Mathilde Wesendonck (above) is known to music historians for her romantic entanglement with and artistic influence on Wagner in the 1850s. What is less commonly known is that once her relationship with Wagner had cooled she became an admirer and personal acquaintance of Brahms, and began a correspondence with him that was to last for several years.
A little-known oddity is the poetic text she composed and sent to Brahms in 1874 in the hope that he would set it to music as a work for chorus and soloists. The remarkable subject matter of her poetry: cremation.
The practice of modern cremation, demonstrated at the Vienna Exposition of 1873, had begun to attract much attention among the medical community and press in Europe and U.S., but it was new, controversial, and generally unavailable. In appealing to Brahms to write a work on the subject, Wesendonck’s intention was to encourage the movement’s growth.
Upon receiving her ode to cremation, Brahms, much amused, immediately forwarded it to his friend Theodor Billroth, who likewise derived from it much unintended humor. Word of the would-be “cremation cantata” spread to other friends, including Wilhelm Lübke and Julius Stockhausen.
This according to “Brahms, Mathilde Wesendonck, and the would-be ‘cremation cantata’” by Jacquelyn E.C. Sholes (The American Brahms Society newsletter XXX/2 (fall 2012) pp. 1–5). Below, Brahms’s Begräbnisgesang, op. 13, which explicitly evokes a conventional burial.
More tidbits about Brahms are here.