, you’re failing at your job of performing the text.)

Nor because everyone in the audience is going to come up with their own interpretation of the piece, the same way I created my interpretation of Brahms’ narrative arc. (In other words: if you’re listening to the music, you’ll understand that it is about coming to terms with death. Any additional thoughts or emotions you experience while listening are your own.)

It’s because of this: when I attended Maggie Stiefvater’s Portraits and Dreams writing seminar, she explained that storytelling, at its core, was about tension and release. A good story has the right amount of both, and puts them in the right places.

Tension and release are what provide the emotional journey—and after you’ve experienced that journey, you can sit back and ask yourself whether Brahms meant to write himself as a character in his own Requiem, or what Sean wished for in The Scorpio Races, or whether The Wizard of Oz is really just a giant allegory about the gold standard or whatever.

I feel like a bit of a goober for not having figured that out on my own.

But I’m glad I’m thinking about it now. ❤️

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