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8.554494-95 - BERLIOZ: Requiem, Op. 5

Hector Berlioz (1803-1869)

Hector Berlioz (1803-1869)



Hector Berlioz was born in the French province of Isere, the son of a doctor, in a family of some local substance. As a child he was taught principally by his father, and was swayed by various enthusiasms, including an overwhelming urge towards music that led him to compose, not for the piano, an instrument he did not play, but for a sextet that included his music-teacher's son, a horn-player, and the flute, which he played himself. He later took the opportunity of learning to play the guitar. At the insistence of his father, he embarked on medical studies, taking his first qualification at Grenoble, before moving to Paris. Three years later he abandoned medicine in favour of music, his enthusiasm increased still further by the opportunities offered in Paris by the Opera and by the library of the Conservatoire, of which he was later to serve as librarian. In earlier years he had not been idle as a composer, but in Paris he prudently took lessons from Lesueur, whose Conservatoire class he entered in 1826.


In 1829 Berlioz saw Shakespeare's Hamlet for the first time, with Charles Kemble as the Prince and the Irish actress Harriet Smithson as Ophelia. The experience was overwhelming and in the season he had the opportunity to see much more, sharing in the popular adulation of Harriet Smithson, with whom he fell violently in love, at first to be rejected, leading to his autobiographical Symphonie Fantastique It was only after his return from Rome, where final victory in the Prix de Rome had allowed him to spend two years, and when her popularity began to wane, that she agreed to be his wife, a match that brought neither of them much happiness.


In the following years Berlioz remained an outsider to the French musical establishment. He earned a living as a critic, while as a composer and conductor he won more distinction abroad. Both then and in later years he was seen as the very type of an individual genius, the romantic artist, driven to excess by enthusiasms and paranoid in reaction to criticism or opposition, as his Memoires show. After the death of his wife in 1854 he was able to marry the singer Marie Recio, with whom he had enjoyed a relationship already of some twelve years. Her sudden death in 1862 and that of his son Louis, a naval officer, in 1867, saddened his final years. He died in 1869.


The Requiem (Grande Messe des Morts) had been commissioned in 1836 by Count Adriende Gasparin, the Minister of the Interior, who sought to revive a degree of national patriotic splendour absent since the change of monarch in 1830. The work was seemingly to commemorate the death of Marechal Mortier and those killed in 1835. Berlioz gave his own account of the attempts apparently made to prevent the commission, which Gasparin was anxious to put through before he left office, as he was shortly to do. Others opposed the whole idea of commissioning a sacred work, while the veteran Cherubini had his own axe to grind, as the composer of a very suitable Requiem. Eventually the death of General Damremont in Algeria in 1837 provided a proper pretext for the new work on which Berlioz had been engaged to be performed, with full public support, at Les Invalides. The performance was, in the end, a considerable success, but Berlioz has left a full and imaginative account of the difficulties he encountered both in the performance and in subsequently receiving any payment. He dedicated the work to Adrien de Gasparin, to whom he remained grateful.


K. A.


When Hector Berlioz began his setting of what he called the Great Mass of the Dead, he intended to amaze his contemporaries with sounds no-one had ever heard before, He laid out the work on the largest scale imaginable. The orchestra was augmented by a huge percussion section including a veritable artillery of timpani capable of playing full chords. For the Dies irae sequence, he positioned four brass ensembles around the church so that the orchestral sound truly suggested the end of the world.


The work was first performed on 5th December 1837 in that shrine of French militarism, the church of Les Invalides. The immense space of the dome was clearly in Berlioz's mind when he conceived the scale of the Requiem. The premiere was a tremendous success despite a potentially disastrous mishap. Prevented from conducting by state protocol, Berlioz was in the first row of the audience Just as the Requiem reached the moment when the four brass bands were about to blaze forth, Berlioz was horrified to see the conductor lay down his baton and take out his snuff box. Berlioz leapt to the podium and brought in the trumpets of the Last Judgement with a theatrical downbeat. The story appears only in Berlioz's Memoirs, an autobiography with a penchant for fiction. Following traditional French custom, Berlioz combines the opening Introit with the Kyrie. The Requiem opens with a haunting unison theme which will reappear as a kind of idee fixe. The choir's counterpoint gradually assumes the shape of a gigantic fugue with sobbing, violent counter-melodies. The Kyrie is chanted in a frightened low register, a brilliant theatrical stroke.


The Dies irae has one of the most extraordinary build-ups in all choral music. The opening theme reappears and is sung in austere counterpoint by the choir. Twice the orchestra interrupts as if a storm is about to break out. The tension makes the explosion of the Tuba mirum positively nuclear. The brass bands gallop into action like apocalyptic cavalry while the massed percussion literally shakes the concert hall. Rex tremendae uses similar effects while the Quarens me is given over to serene a cappella counterpoint. The Lacrymosa is dominated by a flowing 6/8 figure suggestive of weeping. The massive timpani chords in this movement are unique in the history of music.


Robert Schumann was not a fan of Berlioz but he was fascinated by the Offertoire. Throughout the movement, the voices constantly repeat a three-note ostinato on A-B flat-A. Against this, Berlioz places a kaleidoscope of orchestral colour and figuration so that the listener hardly hears the ostinato as a repetition. The Hostias has the rich sonority of a Russian male chorus disturbed only by the bizarre lamentation of the flutes and trombone.


The Sanctus is given to a tenor solo accompanied by a celestial women's chorus. The ecstatic solo is sung over massed divisions in the tremolo strings which hover like angel wings. The mystical atmosphere is interrupted twice for a great fugal Hosanna, but always returns, the final time with pianissimo cymbals, the clink of angelic censers. The male chorus returns for the Agnus Dei and Berlioz unusually repeats the music of the opening movement at Requiem etemam. The final word is given to timpani chorus, now distant, pacified and serene.


Donglas Cowling



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