The Berlioz Requiem - Pre-concert talk

Thursday, 12 July 2007
Barnard’s Inn Hall

Subject:






Overview

The Berlioz Requiem will be performed later the same evening in St Paul's Cathedral.  Further details available from the City of London Festival www.colf.org

David Cairns is a British journalist, non-fiction writer and musician. He is a leading authority on the life of Berlioz. David Cairns' work in journalism has spanned a number of high profile newspapers and magazines. He was chief music critic of the Sunday Times from 1983 to 1992, having earlier been Music Critic and ArtsEditor of The Spectator. Other publications for which he has been a music critic include The Evening Standard, The Financial Times and The New Statesman. He is best known for his monumental two-volume biography of Berlioz: "Berlioz: The Making of an Artist 1803-1832" and "Berlioz: Servitude and Greatness 1832-1869". The books won a number of major awards, including The Royal Philharmonic Society's Music award, The Yorkshire Post "Book of the Year" award, The British Academy's Derek Allen prize, The Samuel Johnson Prize for non-fiction and Biography of the year in the Whitbread Book Awards.






Transcript of the lecture

THE BERLIOZ REQUIEM  

 

David Cairns

 

I do not know whether any of you were at the recent performances of Benvenuto Cellini in the Barbican.  I mention that because the contrast between Benvenuto and the Requiem could not be more extreme, and yet they were written within about six months of each other.  This contrast illustrates in a particularly dramatic way the extraordinary variety which is one of the features of Berlioz's compositions.  Each one inhabits its own separate, distinct poetic world.  Each has its own special colour, dramatic atmosphere and form, peculiar to itself alone.  So he can go in the most natural way, almost straight from his jubilant comic opera, which is all speed and light, mercurial changes of pace and rhythm with movement in triple or compound time, to the tragic, slow-moving, erratic, monumental Requiem. 

I thought I would just begin by illustrating this extraordinary difference between these two works.  In the Cellini example, it is a part of the trio in the first act, where Benvenuto and his girlfriend, Teresa, are planning to elope the following night, during the carnival, under cover of darkness.  Cellini's rival for the hand of Teresa, Fieramosca, is behind a sofa trying to hear what they are saying. This music is very quick, light fingered, very delicately scored and absolutely scintillating piece of music, and I would just like to offset the dignity and solemnity of the Requiem by playing you the first musical example.

   [Music plays]

That excerpt from Cellini lasted about one minute twenty seconds, and it covered an enormous amount of ground.  In contrast, the bit that I am about to play, which is the opening of the Requiem lasts the same time, and as you can see, the pace is utterly different.

   [Music plays]

That was recorded in Westminster Cathedral - it is a work very much written for a resonant acoustic.  This alternation of the richly coloured and passionate and the monumental and architectural is a pattern you find throughout Berlioz's career.  We may think of him chiefly in terms of works like the Fantastic Symphony, the Damnation of Faust, the Roman Carnival Overture, or Les Nuits D'été, works which exemplify what he himself said about his music; that its predominant features were passionate expression, inward intensity, rhythmic impetus, and the unexpected, and that these were the qualities that were most personal to him and that make him the composer he is.  But just as important, in his eyes, were what might be called his objective works, these huge public utterances, of which the Grande Messe des Morts and the equally monumental work, Te Deum, are the most obvious examples.  Indeed, Berlioz himself said, towards the end of his life, that if he were threatened with the destruction of all his works save one, it would be the Grande Messe des Morts that he would save from the flames.  Now, this may surprise us: surely one may think of the Troyens as his greatest work and the culmination of a lifelong ambition and a lifelong devotion to Virgil and Shakespeare - the Troyens should be the one, and if not that, then Faust or Romeo and Juliet, a work particularly dear to his heart.  But I think we can understand why he singled out the Requiem, and it was not just because, unlike Faust and the Troyens or Benvenuto Cellini for that matter, it was associated not with failure and defeat, as they were, but with success on the grandest scale and also with a rare victory in the war against obstructive Parisian bureaucracy, as Berlioz recounts amusingly in his memoirs.  Every time the Requiem was performed in his lifetime, it was a distinct success, but I think it went deeper than that. 

Though compromise was something utterly alien to his nature and he always strove to be faithful to his ideals and write his music and no one else's, he never gave up the dream of the composer as the mentor of the people, addressing them directly in great public ceremonies.  It was a dream he had conceived as a boy, when his fertile imagination was seized by what he read of the ceremonies of the ancient world such as the huge musical rites in the Temple of Solomon.  The dream was fed in his first years as a student in Paris, when he listened to his teacher, Lesueur, telling him about the great days of the Revolution, the consulate and the early empire, when music was performed by vast crowds of people in the Champs de Mars, and that these events symbolised the whole nation gathered together in a grand, collective act of praise and worship.  Lesueur told him how the composers of the day, he himself among them, held rehearsals in the streets of Paris, standing on carts so that the people could see them, and taught the people the tunes of the great hymns they were to sing in the Champs de Mars a few days later.  I think this is the idea that underlies the Grande Messe, that transfigured, because the community of the French nation becomes the community of all humankind down the ages, voicing its immemorial longings, its fears and frail hopes and confronting its mortality.

Berlioz, in later life, spoke of himself as an atheist, at most an agnostic, a sceptic, and if he had a god, he said, it was Shakespeare - 'It is thou that art our father, our father which art in heaven, if there is a heaven.'  Certainly he was no orthodox believer, but he had been a passionate believer in his childhood and adolescence.  He is ironic about it when he talks about it in the memoirs: '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 tender memories of it.'  He jests about it, but the loss of faith I am sure left a permanent mark on him.  In the Childhood of Christ, we see him returning to it in his imagination, remembering what it was like, how he once believed with all his heart and soul, and in the Requiem, the very loss of belief is the driving force.  The work conveys an intense regret, a vivid awareness of the need to believe, to be able to worship.  Berlioz understands the religious impulse because he once had it and, in a sense, still has, imaginatively speaking.  Through his own unsatisfied yearning he can catch the eternal note and echo it in his music.  The Requiem, unorthodox though it is, has Wordsworth's visionary gleam, but it is an essentially tragic work.

In the aftermath of the last judgment, human beings can only huddle together, broken, desolate. I would like to illustrate this by playing the last part of the Tuba Mirum, which after the tumult sinks down into a sort of murmur, and then the Quid Sum Miser, where you hear human beings sort of shivering together in a desolate empty universe.

   [Music plays]

Now I will say something about the origins of the work.  When Berlioz received the government commission in March 1837 to write a requiem commemorating the death of Marshall Mortier and the other victims of Fieschi's attempt to assassinate Louis-Philippe two years before, it came as the fulfillment of a long-nurtured ambition.  The history of the Grande Messe des Morts goes back to the Messe Solennelle that he wrote for the Church of Saint-Roch thirteen years before, and as I will show you in a moment, there are direct musical links between the two works.

Lesueur's accounts of the heady days of the Revolution and also what Berlioz read about its musical ceremonies fired a desire to revive and revitalise the tradition, with a large scale work of his own.  By the time the commission came, his mind was full of how he should do it, and when the work was performed eventually, in December 1837 after many bureaucratic delays and attempts by ill-natured officials to prevent it happening at all, a journalist described it as having been knocking on all the tombs of the great for the past two years, but Berlioz's plan for the work certainly goes back further than that.  Before he set to work to compose it, he wrote out his own version of the text of the liturgy.  Berlioz treats the Requiem Mass as he does everything else he writes, as a dramatist.  This kind of approach had got him into serious trouble ten years before when, as a student at the Paris Conservatoire, he was competing for the annual Prix de Rome, and presented with a rather stilted academic poem on the death of Orpheus, he fell foul of his examiners by reshaping it completely to make what he regarded as a suitable text for dramatic music.  But now he was his own master and free to do what he liked, and he did.  Berlioz's textual changes had the effect of bringing out the implicit three-fold division in the Requiem Mass, the successive Dantesque visions of hell, purgatory and paradise. 

In the words of the American musicologist, Edward Cohn, who has written a wonderful essay on this work: 'The remodeled text becomes a libretto of a special kind of music drama, a commemorative service of the dead, within whose ritual frame we are made to share the emotional experiences of a contemplative auditor attending the mass, one who, allowing his imagination full play, visualises himself as present at the wonderful and terrible scenes described, and who returns to reality at the conclusion of the service, with a consequent sense of catharsis.'

To take one example, to create a sense of the return to the here and now, Berlioz repeats the Te decet hymnus from the opening movement, which doesn't actually belong in the Agnus Dei, and he repeats it in the final movement.  Some of the changes are small, if significant.  At the end of the Offetorium, the phrase 'As once thou promised to Abraham and his seed', is altered so that the movement ends with the word 'thou promised', and the sad persistent D Minor of the movement changes to a radiant D Major, a gleam of hope for the souls in purgatory.  That is typical of the way Berlioz - he feels free to do whatever he likes to the liturgy, while preserving its spirit.

A much bigger change is in the Rex Tremendae, a movement which is part of the hell section of the Requiem.  Here, in addition to bringing forward text from later in the judgment part of the work, he adds words from the Offertory: 'From the bottomless lake, save them from the lion's mouth.  Let not Tartarus engulf them.  Let them not fall into darkness.'  At the same time, he changes 'them' to the more personal and urgent 'me'.  Those words which emphasise the fear of hell in their new context are then omitted from the Offertory, which in the tripartite Dantesque scheme of the Grande Messe is concerned not with hell but entirely with purgatory.  When he comes to the Offertory, Berlioz dismembers the text and has it sound disconnectedly in fragments to an unvarying two note chant, around which the orchestral fugato moves in a kind of mysterious sympathy.  It is as though this is all we can hear of a far-off cry for mercy raised unceasingly from generation to generation.  The theme of the fugato is the most striking of the anticipations of the Grande Messe des Morts in the Messe Solennelle of 1824. 

Here is the beginning of the Kyrie of the Messe Solennelle.  The fourteen bar theme is already complete, with its side-slip into E flat and [its tone in] octaves on the off-beat.

   [Music plays]

Everybody thought that work had been destroyed, and I think when Berlioz decided to disown it, he destroyed all the performing materials.  There was no way that the piece could be performed, and he gave the score to a violinist friend of his who had played in some of his concerts in the 1830s for nothing and had then gone off to Antwerp in Belgium.  In 1991, the year of the Mozart bicentenary, a man called Mr Moores was looking in the organ loft of a church in Antwerp for some Mozart music and he pulled this out.  It was the autographed score of the Mass, and so we were able to note that this theme, which we are now going to hear in the Offertory, was complete, already there, but he changes it from three-four to common time, and with this much richer orchestral texture, it becomes something quite different, contemplative, quiet, not anxious, or not so anxious.  This was the movement that Schumann when he heard it conducted by Berlioz in either Dresden or Leipzig, I cannot remember which, was absolutely thrilled by it and said is surpasses everything.

   [Music plays]

That tolling octave comes right the way through the work.

Not everything in Berlioz's Requiem is a breach of orthodoxy.  The contrast, the infinite distance between the grandeur of god and the pathetic littleness of human beings, which is fundamental to the liturgical text, is a constant principle governing the musical setting, both between movements and within them.  Throughout the work, intimate, contemplative movements alternate with those that are grand and powerfully scored.  As we heard, the tumult of the Tuba Mirum sinks to a whisper which is intensified in the next number, the Quid Sum Miser, scored, as we heard, for a handful of instruments and evoking sinful mankind in the stand aftermath of judgment, alone in an empty universe.  I say 'mankind', not humankind, because I think I am allowed to in this instance as it is only tenors and bases who sing in the chorus.

The Rex Tremendae shows the principle operating within a single movement.  Now, the effect of the verbal changes I mentioned is reinforced in the musical setting.  After the opening affirmation of the awesome grandeur of god, the plea for salvation begins confidently, then grows more and more agitated - the tempo increases, the entries overlap, the chorus, terrified by the prospect of divine wrath, fail to complete the phrase, itself an importation from later in the Mass, because they cannot utter the final words 'among the blessed.'  The struggling, shouting mob fall silent, staring into the bottomless lake.  The words soto voce stammered over a long still double bass note, 'Et de profundo laco', and the last word, 'laco', emphasised by cavernous horn, bassoon and clarinet octaves.  When Quid salvandos salvas gratis returns, it soon gives way to a piteous 'save me' on a single line, answered by Rex Tremendae, this time in full pomp, with the brass and drums held back till now, and then with the pleading Salva me emerging three times in a dramatic pianissimo, each time differently harmonised and more abject.

We'll just hear a bit of the second half of the movement.

   [Music plays]

As we heard just now, the Rex Tremendae features the huge armory of brass and percussion for which the Grande Messe des Morts is notorious.  If we knew the similar works written thirty years or more earlier by Lesueur and others, and some of them actually using larger forces than the Grande Messe des Morts, we would never think of Berlioz's apocalyptic armory as peculiar to him, let alone characteristically extravagant.  What is characteristic, paradoxically, is the restraint with which he uses it.  Once he has portrayed the awesome upheaval of judgment day, the blaze of sound in E Flat Major, which is the antithesis of the bare textures and modally flavoured A Minor of the Dies Irae.  Once that has happened, the brass and drums are used sparingly.  They enter towards the end of the Rex Tremendae, as we just heard.  They make a truly apocalyptic effect in the latter stages of the Lacrymosa, and the drums conclude the whole work, beating out a long retreat.  Otherwise, there are just the cornets and ophicleides added in the reprise or the Hosanna, and the trombone pedal notes in the Hostias, another notorious passage, where the trombones are answered by flutes high above and in between.  You sense this huge pulsating space separating hell and heaven, a piece of scoring which was pilloried in Forsyth's book on orchestration, where he said he had not heard it, but it probably sounded pretty horrible, to which Gordon Jacobs, in his edition of the book, added 'I have and it does.'  But in the resonant acoustic for which the Grande Messe was written, it sounds wonderful.  I hope you will agree with that this evening.

Now, the function of the four brass groups, in any case, is less spectacular than architectural.  The grandeur of the Requiem is not significantly due to them.  It is inherent in the whole style of the music, and the sensational effect of the brass is due precisely to the contrast their use, their sparing use, makes with the austere texture of the music as a whole.  Most of the time, the horns of the main orchestra are the only brass instruments to offset the bleak, mourning sound of the very large woodwind choir.  Theirs is the sonority that, above all, gives the Grande Messe its tragic, poignant character, its austerity, and its feeling of immense antiquity - what one writer has called 'the sense as though some vates of a Mediterranean folk were come in a rapt and lofty mood to offer sacrifice to pacify the living, to celebrate with fitting rites the unnumbered multitudes of the heroic dead.'

I mentioned the gleam of hope at the conclusion of the Offertorium.  There are others here and there, but the prevailing tone is tragic.  Through all the contrasts of form and mood, the idea of humanity's wonder and bafflement before the enigma of death is what the work enshrines, not least in its final pages, humanity striving out of its terror of extinction to create a meaningful universe and a merciful god.   That is certainly not orthodox, but it is visionary.

The final note of the work is perhaps one of compassion, of pity for the torment of human life, but also I think of resignation, of acceptance.  To quote Edward Cohn again: 'The ending draws the work together and furnishes a final response to the initial questioning gesture of the entire Requiem' - those sombre phrases we heard rising from the depths of G Minor, with added C Sharp and surrounded by silences that I played at the beginning of this talk.

So here, to conclude, are the final few minutes of the work.

   [Music plays]

 

 

©David Cairns, Gresham College, 12 July 2007