The study of a musical composition in relation to its performance history and its recording history can be productive, if somewhat tantalizing. In the case of the Grande Messe des morts, several broad and intriguing speculations may be made.
We have seen that the conductors of the twenty surveyed performances did not hew too closely to Berlioz' marked tempos, which might strike the performing musician as a rather familiar consequence in the process of transferring music from score to performance. Why does this happen? The rise of the virtuoso conductor--a movement in which Berlioz himself played no small part--may have sounded the signal in the 20th Century, tempered as it was by the more purist attitudes of Mahler, Weingartner and Toscanini, that the conductor was to be the overriding personality guiding the performance of large-scale ensemble concert works. Some conductors may adopt unusual tempos, or performance options, or repertoire choices, or affectations of personal dress, as a means of asserting individuality. Then again, we might take the more optimistic point of view that the conductor, far from abusing that power for personal aggrandizement, channels it instead to the service of the composer's stated intentions, or beyond that, to the needs of the musical composition itself.
Obviously, any conductor who decides to perform the music of Berlioz in the first place is unlikely to play down the dramatic effects inherent in those works. yet as it has been observed in Chapter 7, the most aesthetically pleasing performances of the GMdm have been those offered by conductors fully cognizant of the subtlety of Berlioz' vision as well as its grandeur. We may conclude that, in these cases at least, modifications of Berlioz' tempos to any significant degree may be seen as the conductor's way of addressing the needs of the work in performance.
As an example, observe once again the distribution of performance timings for the opening Requiem et Kyrie. Here, as already noted, the overwhelming majority of the sampled performances show timings significantly slower than the MBT. This could be for several reasons. First, the movement may be thought of as a prelude to the remainder of the work; indeed, if one considers the function of the GMdm as Berlioz' planned oratorio on the Day of Judgment, this opening movement is precisely that, coming as it does before the five movements set to texts derived from the Sequence. As such a monument, the conductor may feel that a more sustained tempo than Berlioz' marked Andante un poco lento, crotchet = 69, is called for. (In contrast, the other movements marked Andante un poco lento have different metronomic markings: the Quid sum miser has crotchet = 76, while the Hostias and Agnus Dei both have crotchet = 56.) Then too, the very opening of the text offers a striking contrast between the legato arpeggiated dropping thirds (heard first in the basses, measures 26-31) and the more staccato falling minor seconds (heard first in the tenors, measures 28-30). While the texture of a great deal of the movement is in crotchets and quavers, there are passages with shorter notes, and perhaps a broader tempo serves to bring out these contrasts, as well as the occasional dotted rhythms.
Furthermore, there is the consideration of the reverberation of the performance locale. While it has not been possible to obtain architectural dimensions or reverberation timings, it may be supposed that the broader tempos generally found throughout SC and DA are a function of the lengthy echoes--and, of course, of the sensibilities of the conductors of those performances. It should also be considered that the sonic clarity afforded by proper manipulation of the recording technique, with the advantages of miking, balancing and mixing, can be used to make clear passages of music which otherwise might become "lost" in the hall. Thus the technological considerations are clearly worth a more extended examination in a further study.
The remaining movements of the GMdm serve to illustrate the wide variety of performance tempos and options taken in the work. While it was not possible to ascertain the placement of the additional brass choirs in the Dies irae in all of the recordings, nor to determine definitively how these placements compared with their associated live performances, we have enough of a sampling to indicate that conductorial and physical requirements have dictated a variety of approaches. In the concert halls, it is not uncommon to find the brass choirs placed antiphonally in the balconies or at other outlying positions around the audience, as opposed to merely at the four compass points surrounding the main performing ensemble. Perhaps this separation clarifies the musical-antiphonal texture of the Tuba mirum, and intensifies the effect sought by Berlioz; perhaps the composer's indications reflected the limitations known very well to him of the performers of his day. If one is willing to second-guess the composer on so touchy, an issue--surely on a par with decisions to emend wind parts in Beethoven symphonies to take advantage of improved instruments and techniques--then these alterations are justified in that they heighten the aesthetic and emotional impact of the passages. Some laxity in tempo may be considered here, too, to be accounted for by the acoustical properties of the performance locale, and of the recording process where that has been undertaken.
Other practical considerations, perhaps implicit in the above discussion, would be those of the technical capabilities of the performers. An amateur orchestra might not be as secure as a professional one in some of the swifter instrumental passages of the Rex tremendae, nor might a youthful and inexperienced chorus be able to sustain tone and correct intonation in the Quaerens me at a very slow tempo. These should be seen in the light of performance practice exemplified by physical and artistic standards available to the conductor, whose choices of tempos, phrasing, and even musical structure should be shaped accordingly.
If one examines the tempo deviations of the twenty recordings in groups, it is evident that some of the greatest deviations, and greatest ranges of tempos, are in the five movements set to the text of the Sequence, i.e., Dies irae, Quid sum miser, Rex tremendae, Quaerens me, and Lacrimosa: indeed, as a group the timings of these last two movements average slightly faster than the MBT. Yet in the Offertoire, in which the visions of the Day of Judgment are past and the chorus sings its prayers from Purgatory, virtually all recordings are more sustained than Berlioz' markings. If the conductors of these recordings sense Berlioz' intention of an oratorio on the Day of Judgment, then certainly their relaxation at this point in the work is a very
strong indication of this kinship with the composer's design. Furthermore, the Offertoire is designed for a more relaxed tempo, so that the natural inclination of a conductor might be to intensify the contrast by playing it at a more relaxed speed. Lastly, there might also be the purely practical and aesthetic considerations of performer ability; if a conductor has a first-rate orchestra, he may wish to draw this movement out in order to demonstrate the singing quality of his players, since it is the instruments which "carry" this portion of the GMdm, and the chorus which is chiefly accompanimental.
With the mysterious Hostias, the "drama" lies more in the nature of the instrumental and vocal sonorities than in the syllabic setting, and the recordings demonstrate a relatively less varied distribution shape. The Sanctus shows a marked shift into the quicker tempos, and it has already been suggested that the ability of the tenor soloist to sustain his floated high tones in each of his solo passages is a definite influence here. Here the choice of the type of tenor voice is another artistic decision for the conductor to consider. A wide variety of voices, from the burly and heroic to the light and almost countertenorish, have carried this movement successfully, but due attention should be given to the choice in the context of the superstructure of the entire performance. An heroic voice might best convey the joy of the text, while a voix mixte would be better at communicating rapture. The maverick performance by an ensemble of tenors is the hastiest of all, and the quality of the voices heard demonstrates the inadvisability of that particular option. Berlioz surely intended the movement as a personal prayer, and his option is one to be taken only in exigency, and cannot be recommended.
The concluding Agnus Dei demonstrates once again some broadening of tempos from many of the conductors. Where the opening Requiem et Kyrie may be taken more broadly than the MBT because it is a monumental prelude to the Judgment vision, the Agnus Dei may serve as a devotional postlude; indeed, here Berlioz uses much of the same music as in the Requiem et Kyrie (after an opening section recalling the Hostias), and it is significant that these two cornerstone movements are the only ones in "perfect" 3/4 time. The patterns of distribution are not identical, but it is significant that some of the conductors who took the Requiem et Kyrie the slowest do similarly with the Agnus Dei, just as the conductors who take the first section most rapidly likewise take faster tempos with the last.
This study has concentrated primarily on observable aspects of performances, and no attempt has been made to correlate personal characteristics of the nineteen conductors of the recordings. However, the repertorial choices of some of these conductors have been evident, and there are some whose command of Berlioz' music reaches out to others of his principal works. Certainly Beecham and Davis (to name but two of the most eminent Berliozians) appear to have a grasp of the consistency-within-the-contrasts of this remarkable work, where nonspecialists such as the more mystic Scherchen and the phlegmatic Chekijian make of it rather a mysterious devotional rite and a dramatic choral tableau respectively. Full documentation is not available, but many of the nineteen conductors surveyed here are known not to be Roman Catholic; hence their conviction toward this work, at least to the point of studying and performing it, is ecumenical, in sympathy with Berlioz the man and artist, rather than as a specific religious ritual, Certainly Berlioz was more concerned with the feeling of the text and its dramatic impact than with the ritual, or he would not have adapted the text as he did to suit his dramatic purposes. The very opening of Berlioz' Memoirs permits us a view of his feelings:
Needless to say, I was brought up in the Catholic and Apostolic Church of Rome. This charming religion (so attractive since it gave up burning people) was for seven whole years the joy of my life, and although we have long since fallen out, I have always kept mast tender memories of it.1
For Berlioz, the Grande Messe des morts represents a personal reflection of a nonconformist, but deeply-felt faith. We are fortunate that the performers of his music display such an affinity for it.
Copyright © 1983, 1995 by Matthew B. Tepper
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