Berlioz' Requiem First Performed

A requiem is a mass for the dead. Many composers have set the ceremony's solemn text to music. Among the most famous requiems are those of Mozart (unfinished at his death), Giuseppi Verdi, Gabriel Faure and Maurice Durufle. (Brahm's beautiful German Requiem must be categorized separately, for it is based on Bible selections rather than on the Catholic liturgy. John Rutter's lovely 20th-century work supplements the Latin text with English-language scripture passages.)

One of the most famous requiems was composed by Hector Berlioz--his Grande Messe des Morts. It is a work of deep feeling and drama. The work almost didn't get written because of political intrigue which threatened to undercut a promised commission, but finally Berlioz obtained the desired governmental decree.

The composer made little place for religion in his life but appreciated the dramatic possibilities of its ritual. He saw the requiem as a wonderful chance to compose a powerful dramatic piece. "I had so longed to try my hand at a requiem that I flung myself into it body and soul," he wrote in his memoirs. "My head seemed bursting with a ferment of ideas and I actually had to invent a sort of musical shorthand to get on fast enough." And indeed, his requiem overflows with powerful and original musical ideas, conveying an overall impression of sadness as well as the thrill and terror of judgment day.

Berlioz' work begins quietly mournful as the performers sing (in Latin): "Grant them eternal rest, O Lord, and may perpetual light shine on them." (See note below on "prayer for the dead.") Throughout, he rearranged the words of the mass for musical effect. His work concludes with drum taps.

His enemies continued their attempts to sabotage him. Berlioz did not help his cause with his anger and arrogance. However, the death of General Damremont and other soldiers in a siege in Algeria prompted officials to summon the composer to perform his work in their honor. According to Berlioz, Cherubini fought to have his own Requiem substituted, but a friendly official stood by Berlioz. Nevertheless, through political manipulations, the premiere performance went to Habeneck, an enemy conductor.

Fearing that Habeneck would attempt to sabotage the performance, Berlioz insisted on conducting at least one rehearsal himself. During the performance, which took place on this day, December 5, 1837, in a soldier's church in Paris, he stood near Habeneck.

The most dramatic moment of Berlioz' entire masterpiece is the moment when the "Dies Irae" (day of wrath) gives way to the blaring brass of the "Tuba Mirum." Berlioz wrote, "There are about a thousand bars in my Requiem; will it be believed that at this--the most important of all--Habeneck calmly laid down his baton and, with the utmost deliberation, took a pinch of snuff.

"But my eyes were upon him; turning on my heel, in a flash I stretched out my arm and marked the four mighty beats. The executants followed me, all went right, and my long-dreamed-of effect was a magnificent triumph." Berlioz conducted the remainder of the lengthy work.

Many in the audience wept, overwhelmed by the majestic and haunting chords. Even the critics, long Berlioz' enemies, were impressed. To this day, it remains one of the most powerful pieces of music ever written. For over twenty years it has been one of my personal favorites.

Afterward the negligent conductor spoke. As Berlioz told it: "'Dear me," bleated Habeneck, "I was quite in a perspiration; without you, we should have been done for.'" As for Berlioz, he had to hound the military for months in order to obtain the money with which to pay the performers.

Theological Note on the "Prayer for the Dead"
From a charitable perspective, the “prayer for the dead” (traditional Latin text and translation below) could be viewed simply as an expression of the mourner’s highest hopes and loving regard for the deceased. This view charitably regards a prayer for the dead as similar to that Irish blessing “May the road rise up to meet you. May the wind always be at your back...” etc. However, it would appear that Roman Catholics have historically believed and continue to believe that prayers for the dead can and do alter the eternal destiny of the deceased. Scripture emphasizes that, for salvation, one must be spiritually born again (John 3:3) by personally trusting Christ during one’s earthly life (e.g. John 3:18, Hebrews 9:27).

Requiem aeternam dona eis Domine, et lux perpetua luceat eis. Requiescant in pace. Amen.
(Eternal rest grant to them O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them. May they rest in peace. Amen.)

 

Bibliography:

  1. Berlioz, Hector. Life of Hector Berlioz as Written by Himself in His Letters and Memoirs; translated with introduction by Katherine F. Boult. London and Toronto: E. P. Dutton, Everyman's Library, 1923.
  2. Berlioz, Hector. requiem/symphonie funebre et triomphale. Colin Davis and the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. Philips. Many fine recordings of this work are available.
  3. "Berlioz Requiem." http://web.ukonline.co.uk/wokingchoral/ Berlioz%20programme%20notes.htm
  4. Various encyclopedia and internet articles.

Last updated December, 2012 (alex crain, editor, Christianity.com).