Berlioz Requiem - A Monumental Composition

Picture courtesy

Written by Dieter Schoop

Are you familiar with Berlioz' Requiem, his Grande Messe des morts, Op. 5?...

If not, you are in for a hugely pleasant surprise, because you can listen to the complete work - conducted by Colin Davis - by clicking here

And if you are familiar with this Requiem, you will learn some very interesting facts about it from Hector Berlioz himself.

Of all the great requiems ever written, this composer's is certainly the most grandiose and dramatic requiem. Its duration is about one and a half hours.

I was deeply impressed with it because I was a participant in a Berlioz Requiem performance in Zurich, Switzerland, in the 1990's. And I will always remember another chorister who said to me enthusiastically...

"There are parts in this music where my soul - out of pure joy - seems to leap out of my body."

In his Memoirs - considered to be among the best of musical autobiographies - Hector Berlioz wrote: “If I were threatened with the destruction of all my works but one, I should beg mercy for the Requiem.”

After he got the order of the minister of war to compose this important work, he hastened to compose it, taking over the Resurrexit of the Messe solannelle that he had already composed at age 21. Click the link to listen to his refreshing and operatic Resurrexit that he composed long before the famous Requiem.

Berlioz in his Memoirs:

"The Requiem had been to me an object of envy, on which I flung myself with a kind of fury when it was put within my grasp.

My head seemed ready to burst with the pressure of my seething thoughts. No sooner was one piece sketched than another presented itself. Finding it impossible to write fast enough, I adopted a sort of shorthand, which helped me greatly, especially in the Lacrymosa.

Every composer knows the anguish and despair occasioned by forgetting ideas which one has not time to write down, and which thus escape for ever.

The official order guaranteed that my Requiem should be performed at Government expense on the day of the service annually celebrated for the victims of the Revolution of 1830, seven years earlier.

However, I received an official letter to the effect that the ceremony was to take place without music, and requesting me to suspend all my preparations. The Minister was indebted for a considerable sum to the copyist and to the two hundred choristers who, had been working at my rehearsals.

For five months in vain I solicited the payment of these debts. As for what was owing to myself, I did not venture even to speak of it, so far did they seem from remembering it.

I began to lose patience, when one day, on leaving the Director after an exceedingly animated discussion with him on the subject, the capture of Constantine was announced. (Constantine is a city in Algeria. That North African country was a French colony at the time.) Two hours later I was hastily summoned back to the Minister's office.

As the French General Damrémont had perished beneath the walls of Constantine, a solemn service for him, and the other soldiers who had fallen during the siege, was to be held at the Church of Les Invalides.

In that impressive cathedral - click to see it - the Berlioz Requiem was first performed on Dec. 5, 1837 before all the princes, peers, and deputies, the French press, the correspondents of foreign papers, and an immense crowd.

Right after the performance the Parisian paper Charivari praised the composer with these words...

"This piece is the finest ever written by Mr. Berlioz and we look in vain for something higher in the masterpieces of the masters."

And a little later in the same article it said... "We repeat, this composition is a masterpiece worthy to be compared to the most famous inspirations of sacred music."   Read here the original French text of  the review.

Berlioz: "It was absolutely essential for me to have a great success; a moderate one would have been fatal, and a failure would have annihilated me altogether."

Now listen to this...

There is no pause between the Dies irae and the Tuba mirum, but the pace in the Tuba mirum is reduced to half what it was in the Dies irae.

At this point Habeneck - the conductor whom Berlioz accepted only reluctantly and on official recommendation - puts down his baton, quietly takes out his snuff-box, and proceeds to take a pinch of snuff.

"I had never taken my eyes off him. Instantly I turned rapidly on one heel, and, springing forward before him, I stretched out my arm and marked the four great beats of the new movement. The orchestras followed me, each in order. I conducted the piece to the end, and the effect which I had dreamed of was produced. When, at the last words of the chorus, Habeneck saw that the Tuba mirum was saved, he said: "What a cold perspiration I have been in! Without you we should have been lost". "Yes, I know", I answered, looking fixedly at him."

Here is the grandiose Rex tremendae, part IV of the Requiem, conducted by Sir Colin Davis."

In June 1838, half a year after the world premiere in Paris, Habeneck conducted the Lacrymosa in Lille, France, at the occasion of a great festival. After the concert he wrote...

"My Dear Berlioz, I cannot resist the pleasure of telling you that your Lacrymosa was beautifully performed and produced an immense sensation. Yours ever, Habeneck.

Characteristics and Instrumentation

A consistent feature of the work is the alternation of big, dramatic numbers with quiet, intimate ones. This Requiem exemplifies the enormity of the Last Judgement - Dies irae - and the limits of the composer's sonic imagination.

The grandeur of the Dies irae in the Rex tremendae and the Lacrimosa interweave movements of a more tranquil and reflective tone. The closing Agnus Dei suggests a vision of eternal rest.

The scoring of the Requiem was an attempt to produce in the chapel of Les Invalides a body of sound proportionate to the scale of the place as well as to the character of a solemn national occasion.

The composer wrote this score for several hundred voices, a minimum orchestra of 100 strings, 20 woodwinds, and 12 horns, reinforced at certain points by four small choirs of brass and eight sets of timpani.

After the first performance, Berlioz's triumph was as grand as the taking of Constantine itself. Even the delayed payment for his work - which only arrived two months later - did not darken his post-concert spirits. It left him full of hope. Proudly he wrote to his mother that "this Requiem will become the property of the nation".

Well, the French nation was overwhelmingly Catholic, while the lasting impression made by Hector's monumental work seems - in parts - more theatrical than religious.

Berlioz writes in his Memoirs: "The prevailing characteristics of my music are passionate expression, intense ardour, rhythmical animation, and unexpected turns. In the Requiem, for example, I employ four distinct brass orchestras, answering each other at certain distances round the main orchestra and chorus."

Berlioz and His Requiem in Germany

During his first concert tour in Germany (1841-1842) the composer conducted the awe-inspiring Dies irae and the Lacrymosa at the Opera in Berlin. He wrote...

"We began the Dies irae. No mistakes, no indecision; the chorus sustained the assault of the orchestra without flinching; the fourfold peal of trumpets broke forth from the four conrners of the stage, already vibrating with the rolling of the ten kettle-drums and the tremolo of fifty bows; and in the midst of this cataclysm of sinister harmonies and noise from the other world, the hundred and twenty voices hurled forth their terrible prediction...

Judex ergo cum sedebit (When therefore the judge takes his seat) and

Quidquid latet apparebit (whatever is hidden will reveal itself).

For one instant the public overwhelmed the opening of the Liber scriptus with applause, and we reached the sotto voce chords (a dramatic lowering of the volume, but in a hushed quality) of the Mors stupebit trembling but victorious.

And what delight among the performers! What glances flashed from end to end of the stage. As for me, I had a peal of bells in my heart, a mill-wheel in my head, my knees were knocking against each other.

The Lacrymosa finished up that apocalyptic evening to the composers's entire satisfaction. And when the concert was over, a great many people came up and spoke to me, congratulated me, and shook me by the hand...

Certainly, if anyone had attempted to sound my palpitating joy, he would have found it fathomless."

Listen to the Complete Berlioz Requiem

For the 1 hour and 32 min. Requiem performed by the London Symphony Orchestra and L.S. Chorus under Sir Colin Davis, click here.

In the center, right under the video, you will see a button Show more. Click it to see all sections of the work. There you can jump to individual parts of the Requiem.

Conductor Davis About Berlioz & A Hint For All of us

Sir Colin Davis, born 1927, has recorded most if not all of Berlioz's choral works. He is a world-renowned British conductor. Of Hector Berlioz he said...

"He was the first and the most original romantic. His music consists of all kinds of conflicting ideas. And in the requiem he wrote the Tuba mirum which blows everybody's brain out. Berlioz was a clear minded, straight thinking, but very original, gifted man."

And for you, dear reader, Sir Colin Davis made the following statement about how to discover the depth and beauty of classical and romantic music...

"All you have to do is learn how to listen"

Back to the Hector Berlioz page

Back to the home page

New! Comments

Feel free to leave a comment. Thank you.