Chapter 1: Hector Berlioz' Grande Messe des morts --
Historical Background; Features of the Berlioz Style

For Hector Berlioz, the production of his Requiem, or more properly, Grande Messe des morts (hereinafter referred to for convenience as GMdm) was the result of a long gestation and a comparatively short delivery. A Messe Solennelle composed around 1825 had met with mixed reactions at its various presentations, and Berlioz ultimately burned the work, while reserving the Resurrexit movement, which appeared to him worthy of salvation.

In a letter of 3 July 1831 to his friend Humbert Ferrand, Berlioz described his idea for a sacred oratorio, Le Dernier jour du Monde, describing the day of judgement; it was his intention to have Ferrand provide a suitable text.1 This plan never reached fruition as such, but in Berlioz was planted the seed for his GMdm.

It was on 8 March 1837 that the exiting Minister of the Interior, M. le Comte Adrien de Gasparin, made formal request of Berlioz to compose a large-scale work to be performed at the services commemorating the seventh anniversary of the July Insurrection of 1830. The formal written commission, however, was delayed by bureaucratic proceedings, and Berlioz was to suspect double-dealings by partisans of Luigi Cherubini.2 Cherubini was at that time the Director of the Conservatoire, and evidently considered that if a solemn mass were to be performed at a state ceremony it ought to be one of his own. The commission was finally granted, and Berlioz composed the GMdm in great haste, rushing the autograph manuscript to the copyists and advancing much of his own money to the performers in order that it be properly rehearsed.

Further political complications ensued, however, when the French government defaulted on its plans to present music with the memorial ceremony, and Berlioz was left with little chance of seeing his work performed, as well as with heavy debts for rehearsals and copying.

On 13 October 1837, General Charles Denys de Damrémont, with the French forces in Algeria, was shot through the heart at the engagement accompanying the capture of the town of Constantine. The Ministry of War decreed a memorial service at which a Requiem Mass might be appropriate, and Berlioz soon had the backing of the Minister of War, General Simon Bernard, for a performance of his GMdm at Les Invalides. Bernard informed Berlioz that, since this was a state function, the performance would have to be conducted by François-Antoine Habeneck, a conductor somewhat familiar with, but not sympathetic toward, Berlioz' earlier compositions. Berlioz agreed to this (presumably accepting this trade-off so that he could get his music performed, pay his fees, and pay his debts), and the first performance of the GMdm was given, as part of the memorial service, at Les Invalides on 5 December 1837.

This admittedly sketchy relating of the circumstances surrounding the origin, commissioning, writing and preparation for performance of the GMdm should be supplemented by the interested reader in the various standard Berlioz sources, including Berlioz' own Memoires in Cairns' English translation and with Cairns' further speculations, Barzun's monumental Berlioz and the Romantic Century, and Jürgen Kindermann's Foreword to the GMdm in the New Berlioz Edition (hereinafter referred to as NBE).3,4,5 It is sufficient to this survey to indicate the background of this striking composition, and to offer as well a brief description of it:

The Grande Messe des morts is in essence a setting in Latin of the Mass for the Dead. Indeed it is not quite that, for Berlioz has altered and reordered the original text to suit his musical and dramatic purposes; an analysis of the extent and specifics of these alterations has been undertaken by Cone.6 If we are to note the objection by Robertson to this "juggling and mangling of the texts," it may at least be held in full conscience that even if Berlioz' resultant production is not a pure Missa pro defunctis, at least it has fulfilled his one-time aim of a sacred oratorio on the Day of judgement.7 It is significant that of the work's ten separate movements, fully five are settings from the Sequence of the Dies irae. Barzun's description of the movements is worth noting:

The first gesture--Requiem and Kyrie--opens with a brief orchestral introduction, a repeated rising scale in the strings. . . . This is followed by the main six-bar theme for basses on the words Requiem aeternam, soon taken up by the other voices and varied throughout chromatic and modal effects derived from the initial scale. In the midst of the agonized, sweeping movement of despair, the episodes of the Te decet hymnus and Lux perpetua contrast hopeful calm with an anxiety which returns in the awesome Kyrie on repeated notes. The voices end on a quiet dissonance and the graver strings close with a recall of the solemn opening.

The second part is the renowned Dies irae employing the four brass choirs and timpani. . . . The movement is built on three phrases of liturgical cast which cross and recross, surge and develop three times in three tonalities, each time with more fervor, thrice punctuated by rising tremolo scales on the strings. At the climax of the third scale, the fan fare bursts forth in melancholy grandeur, overlapping successively from the four corners of the orchestra, where the additional brass (trombone, cornet, tuba and trumpet) have been placed. . . .

After such a climax which, musically speaking, is prepared from the beginning of the first movement and not merely from that of the second, the danger was to fall into bathos. Berlioz entrusted the actual words Tuba mirum spargens sonum to the basses in unison, seconded only later by the other voices in canonic imitation, and so preparing a soft close on Mors stupebit et natura. . . . In this third portion [i.e., Quid sum miser], the plaintive melody is interwoven with the first phrase of the previous Dies irae in a short but moving confession of man's weakness and humility.

In the following number, Rex tremendae majestatis, a solemn invocation interrupted by some unfortunate passages in quick tempo turns gradually into a renewal of anxious supplication. The full orchestra again gives intimation of destruction, after which calm reigns once more and leads to the touching six-part a cappella prayer Quaerens me.

The sixth and longest [sic] movement, the Lacrymosa, contrasts within itself the previous moods of a fated end and an unquenchable hope, and it does this in a manner which is not equally pleasing to every listener. The six-bar tenor melody, underlined by a strongly rhythmic figure in the orchestra, suggests awareness that "the day of weeping when man shall be judged" is an inescapable reality. . . . But the tenor phrase soon generates a variant in a more lulling rhythm that some critics find too reminiscent of an Italian aria in waltz time. . . .

After the duple Lacrymosa comes the high point of the work in its meditative aspect. The Offertory, which Schumann said "surpassed everything" is one of Berlioz' great inspirations. On two notes, A and B flat, Berlioz fashioned a figure that the chorus of souls in Purgatory repeat unchanged throughout, while the orchestral accompaniment, treated in fugal style, weaves noble arabesques around the chiaroscuro plaint. At once a tour de force and a model of economy, this number must, like many of Berlioz' happiest productions, be quite familiar by ear before all its qualities emerge.

To balance the deliberate iteration of the Offertory, Berlioz then gives us a brief and sharply etched Hostias, which contains another musical "find"--the harmonic-orchestral idea of flute-and-trombone chords. Using the lowest (so-called "pedal") notes on the trombone and continuing them with treble flute tones that seem like upper resonances of the original sound, Berlioz punctuates the short liturgical phrases for male voices in a manner at once striking and apt. The sense of space derived from the range of pitch and the isolation, as it were, of the human voice seeking to placate God, are felt even if they do not come to mind through words.

Again to avoid monotony, the Sanctus (No. 9) introduces a tenor solo, which is a good example of Berlioz' original harmonic gift. Its soaring line over enharmonic modulations has a quality of "golden sweetness" unlike that of any other idiom in music. The melody is interrupted by a vigorous Hosanna fugue of sizable dimensions, after which the Sanctus proper is resumed, to be followed by a reprise of the fugue in free form. [It is worth pointing out, though Barzun does not mention this, that Berlioz did not set the words "Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domini," which properly should come between the two occurrences of the Hosanna setting.]

The final number, Agnus Dei, brings us material we have already heard in the first movement and in the Hostias. Having taken his usual pains to make the Requiem "one work" by smooth transitions and frequent thematic recalls, Berlioz evidently designed for the end a recapitulation that would further clinch unity. But hounded by the Ministry and by his copyists, he had no time to fashion this conclusion in the Te decet hymnus, but one can imagine the richer and more complex finale in his own polyphonic style which he might have written, given time. By a further change, the score of the Requiem is the only one that Berlioz did not hold back for revision before engraving, since Schlesinger offered it for subscription immediately after the performance. When a second edition became possible, years later, Berlioz wisely did not touch the substance, cast in an irrecoverable style, but simply improved the Latin prosody.8

Some more recent scholarship casts a different light on the subject of Barzun's closing remarks. The appendices in Kindermann's NBE demonstrate a number of alterations, affecting phrase lengths and numbers of measures in many of the movements, between the draft and the autograph and Schlesinger's 1838 edition, and between that edition and the Ricordi 1853 edition (with the Brandus 1852 edition of the choral parts).9 Furthermore, Braunstein's measure-counting of the individual movements "discloses a striking picture. . . . Two parts in 3/4 time (Introitus [Requiem et Kyrie] and Agnus Dei) frame those in common time and one in 9/8 [Lacrimosa] forms the center. The combined measure total of parts I-V [603 measures] equals that of sections VII to X which gives the work a remarkable symmetry."10 Braunstein indicates as well that the Lacrimosa contains 201 measures, but fails to note that this is also one-third of the combined totals of 603 measures for the groups of movements preceding or succeeding it. If a numerological approach, so often undertaken with regard to the sacred works of J. S. Bach, were to prove that these measure totals were part of Berlioz' conception, it would throw new light on Barzun's apparent feeling that Berlioz did not have time to express his actual intentions on paper.

Features of the Berlioz Style

In his description of the GMdm movement by movement, Barzun has touched upon some aspects of what might be called the "Berlioz style." In this work Berlioz has made much use of contrasting moods and instrumental settings, not merely from one movement to the next but even within the movements themselves. It is true that the solemnity of the Requiem et kyrie is offset by the sweetness of the settings of "Te decet hymnus" and the warm setting of "luceat" at measures 159-60; and again, the return to solemnity with the unison settings of "Kyrie eleison" alternate with the more anguished chromatic "Christe eleison," which in turn recalls the falling chromatic lines in the original "Requiem aeternam." In the superstructure of the work as a whole it can be seen that the Requiem et Kyrie is contrasted in turn by the Dies irae (including the Tuba mirum, which it serves as a prelude). The Dies irae, with its famous outburst of four brass bands, sixteen timpani, and numerous drums, tamtams and cymbals, is then followed by the intimate Quid sum miser with its sepulchral scoring for low double reeds, low strings and male chorus. The ensuing Rex tremendae, which Barzun finds too disjunct in its contrast of majestic and vigorous passages, is actually a compilation of moods accompanying the meaning of the words; it is not without reason that Berlioz has reordered the Sequence to suit his dramatic needs, so that the description of the majesty of God may be contrasted with the sinners' plea to be saved from damnation. Passages of great joy alternate with supplications, and if Barzun has found these alternations unsatisfactory, it may be because he has heard performances in which the unity of the movement was sacrificed to the overemphasis of these contrasts. This sort of problem is precisely that which the conductor of this score must anticipate!

The bustling and ultimately exhilarating Rex Tremendae is followed by the most subdued Quaerens me, a six-part unaccompanied vocal motet, in which the chorus pleads for supplication. Note that Berlioz has indicated that this movement be taken in the same (basic) tempo as the preceding movement, an obvious point of unification; and the jarring minor seconds on "acribus" in measures 52-55 of the Rex tremendae are mirrored briefly by the more poignant minor seconds on the tenors' "Ingemisco" at measures 31-32 of the Quaerens me. The basses' unison chanting beginning with "Preces meae" at measure 42 in the Quaerens me is a point of similarity to the "Kyrie eleison" of the first movement.

In many ways the Lacrimosa is indeed the central movement to the work. Barzun called it the longest, which is not true either in terms of number of measures, nor of duration (at least, in any of the twenty recordings surveyed); but Braunstein's observation of its central position in terms of meter and measure-length division may offer some clue of its dramatic standing in the scheme of Berlioz' dramatic structure. Certainly the 9/8 meter, the only such compound meter in the work, is significant, particularly if we do take at face value the numerology of Berlioz' meter choices, in which case the fact that nine equals three times three becomes an obvious point in Berlioz' design. Consider the concluding Judex crederis of the Te Deum of 1855, also chiefly in 9/8 meter. Then again, the Lacrimosa is the last movement in which pain and suffering are referenced (the following Offertoire being, in Berlioz' words, "choeur des âmes du purgatoire"--chorus of the souls in Purgatory, as though in Dantean terms the narrator/observer/celebrant has already passed through Hell and is on his way to Paradise); it is the last movement utilizing the extra brass bands as such (though trombones appear in the Hostias, and trombones and tubas/ophicleide in the Agnus Dei), and the last movement wherein Berlioz allows for the expanded chorus; it is the last movement with any really extended outbursts of fortissimo; and, lastly, in contrast to all of the other movements of the GMdm, it is in perfect, unadulterated, textbook sonata form. All of these great "lasts" and unique qualities indicate it as a dramatically important focus.

After the Lacrimosa, the contrasting moods to the end of the work are more blissful and subdued. The Offertoire bears another unique feature of the work, the A-B Flat choral ostinato over an orchestral fugato of greatly changing character, until the end when transfiguration is obtained and the chorus breaks into parts on a D major chord with subsequent polyphonic passages on "promististi, Domine Jesu Christe!", and a major-second (A-B natural) version of the ostinato is the closing "Amen."

The Hostias offers the unusual trombones-and-flutes chords described by Barzun as the "musical 'find,'" and this movement serves as prelude to the blissful Sanctus, where Berlioz uses a solo voice for the first time in the work. Where in the earlier stages of the GMdm contrast was obtained through starkly differing moods, tempos, and volumes, here Berlioz continues to offer contrasts, but they are based more on differences in tonal color and instrumentational approach. The collected cymbals which crashed at the end of the world in the Tuba mirum (just prior to the re-entry of the four brass bands), and at the climax of the Lacrimosa, here return pianissimo possibile with the bass drum at the same dynamic marking, pointing up the delicate orchestral and vocal coloring of the passage.

In the present author's opinion, the proper approach to the Berlioz style lies in the knowledge of these contrasts and similarities, and their proper usage for the dramatic and spiritual effect of the whole. A conductor might, upon examining the score and finding these intriguing effects of texture, color, harmony and rhythm, determine to play each for its maximum to the point of grotesquerie, and thereby lose the feelings of unity and balance which are so crucial to the form of this work.

The Grande Messe des morts contains much which interrelates with other of Berlioz' compositions. Some of the brass writing, for example, is handled similarly to passages in such works as Roméo et Juliette and Les Francs-Juges Overture; the string writing has family resemblances to that in Harold en Italie, and the Symphonie fantastique; and the contrasting wind choir writing in parts has its parallel in much of Berlioz' oeuvre. Then, too, even so remarkable a device as the A-B Flat ostinato in the Offertoire has its corresponding passages: the one-note choral ostinato through part of the convoi funèbre de Juliette in Roméo et Juliette is one, and the B-C ostinato in the marche des pélérins from Harold en Italie, despite a wider register shift, is another. Clearly an understanding of Berlioz' other works (nearly all of which have literary bases, or at least allusions) would be indispensable to the performance of one work. Since the Grande Messe des morts is a composition of notable individuality and delicacy of emotional balance, it stands to reason that this of all Berlioz' compositions would benefit best from a performance by a performer--which is to say a conductor--particularly conversant with Berlioz' musical language.

One of the aims of the present research, therefore, is to indicate where, among the performances cited herein of the GMdm, the project has been undertaken by a conductor with such a broadly-based affinity for the music of Hector Berlioz. If this is in fact a prejudice of the present author that Berlioz is best performed sometimes by his advocates, it is hoped that some of the evidence and arguments which lead to this conclusion will illustrate this phenomenon.

Copyright © 1983, 1995 by Matthew B. Tepper

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