Berlioz: Requiem, Opus 5

Requiem (Grande Messe des Morts), Opus 5

: December 11, 1803. La Côte-Saint-André, Isère, France
DIED: March 8, 1869. Paris

COMPOSED: 1837, completing it on June 29, and revised it in 1852 and again in 1866-67

WORLD PREMIERE: December 5, 1837, at the Chapel of Saint-Louis des Invalides in Paris (which consisted of what has since been separated into the Cathédrale Saint-Louis des Invalides and the Église du Dôme, which now houses Napoleon’s tomb). François-Antoine Habeneck conducted and Gilbert-Louis Duprez was the tenor soloist. It carries a dedication to the Comte Adrien de Gasparin, the French Minister of the Interior, who arranged the work’s commission

US PREMIERE: May 4, 1881. Italo Campanini was soloist, with Leopold Damrosch and the Oratorio Society, at the Academy of Music in New York

SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST—March 1950. Pierre Monteux conducted. MOST RECENT—June 1988. Herbert Blomstedt conducted

INSTRUMENTATION: For this reduction by Charles Dutoit—4 flutes, 2 oboes and 2 English horns, 4 clarinets, 4 bassoons, 8 trombones (all offstage), 6 horns, 4 cornets and 4 trumpets (all offstage), 3 tubas, 8 timpani (some timpanists will also play percussion), bass drum, suspended cymbals, tam-tam, tenor drum, and strings (consisting of 16 first violins, 14 second violins, 12 violas, 10 cellos, and 8 double basses); also a mixed chorus (80 sopranos and altos, 60 tenors, 70 basses) and a tenor soloist. In addition, the work calls for 4 brass ensembles, positioned at the 4 points of the compass, consisting of: (North) 2 cornets, 2 trombones, and tuba; (East) 2 trumpets and 2 trombones; (West) 2 trumpets and 2 trombones; and (South) 2 trumpets, 2 trombones, and 2 tubas.

DURATION: About 80 mins

THE BACKSTORY  On January 11, 1867, little more than two years before he died, Hector Berlioz wrote to his dear friend Humbert Ferrand, “If I were tormented to see my entire output go up in smoke except for one score, it is for the Mass for the Dead that I would beg a reprieve.” It is remarkable that he should single out his Mass for the Dead, otherwise known as his Requiem, in an oeuvre that included such contenders as his Symphonie fantastique and the “dramatic symphony” Roméo et Juliette, the song cycle Les nuits d’été, and his operas Benvenuto Cellini and Les Troyens—the last of which had not yet been premiered in complete form.

The Requiem is indisputably filled with admirable writing, even if its music is not always typical of what we think of as his quintessential style. The fact that it occupied such a special place in his heart may have to do with the happy memories that were attached to its performances. Every time it was given in Berlioz’s lifetime, it scored a triumph, which made it unusual among his compositions. In a letter to his father, the composer said that the premiere received “success immense and general, with the public and with the artists, . . . the greatest and the most hard-won that I have yet achieved.” According to Berlioz biographer David Cairns, “only two or three of the dozens [of newspapers] that reported the performance were hostile, and their critics, from the sound of it, had not been there.” (They praised soloists who were not involved—telltale gaffes of that sort.) By and large, assessments concurred with the review in Monde dramatique, which exclaimed that “in the face of such a work, Berlioz’s enemies must pipe down and admire.”

The work’s success might not have been foretold by the history of its gestation. Berlioz devoted an entire chapter of his Memoirs to the difficulties he encountered in the creation and unveiling of this piece. His Memoirs being the most entertaining opus of its genre in the history of music, the extended account found there cannot be bettered, even if one suspects that the composer has engaged in a touch of artful elaboration here and there. (Interested parties are encouraged to consult Cairns’s English translation, titled The Memoirs of Hector Berlioz.) The chronicle, as Berlioz relates it, begins with a commission arranged in 1836 by Monsieur de Gasparin, who was just then concluding his term as minister of the interior. Wrote Berlioz, “He belonged to the small minority of French politicians who are interested in music, and to the still more select company who have a feeling for it.” The field of sacred music, which had enjoyed great prestige under the ancien régime, had not recovered much after being decimated by the secularism of the French Revolution. Gasparin instituted an annual commission, to be administered by the Department of Fine Arts, for a large-scale sacred composition by a French composer, with Berlioz to be the initial beneficiary.

The scheme ran into immediate trouble. The administrator directly responsible for extending the commission did not share Gasparin’s enthusiasm for sacred music or for Berlioz, and he tried to delay the paperwork until Gasparin’s term ended. “Hundreds of such connoisseurs blocked the routes along which artists had to pass, and worked the cogs of the great bureaucratic machine that drove the musical institutions of France.” Berlioz did an end-run around him, received the formal commission just in time, and set to work. “The text of the Requiem was a quarry I had long coveted. Now at last it was mine, and I fell upon it with a kind of fury. My brain felt as though it would explode with the pressure of ideas. The outline of one piece was barely sketched before the next formed itself in my mind.”

“My Requiem was to be performed at government expense on the day of the annual service commemorating the dead of the 1830 Revolution.” In the complicated political history of nineteenth-century France, the July Revolution of 1830 marked the end of the Bourbon monarchy (which had been overthrown in the French Revolution of 1789-99 and then restored, with limited powers, in 1815) and its replacement by the House of Orléans, a figurehead for what would continue as a more populist constitutional monarchy. (The most famous image of the July Revolution is Eugène Delacroix’s canvas Liberty Leading the People, in which “Mariane,” representing the Goddess of Liberty and still today a symbol of the French Republic, leads her brave minions over a pile of casualties.) Berlioz had the orchestral and choral parts copied and then launched into rehearsals. “Almost at once an official letter from the Ministry informed me that the memorial service would be taking place without music. I was requested to discontinue my preparations.”

For months, Berlioz tried to extract payment for expenses already incurred, without success. Suddenly, word arrived that France had captured Constantine, a hilltop town in Algeria, a signal victory in the French colonization of North Africa. Though the battle was a victory, the French commander, General Damrémont, died in the offensive. “A solemn service for him and the other French soldiers slain during the siege was to be held in the chapel of the Invalides”—and plans for the Requiem moved again to the front burner.

“At this point, however, the plot becomes complicated, and one dramatic incident follows closely on another. I counsel all struggling artists who read this account to profit by my experience and ponder what befell me. They will learn the useful if melancholy lesson that in such situations one must trust nobody and nothing, put no more faith in written undertakings than in spoken ones, and arm oneself against heaven and hell.” Boiled down to simple facts, as Berlioz related them: a) his nemesis Luigi Cherubini tried to derail the Requiem and have one of his own pieces programmed instead, without success; b) an unnamed villain (Berlioz refers to him as X) insisted that the Requiem be conducted not by Berlioz but rather by François-Antoine Habeneck, in whom Berlioz had little faith; c) Habeneck nearly botched the performance (snorting a pinch of snuff at the moment of a difficult tempo change, where the four disparate brass choirs enter in the Tuba mirum), but Berlioz leapt in front of him and saved the day; d) Berlioz’s efforts to get paid for his work continued for months after the performance (he was offered—but refused—the Légion d’Honneur in place of payment); e) he finally got paid; and f) some time later, “the excellent Gasparin, having again been made Minister of the Interior,” made nice by awarding Berlioz the Légion d’Honneur after all, and received the work’s dedication.

THE MUSIC  Berlioz’s Requiem is a work of musical gigantism. The premiere used 210 singers and 190 instrumentalists, reduced by perhaps 100 musicians from what Berlioz had initially planned. The published score lists the massive orchestral and choral requirements as listed in the introduction to this note, but it adds that the numbers of musicians indicated are “only relative.” In fact, Berlioz was dreaming of still more performers: “If space permits, the Chorus may be doubled or tripled and the orchestra be proportionately increased.” The real world being what it is, the Requiem is usually given with the forces reduced rather than increased, and it is probably for the best. Modern concert halls—even large ones—are modest compared to the vast expanses of the Invalides, the dome of which reaches to 350 feet.

Berlioz nonetheless employs his vast resources with discrimination. In the score, he states that even if a choir as large as 700 or 800 voices can be assembled, they should be used only in the Dies irae, Tuba mirum, and Lacrymosa sections, “the rest of the movements being restricted to 400 voices.” Indeed, the writing in the more modest sections can be reserved and even delicate. In the Offertorium, for example, the chorus intones its halting phrases entirely in unison until it expands into a six-part texture only in the concluding measures; and yet, even here, the orchestra’s repeated-note figuration and sometimes sinuous lines come across as Berliozian fingerprints. The chorus is remarkably restrained in the “Hostias,” but the orchestration is not the less imaginative for it, with high flutes and low trombones—strange combination!—adding bits of punctuation. The tenor’s solo in the “Sanctus,” and the choral writing with which it mingles, seem celestial models of piety. And the Requiem’s final movement, the “Agnus Dei,” drifts away pianississimo into pensive silence.

Impressive as they are, even the “big three” movements tend to be less quirky in their individual lines than we might expect of Berlioz, who was sensitive to the fact that the resonance of a very large space has necessary implications for the texture of a composition. When he lets loose, though, the impact is astonishing. The “Tuba mirum” and, later, the “Lacrymosa” are very much what a thoroughly Romantic mind might imagine the wildness of the Last Judgment to sound like, with four self-standing brass choirs and an entire regiment of timpani, plus other percussion, going at it as if there will be no tomorrow—which is exactly the point.

James M. Keller

More About the Music
Recordings: Charles Dutoit with John Mark Ainsley and the Montreal Symphony Orchestra and Chorus (Decca)  |  Colin Davis with Ronald Dowd and the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus (Philips)  |  Daniel Barenboim with Plácido Domingo and Choeur et Orchestre de Paris (Deutsche Grammophon)  |  André Previn with Robert Tear and the London Philharmonic and Choir (EMI Classics)

Reading: Berlioz: The Making of an Artist, 1803-1832 and Berlioz: Servitude and Greatness, volumes 1 and 2 of a Berlioz biography by David Cairns (University of California Press)  |  Berlioz, by D. Kern Holoman (Harvard University Press)  |  Berlioz, by Hugh Macdonald (Oxford Master Musicians series)

(April 2017)