Chapter 3: The Grande Messe des morts:
Early and Notable Performance History

The performance history of the Grande Messe des morts necessarily begins with its premiere, on 5 December 1837, at La Chapelle de l'Hôtel des Invalides. Barzun's account, culled from contemporary descriptions, is notable:
. . .Habeneck, who had been forced on Berlioz by the opposition, conducted more than three hundred musicians grouped left and right in the transept. During the first number, Requiem and Kyrie, things went well in spite of the usual mistakes by nervous performers. Habeneck thereupon relaxed so fully that he nearly spoiled the effect of the fanfare in the ensuing Tuba Mirum by failing to cue the small brass ensembles in the four corners of the orchestra. According to his habit, after setting the tempo, he laid down his baton preparatory to taking a pinch of snuff--as Berlioz tells in his Memoirs--and the composer himself had to give the signal. The rest proceeded without a hitch.1

Berlioz relates, in somewhat more flowery and emotionally charged terms, essentially the same story.2 He further alludes to his belief that the snuff-box incident was a result of conspiracy against him by Cherubini's supporters, notably the Director of Fine Arts, Edmond Cavé, and Habeneck himself, though Cairns, editor and translator into English of the Memoirs, is careful to weigh numerous accounts and speculations for and against the veracity of this story.3 Barzun likewise states that "the account in the Memoires can be neither proved nor disproved, though the balance of probabilities favors its being true."4

After the premiere, of course, the principal champion of the work was Berlioz himself, though Habeneck did perform the Lacrimosa in Lille with some success on 25 June 1838.5 In particular, Berlioz performed four numbers at the Opéra on 1 November 1840.6,7 During his German tour of 1843 he performed various excerpts at Leipzig, Dresden (with a second concert added after the success of the first), Brunswick, Hamburg, and Berlin, between 22 February and 8 April.8 A single performance of the Sanctus marked his April 1844 appearance at the Opéra-Comique.9 Of particular success in the following years were performances of the entire work at St. Eustache on 20 August 1846, 3 May 1850, and 22 October 1852.10,11,12

Meanwhile, there are reports of performances by other hands. A performance seems to have been mounted in Munich in June 1840 but was Probably incomplete or else never actually took place; Henri Romberg played the work in St. Petersburg on 19 July 1841, and there are suggestions, again not proven, of a presentation in Berlin in 1842 13,14,15

The first fully-documented complete performance in Germany was at Altenburg under Karl Riedel on 19 July 1868, though this used a simplified orchestration by Karl Götze; Felix Mottl conducted the work in its full orchestration at Karlsruhe on 28 May 1885.16 Ernst von Schuch gave the Dresden premiere in 1897.17

America first heard the GMdm under the batons of three of its leading conductors of the late 19th Century: Leopold Damrosch, in New York, on 4 May 1881; Benjamin J. Lang, in Boston, on 12 February 1882; and Theodore Thomas, in Chicago, on 29 May 1884.18

Beyond this, information and references become sketchy. Barzun reports a Weingartner performance in Paris in 1912, and a mounting with conductor and locale unspecified as part of a memorial for the fallen of the First World War. He further indicates that von Bülow was familiar with the work, but does not indicate when and where he may have performed it.19

A significant American performance of the GMdm was that given on 1 April 1917 by the Parisian-born Burgundian composer and conductor Edgard Varèse, then making his first appearance in New York as a conductor. The performance was to launch Varèse's American career, but the poignancy of the occasion was all too appropriate the following day when the United States entered the European war.20

The landmark performances of modern times, however, must be those given with the Hallé Orchestra in Manchester, England, by Sir Hamilton Harty. The performance on 12 November 1925 brought a poetically ecstatic review from W. J. Turner, who compared Berlioz favorably with Bach and declared that "Mozart and Berlioz are the two greatest masters of pure line in music, and Berlioz yields nothing to Mozart in this respect," in his joy at having "the inestimable riches of that rare musical mind poured into his ear."21 The reviewer from The Times referred to the "wonderful masses of tone" from "the brass bands in the galleries on either side of the orchestra."22 If impact upon contemporary reviewers seems meager, this performance, with repeats in 1926 and 1930, won a lasting reputation for Harty as conductor of this work. Note well, though, Turner's remark: "At the Free Trade Hall Sir Hamilton Harty was compelled to place [the brass bands] in two sections only, opposite each other in the galleries right and left of the platform, and this affected the balance of tone."23

After the end of his association with the Hallé Orchestra, Harty continued to perform in Britain and overseas, and the highlight of his 1936 appearances was the broadcast concert of 4 March 1936, from Queen's Hall in London, of the Grande Messe des morts and the Grande symphonie funèbre et triomphale. (The following week Harty also performed L'enfance du Christ.)

While no record is known with certainty to survive of any of Harty's performances of the GMdm--though again see the present author's published speculations--it is possible to glean some inferences from the few published reviews, and from general knowledge of Harty's Berlioz style.24 Harty's placement of the brass in his 1925 performance was evidently a feature of the size of the hall, since the Times reviewer makes clear that in the 1936 performance "the four brass bands required for the 'Tuba Mirum' and elsewhere in the 'Messe des Morts' were disposed in the two organ galleries and on both sides of the balcony."25 Where the tradition arose of placing the brass bands in organ lofts or otherwise surrounding the audience, as opposed to Berlioz' clear directions for ecclesiastical use in which the bands are supposed to be based around the main orchestra, is not certain. These Harty performances must stand as among our earliest indications of what has apparently become a frequent practice in this work. The antiphonal calls of the brass can be strikingly effective when the ensembles are separated more greatly, though ultimately this results in greater difficulty in keeping the performers together.

Available sources do not indicate the size of Harty's ensembles, though see again the 1925 Times review: "Though the forces under Sir Hamilton Harty's command last night were not up to the full strength of numbers demanded by Berlioz, they were sufficient for completeness."26 However Harty's own statement in his 2 March 1936 broadcast indicates his satisfaction, at any rate, with the performing ensemble available to him then: "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."27

It is clear that Harty must have been unable to find true ophicleides, or the players for them, at least for his 1925 and 1926 presentations. A letter from Philip Heseltine (who published his compositions under the name "Peter Warlock") insists that ophicleides alone give the true sound of Berlioz' intention, and offers the use of some suitable instruments, as well as some suggestions of some competent players.28

It is of course impossible to determine Harty's general approach to the score in matters of tempo and style, let alone any of the many details encountered by a conductor who confronts this work. However, judging from the recorded legacy available to us in the Berlioz recordings Harty did leave, he was a man who understood the orchestral effects of Berlioz at least as well as the dramatic contrasts.

Performances of the work in the Germanic countries are known to have occurred in the years between the wars; Dyment has remarked on Weingartner's performance in Vienna in 1926, and Fritz Busch is known to have performed the work in Dresden in 1929.29,30 Details on these performances were not available. While Europe was arming for war, a performance under Herman H. Genhart in Rochester, New York, received a coy notice in Time on account of the unusual instrumentation.31

Jean Fournet's recording of the GMdm must certainly have been associated with some live performances of the work; unfortunately, due to the suspension of many French journals during the Occupation it has not been possible to document this, though the recording appears to have taken place in September 1943.

Charles Munch, whose career included many performances and recordings of Berlioz' music, is known to have conducted the GMdm with the Boston Symphony Orchestra at least eight times in five separate mountings, the three in April 1951 and the two in April 1959 being given at Symphony Hall, and the summer performances of 1952, 1954, and 1959 at the outdoor facilities of Tanglewood in conjunction with the Berkshire Music Festival. A photograph accompanying an article on the 1952 Festival shows the brass choirs in front of the orchestra; whether all four were arranged this way, or merely two out of the four were positioned elsewhere, cannot be determined.32 But a more serious reportage in Time of the 1954 Festival states: "Conductor Munch last week took no chance on faulty entrances, had his warning arm pointing straight toward heaven four bars ahead [of the Tuba mirum brass entries]. The brass bands broke loose (two were placed in the auditorium, giving a kind of stereophonic effect); they sounded for all the world like the trumps of doom."33 For more on the subject of Munch's recording with the Boston Symphony, see later material relating to recording MX; Munch's Bavarian performance is recording MZ.

Of Eugene Ormandy's 31 March 1964 performance with the Philadelphia Orchestra, John Ardoin remarks that he "wished Ormandy had placed two of his auxiliary brass groups at the back of the hall instead of the broadcast booths to the side of the stage. The antiphonal business in the 'Tuba Mirum' would have been twice as effective."34 This indicates that Ormandy's interpretation of Berlioz' original intent was to keep the ensembles around or near the main orchestra.

1969, the centenary year of Berlioz' death, saw performances of the GMdm around the world, including one short of the actual centenary by three days in Leningrad--the former St. Petersburg, where the work had been heard at least once during the composer's lifetime. That performance, conducted by Hovannes Chekijian, is dealt with as recording CH in the following chapters.

Seiji Ozawa's performance of the score with the New York Philharmonic, the first under the actual auspices of that organization, in February 1969, elicited only fair notices. George Movshon complains of the dearth of double-basses (six instead of eighteen), and describes the chorus as having only about 150 voices; the work was given four times in the course of a subscription concert week.35 Kolodin refers to "the brass positioned at the four points of the universe (in the balconies)," and to an intermission between the Quaerens me and Lacrimosa.36 Ozawa has performed the work many times since: with the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Boston in 1970, and in New York in 1976, with the combined Orchestra de Paris and Boston Symphony in 1976, and with the Boston Symphony in 1977 and 1982. The work is apparently now a repertory piece for this conductor and orchestra, since performances in 1982 were set up on only a week's notice to replace the scheduled performances of Igor Stravinsky's Oedipus Rex which were canceled due to public outcry over the selection of Vanessa Redgrave as narrator. These quickly-organized performances were given on 15-17 April 1982 in Boston, and transferred to Carnegie Hall in New York on tour on 21 and 22 April.

Colin Davis (now Sir Colin) mounted the GMdm with the London Symphony Orchestra as part of the City of London Festival, on 6 June 1969 at St. Paul's Cathedral (where two days before the Te Deum had also been performed), Dominic Gill refers to "the acoustical drawbacks of its vast cathedral setting," referring in particular to "the orchestral accompaniment to the Lacrymosa (obscured by the echo)."37 Nancy Benvenga claims however that the conditions of the St. Paul's performance were "as similar as possible to those originally envisioned by the composer," and deals in her article at great length with the effects of the long (eight-second) reverberation of the Cathedral upon Berlioz' music, particularly citing the conductor's remark that Berlioz "left holes" for the echoes.38 It is worth noting that the Davis recording--dealt with separately under the code DA--was made at a different locale, and it may be supposed that the acoustical properties of St. Paul's presented difficulties to the recording engineers.

A most unusual approach to the GMdm was that taken at the Lyons Festival in June/July 1969. Jean Fournet (conductor of the pioneering recording of the work) led a staged presentation at the Roman Amphitheatre of Fourvière. Tony Mayer, reviewing the performance in a journal specializing in operatic performances, relates:

Be it as it may, all doubts were dispelled when the lights went up and one saw, behind the orchestra, the 300-strong massed choir--in black robes and grey skullcaps; the motionless corps de ballet--also in black and grey, spread on the stage; Rapp and Scoendorff's spectacular décor of silver rocks and changing lights, a lunar desert under the starlit skies; and behind it all, the flickering lights of the city of Lyons: a setting worthy of any capital! Then, amid the massive blocks, the dancers started to live the great adventure of life and death--despair and hope, suffering and joy. It was all a remarkably impressive visual transposition--counterpoint might be a better word--of both music and text.

Six choirs (trained by Paul Decavata) had joined forces to form the mammoth chorus. They sang splendidly. Two ballet companies--from Lyons and from Strasbourg--provided the dancers. Under the forceful direction of Jean Fournet, the Lyons Philharmonic with soloists from the Strasbourg Opera, did full justice to the well-known score. (The Tuba Mirum was played by four fanfares precariously perched on four metallic towers.) Alain Vanzo was the excellent soloist in the Sanctus.39

No other reports of staged performances of the GMdm have come to light, so this lone instance may have been a unique event to celebrate the centenary of the composer's death.

Of the 13 February 1976 performance under Herbert Blomstedt in Dresden, commentator Hans Böhm says little, save that the performances were given in memory of the firebombing of the city thirty-one years previously.40 He does, however, refer to "eine Pauken- und Schlagzeuggruppe mit 13 Spielen," making one wonder whether the cymbals, tamtams, bass drums and timpani were up to the numbers of Berlioz' specifications.

It may have seemed to Ardoin in 1964 that the GMdm "is one of those works, like the Mahler Eighth, you hear in the flesh only once or twice in a lifetime."41 Yet such is the interest in Berlioz' music in Britain in general, and in London in particular, that in the course of one year it was recently possible to hear three different performances of the work, and not merely repeats of the same production, but entirely different mountings. 20 April 1980 marked André Previn's debut with the London Philharmonic Orchestra (an ensemble founded by Beecham) at the Festival Hall. Judith Nagley reports viewing "the requisite eight timpanists ranged across the full width of the platform, and the four brass bands strategically positioned in boxes."

More to an eye toward performing approach and style, she continues,

But Previn reminded us that Berlioz' most extraordinary and original strokes come as often in the hushed, restrained sections as in the moments of grandeur, for example the flute trio pitted against the eight trombones in the "Hostias," which would surely have angered Cherubini. Previn's way with Berlioz is inevitably exciting and, happily, almost untroubled by mannerisms. The opening movement unfolded inexorably, with a powerful sense of greater things to come; everything was perfectly timed and controlled to achieve the utmost impact with the minimum of fuss.42

The City of London Festival brought the occasion, on 9 July 1980, for John Pritchard (now Sir John) to produce the work at St. Paul's Cathedral. Geoffrey Norris warns against the "acoustical dangers of the dome," averring that "the least satisfying music in these conditions was, predictably, the most contrapuntal: the 'Lacrymosa' and the 'Hosanna' of the Sanctus became. . .a mere mush of sound. . . ." Additionally, "the orchestra, save when supplemented by radiant antiphonal brass in the transept galleries, was indistinct, often submerged by the sheer volume of sound from the banked chorus "43 The performing orchestra has not been specified.

The Royal Albert Hall, with its infamous echo (particularly toward the rear of the main floor), is where Brian Wright led forces of the BBC in a performance on 12 April 1981. Stephen Pettit (whose assertion that the Lacrimosa is scored in 6/8 renders his views less than authoritative), remarks that "the brass bands can never sound together in such a vast space, and that accepted, only the occasional out-of-phase woodwind chording jarred the senses. . . ."44

The year from April to April 1980-81 was a banner year for Berliozians in London. No definite reason for the duplication of efforts is known, but one might suspect that the publication of the NBE of the GMdm in 1978 now affords conductors with the opportunity to produce the work without worrying about some of the small discordances of previous editions.

Lastly in this general survey of performances, mention must be made of the 1981 Lyon Festival presentation under Serge Baudo at the Sport Palace. André Segond refers to "300 [instrumental] musicians, 85 [sic!] choristers and a tenor with a heavenly voice," and later "a veritable wall of humanity, consisting of 1200 performers, that created a psychological setting for the great occasion."45 The "85 choristers" must be a typographical error for 850, which may be the largest assemblage of chorus for this work; Segond claims that "for the first time in France, the work was given as the composer intended."46 However, Kurt Neufert gives an alternate count of performers: 560 choristers, a 200-piece orchestra (with 120 strings, 16 double basses, and 7 timpanists), and 35 brass players.47

In this brief overview it can be seen that performances of the GMdm, even limited to those described in print, allow for a wide variation in approach to general performance set-up. The ensuing treatment of actual preserved performances will demonstrate the variety of performance tempos and styles.

Copyright © 1983, 1995 by Matthew B. Tepper

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Chapter 4


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