The reason I am addressing you tonight is because of the concert to be given by the British Broadcasting Corporation at Queen's Hall next Wednesday evening, March 4th. The programme will be devoted entirely to the music of Berlioz and will consist of two of his greatest and most unfamiliar works, the "Requiem Mass" and the "Funeral and Triumph Symphony". The unusual orchestral and vocal resources of the British Broadcasting Corporation have enabled them to place at my disposal forces amply sufficient in numbers and accomplishment to realise the intentions of the composer.
Before considering these two works in detail, or commenting upon the extraordinary demands made by Berlioz in his directions for their performance, it may be interesting to touch upon certain questions connected with Berlioz himself and with the position to which he is entitled in the ranks of great composers - a much debated subject.
Many people are but vaguely aware that, far from being a more or less modern composer, Hector Berlioz was born as far back as 1803 and was therefore, in a sense, a contemporary of Beethoven; for Beethoven did not die until 1827 when Berlioz was already a young man of 24. Some of his most characteristic works, such as the "Fantastic Symphony", a landmark in the history of music, were produced over a century ago. Yet even after this long space of time and in spite of continuous and exhaustive discussion of the question, there is no general agreement as to the quality of his genius and the degree of his eminence as a composer. This is a singular fact, for of no other composer of his epoch, or even of a later one, does this appear to hold good. Beethoven, Brahms, Mendelssohn, Chopin, Wagner, Liszt, perhaps even Strauss and Elgar, to such as these we have assigned a more or less definite and generally accepted valuation. Regarding Berlioz however, opinion is as sharply divided today as when his works were first heard. It seems that there is no middle path concerning his music, nothing in the nature of qualified appreciation. His admirers regard him as one of the greatest and most original of composers, his detractors as little better than a charlatan - a mere inventor of orchestral effects. The mingled praise and derision which were the lot of Berlioz in his lifetime still seem to be aroused today whenever his music is in question, and nowhere is controversy more bitter than among musicians themselves.
Experience has proved to me, however, that the general musical public is almost invariably interested and impressed by the music of Berlioz; that is, provided it is adequately prepared and presented. This may be because the ordinary listener has fewer preconceived prejudices and is therefore more ready to sense the power and beauty which exist in this music, although they are often expressed in very unorthodox terms.
Berlioz was, in the best sense of the words, a writer of programme music, and very little of his music is thoroughly satisfying if listened to without reference to the programme which inspired it. Sometimes the programme is a scene or an emotion which Berlioz seeks to illustrate in general terms, but more often it is quite definite and detailed as in the "Romeo and Juliet" Symphony, and in certain parts of the "Fantastic".
If I were asked to define the style of Berlioz I should say that he was a poet first and a musician afterwards: or perhaps it would be better to say that he looked on music primarily as a means of illustrating literary and pictorial ideas, and that to him music as a self-contained art hardly existed. He was a genius of astounding originality whose chief aim it was to translate into terms of sound certain scenes, pictures, literary and poetic images, emotions and states of feeling which had impressed his vivid imagination, and it does not seem to me that he was very much interested in trying to create great music for its own abstract sake; that is, music which depends entirely upon its own purely musical qualities for its effect and justification. Probably it is non-recognition of this important characteristic of Berlioz which is responsible for much of the antagonism his music awakens in those who are rigidly devoted to a conception of music as an abstract art.
In this country we do not have many opportunities of hearing the larger works of Berlioz, one reason being of course that the excessively large and varied forces he demands are generally far beyond the resources of most of our musical organizations. It is true that from time to time, in the more musical parts of this country, one can occasionally hear a performance of one of his major works. Last year in Glasgow for instance his huge opera "The Trojans" was given several performances in its original form as two separate operas [sic], and Manchester has always been a stronghold of the composer, most of his works having been performed there under Halle, Richter, and myself. In general however it has not been found possible to give the larger works with anything more than an approximation to the forces demanded by the composer.
This will not be the case at the performances of the "Requiem" and the "Funeral and Triumph Symphony" next Wednesday, for though Berlioz had the most grandiose conception of what was necessary in order that these works should be interpreted adequately, on this occasion circumstances will allow of his demands being completely satisfied. In the "Requiem Mass" the composition of the orchestral and choral forces, and their disposition on the platform, make a very novel and interesting effect. A great main orchestra, in which the usual numbers of strings and wind, down to the horns, are doubled, trebled and in some cases quadrupled, is surrounded by a large chorus. At the back is a long imposing row of timpani or kettledrums (the composer writes for 16), and at one side various other percussion instruments. At each corner of this mass are placed separate orchestras of brass, consisting of trumpets, trombones and tubas. At the Queen's Hall these four brass orchestras will be placed, two in the corners of the upper gallery, two in the organ alcoves. By this means the antiphonal effect imagined by the composer will be realised, when these groups of brass call to each other from North to South, from East to West.
A note by Berlioz in the full score states in perhaps somewhat ironical fashion that "these numbers are only relative - if space should permit the chorus may be doubled or trebled and the orchestra proportionately increased," In the Queen's Hall, however, there would be no object in seeking to increase the numbers already given which, in that building, will be amply sufficient to realise the composer's intentions.
The impression given by these enormous forces, these "yards of brass and acres of timpani," is not one of harshness or blatancy even in the most powerful climaxes, but rather of overwhelming power and grandeur. Besides, Berlioz was far too great a master of colour not to know the value of contrast, and a great part of the "Requiem" is quiet and meditative in mood, the full power of the orchestra and chorus being unleashed only occasionally. One of the most touching and effective numbers, indeed, is the "Quaerens me" set as a motet for six-part chorus, without accompaniment.
It would be vain to uphold the "Requiem" as a deeply religious work, It was not from this point of view that Berlioz regarded his task when he came to set the text, but rather as an opportunity to write dramatic, expressive, and tragic music. He confesses as much in his memoirs, There are portions such as the Quarens [sic] me already mentioned, the Sanctus, and the Offertorium, which might have been written by a musician devoted to the service of the Church, but on the whole the work is more pagan than Christian in its barbaric grandeur.
Berlioz was an inventor of strange new sonorities, and there are many interesting experiments of this kind to be heard in the course of the work. How they must have impressed the audiences of his own day it is difficult to guess, for even nowadays they still sound original to the last degree, sometimes of an unearthly beauty, sometimes terrifying in their sinister and mysterious implications. Of such are the brazen fanfares which herald the Day of Judgement, with the deep throbbing of drums underneath, and in another way the trembling, frightened accents of the cor anglais in the Quid sum miser and the sad monotonous psalmody of the chorus in the Offertorium, where above a most expressive orchestral meditation the voices repeat a little dejected phrase of two notes over and over again. But in every page can be found new and striking touches of colour. Two of the most subtle and effective are the soft repeated chords on the massed timpani which occur at the end of the "Requiem", and the extremely low pedal notes of the trombones over which are heard the faint tones of the flutes, high in their register - a strange and ghostly effect.
I have left myself little time to deal with the "Funeral and Triumph Symphony". This is a canvas painted in altogether different colours. Though a chorus and a complete orchestra of strings are used towards the end of the Symphony in order to strengthen the climax, they are neither of them of great importance in the general design, the chorus indeed being marked ad libitum. The Symphony in the first place depends upon a large Military Band made up of great numbers of woodwind and of brass instruments. This Band is supported on one side by a battery of side-drums, and on the other by three pairs of symbals [sic], bass-drum, and Tam-Tam.
The work, though large in scope, does not occupy a great space of time in performance. It consists of three main movements - a Dead March, an introductory recitative leading to the Funeral Oration, and a concluding Quick March and Song of Triumph. In general the musical design is one of great simplicity, being often in no more than two or three real parts. It is apparent that Berlioz considered complexity of design quite out of place in such a work, composed as it was for a public occasion, and for performance in the open air.
As far as I know it has never been heard in London, although it was given some years ago in Manchester under my direction, and created a deep impression.
I cannot dwell as I should like upon the dignity and beauty, the poignancy and grandeur of the "Requiem Mass", or, in the case of the "Funeral and Triumph Symphony", upon the deep solemnity and proud resignation of the first two movements, which form so marvellous a contrast to the patriotic ardour, the blaze and brilliancy of the concluding section. Perhaps it is sufficient to say that those who listen to these two great works on Wednesday next will be able to claim that, in the one, they have heard Berlioz in his most powerful and expressive mood; and, in the other, at the height of his incomparable mastery and skill in the handling of great and original schemes of tone-colour such as were undreamt of before, in his genius, Berlioz invented them.
March 2/1936 (B.B.C. London)
Copyright © 1983, 1995 by Matthew B. Tepper
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