Requiem, Opus 5 1837 | 80 mins
When Hector Berlioz received a commission from the French government to write a Requiem Mass for the anniversary of the July Revolution of 1830, he “fell upon it with a kind of fury,” completing the Requiem in just three months. Despite later difficulties in the unveiling of the piece, every performance in Berlioz’s lifetime was a triumph.
The Requiem is a work of musical gigantism. Requiring monumental forces (of more than 300 musicians) and consisting of ten movements that are alternatively grandly scored and quietly intimate, the music explores the weakness and vulnerability of humankind, and the wonder one feels before the enigma of death. To experience the Requiem is to experience the grandeur of humanity striving, out of fear of extinction, to create a merciful God and a meaningful universe. Within this dramatic work we hear humanity on the edge of eternity (Hostias, where trombone, answered by flutes high above, evokes a sense of infinite, pulsating space); humanity amid the blackness and desolation of an empty universe (Quid sum miser); humanity in the Dance of Death, the endless procession of the dead scourged towards judgment (Lacrymosa); and humanity pleading for salvation before the majesty of God (Rex tremendae), praying from one generation to another (Offertorium), hoping against hope (Requiem et Kyrie).
Jeanette Yu is Director of Publications at the San Francisco Symphony.