Judgement Day

The great jazz composer, bandleader and notorious procrastinator, Duke Ellington once said “I don’t need time, I need a deadline”.

That could quite equally have been said by Hector Berlioz (1803 – 1869) while he worked feverishly for three months to complete his astonishing, apocalyptic masterpiece, Grande Mess des Morts (Requiem).  It is without doubt one of the grandest, visionary and terrifying settings of the Roman Catholic Mass for the Dead and it is utterly compelling in live performance.

“I fell on it with a sort of fury”, Berlioz wrote in his memoirs, published in 1870. “My brain seemed ready to burst under the pressure of creative ferment. Hardly had the plan of one piece been sketched that another one would suggest itself. Unable to write fast enough I devised a system of shorthand which was of considerable help …composers will be familiar with the agony and despair caused by the loss of ideas that have not had the time to be set down in writing and which are thus gone forever.”

Portrait of Berlioz, 1832
Portrait of Berlioz, 1832

Berlioz had been toying with the idea of writing a work on the ‘Day of Judgement’ since his earlier Mass of 1824 but it was his visit to Italy in 1831 that really fuelled his imagination. Visitors to Rome have long been captivated by the grandeur and beauty of the Renaissance architectural masterpiece St Peter’s Basilica, but Berlioz was appalled to find that this vast building, the largest church in all of Christendom, boasted a tiny choir of 18 voices and a small organ on wheels.  When later he was commissioned to write the Requiem for a memorial event, he was determined to amass colossal forces to do justice to the location – the magnificent Dome Church of Les Invalides.

Berlioz was not the first to write orchestral music on a grand scale as there was already an established tradition in France (by composers such as Gossec and Méhul) to write large-scale pieces for ceremonial occasions or outdoor fêtes. Even his own teacher, Jean-François Le Seuer, had written a Symphonic Ode in 1801 to celebrate the French Revolution, using four orchestras stationed at the corners of Les Invalides, an idea later taken up by Berlioz.

What really marked Berlioz out from his French predecessors was not the forces he used, but his obsession with sonorities and spatial acoustics.  Renaissance and Baroque composers, such as Giovanni Gabrielli and Claudio Monteverdi, had used the unusual acoustics of St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice to create imaginative, often haunting antiphonal effects but there was little further innovation in ‘spatial-acoustic’ music until Berlioz burst onto the scene. In his Requiem, with his bold vision, audacious scoring and carefully located musicians, Berlioz places the audience at the centre of an astounding piece of musical theatre which ranges from long periods of quiet reflection to astonishing, ground shaking outbursts where the sound sometimes erupts above the audience.

The forces required for the Requiem were massive, even by the standards of the day. He envisioned an orchestra of around 200 players (a string section of 108 players, 20 woodwind players, 58 brass players including four brass bands, 10 timpani players with 16 drums, two bass drums, four gongs and ten pairs of cymbals) and a choir of at least 200 singers. It’s what makes the Requiem such a truly three-dimensional and riveting experience for concert goers.  Saint-Saëns later recognised Berlioz’s genius when he wrote “…it seemed as if each separate slim column of each pillar in the church became an organ pipe and the whole edifice a vast organ”.

For such a gargantuan work, it comes as little surprise that it had a rocky passage to the concert platform. As Berlioz relates in his revealing memoirs, he was originally commissioned to write the work in March 1837 by the French Minister for the Interior, Adrien de Gasparin for a three day commemoration for the victims of the Fleischi revolution of 1830. Berlioz was a controversial choice; famous for his precocious masterpiece, Symphionie Fantastique, he was nevertheless considered to be a maverick by the musical establishment who felt the honour to write the requiem should have gone to Luigi Cherubini, the aging curmudgeon and head of the Conservatoire.

The Dome Church at Les Invalides
The Dome Church at Les Invalides

Berlioz was fired up by the commission, writing “the poetry of the Prose des morts so intoxicated and exalted be me that nothing presented it to my mind with any clarity: my head was seething. I felt quite dizzy”. He worked at white heat with an unprecedented burst of inspiration to complete the work for the July commemoration. To give an idea of just how quickly he worked on the score, in a letter to Gasparin in May 1837 he said that he required 21 days to orchestrate the work, estimating just three days for the massive Dies Irae and Tuba Mirum and four days for the climactic Lachrymosa.  Even after he had completed the work, he only thought it necessary to make minor changes in later editions.

Thanks to bureaucratic dithering, the performance was cancelled on the eve of the premiere; politicians were fearful that a three-day commemoration for victims of a revolution might inspire another revolt. A one-day event was held instead without his music. Berlioz was sanguine but privately exasperated, telling his friend Liszt “Fortunately I have a hard skull and it would take a mighty tomahawk to split it”.

Later in October of the same year, Berlioz was summoned to the Ministry of War. The General Charles-Marie Denys de Damremont had died leading the French army in the siege of Constantine in Algiers and Berlioz’s Requiem had been selected for a December memorial event at Les Invalides with all costs to be borne by the government.  The resulting performance was a tremendous success, sealing Berlioz’s reputation as a visionary genius throughout France. It was not however without its drama; Berlioz writes “in the one bar where the role of the conductor is absolutely indispensable, Habeneck lowered his baton, quietly pulled out his snuff box and started to take a pinch of snuff”. A prompt intervention on the podium by Berlioz saved the orchestra from falling apart.

Many years later, his friend and composer Ferdinand Hiller recalled “Berlioz believed neither in God nor in Bach, neither in absolute beauty in art nor in pure virtue in life”. If Berlioz venerated anyone, it was his idol Shakespeare once writing about him in religious terms “… it is thou that art out father, our father in heaven, if there is a heaven” following the death of his wife, Harriet Smithson.

Berlioz’s once youthful religious ardour nevertheless left a deep impression on him. David Cairns notes in his edition of Berlioz’s memoirs that “[The Requiem] conveys a profound awareness … of the desperate need to believe and worship … to evoke the eternal hopes and fears of the human race… Berlioz’s imagination believes, even if his intellect does not”.

The Great Day of His Wrath. John Martin, 1851
The Great Day of His Wrath. John Martin, 1851

A striking feature of the Requiem is how solemn, quiet and contemplative the work is with only a sparing use of the full orchestra. Gone are the vivid orchestral colorations and mercurial changes in dynamics which are characteristic of his Overtures and Symphonie Fantastique (which in any case would have been quite unsuitable for the acoustics of Les Invalides). However, when the full orchestra and choir do let rip for the first time in the Tuba Mirum as the four brass bands announce the Apocalypse, the effect is spine-tingling. Equally impressive is the Lachrymosa, where in the opening orchestral motif, the basses depict the snarling dogs of Hell, the violins sound the whip cracks of the condemned and the stabs from horns voice their agonised groans. Listening to this work in live performance, one quite understands Berlioz’s comment later in life when he said that if all his composition should be destroyed save one, he would “crave mercy for [the] Grande Messe des Morts”.


Kevin Painting

Published 11 November 2015 on primephonic