“I had difficulty controlling my ideas; at first the form of the Dies irae so intoxicated and excited me that nothing lucid came to me. My head boiled, I felt dizzy. My brain felt it would explode with the pressure of ideas. The outline of one piece was barely sketched before the next formed itself in my mind.” Seized by an intense creative frenzy, Hector Berlioz managed to find time to write these impassioned words to his sister, Adele, shortly after beginning his Requiem. Berlioz had been commissioned by the Compte de Gasparin, the French Minister of the Interior, to compose this work early in 1837, and it was to be performed each year thereafter to commemorate the Revolution of 1830.
On May 22, the composer told Liszt that the Requiem was complete. In July, the autograph score was signed, parts were copied, and rehearsals were begun. Unfortunately, a few days before the performance, everything was canceled due to massive scheduling problems. To make matters worse, since there was no performance, the government defaulted on the commission fee, and Berlioz took a huge financial loss. He unsuccessfully appealed the government’s decision to default and was soon sent into a despondent depression over the whole affair.
In a short time, however, a new performance opportunity presented itself. During the French assault on Constantinople in October of 1837, General Charles Denys de Damrémont was killed. Berlioz suggested that his recently commissioned and completed Requiem be used for the funeral service, and the French government agreed. On December 5, the first performance took place before a distinguished audience in the Church of the Invalides.
The morning of the premiere, Alfred de Vigny noted in his journal, “This morning Berlioz’ Requiem Mass was presented for the funeral of General Damrémont. The church looked extremely beautiful, in the distance under the cupola three long shafts of light fell on the raised catafalque and made the crystal lustres shine with an unusual brilliance. The music was beautiful and strange, wild, convulsively throbbing and heart rending.” The majority of the Paris press was favorably impressed, often giving full reports and lavish praise.
This monumental Requiem is famous for its grandiose and spectacular dimensions. It is scored for an extremely large chorus and orchestra, and six pairs of timpani. In his memoirs, Berlioz described the effect when this massive ensemble was unleashed in the Tuba mirum. “The priest of the Invalides wept at the altar, and a quarter-hour after the ceremony he embraced me in the sacristy and burst into tears. At the moment of the Last Judgment, the feeling of terror produced by the five orchestras and timpani cannot be described. One of the lady singers had a nervous attack. It was indeed of a terrifying grandeur.”
Although the Berlioz Requiem contains music of the most lavish grandeur, it also expresses the composer’s deeply felt ideas about humankind’s weakness and vulnerability. Many of the movements are of heart-rending beauty and are scored with the most intimate instrumental combinations. The effect of the English horn, strings, and tenor section in the Quid sum miser is unforgettable. The miraculous Hostias depicts the great gulf between God and humankind with its impossibly high flutes set over the cavernous trombone pedal tones. The Sanctus gives us a shimmering vision of the angelic host, followed by a sublime Hosanna that expresses a feeling of spiritual resolution and peace.
Although Berlioz was the quintessential Romantic, he was a French Romantic, the antithesis of his German counterpart. The German Romantic strives to resolve the duality between God and humankind by finding God in all things. Death is not a final annihilation, but a preparation for a higher and purer life. Conversely, Berlioz and his Romantic followers have an external view of the world. They try to erase this duality between God and humankind and exalt the human condition toward a glorious life we might find on earth. Berlioz feared death and dreaded its unknown terrors since it finally limited his exalted vision of life.
Throughout his life, Berlioz suffered from what he called a “disease of isolation” and spiritual loneliness. Although he was a confirmed and outspoken atheist, his most important works are religious, often moving priests to tears when performed in liturgical services. Perhaps he practiced Coleridge’s “willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith.” Perhaps he was torn between his father’s own agnosticism and his mother’s devout Catholicism. Berlioz was greatly influenced by Chateaubriand as a young man, and perhaps this famous poet, novelist, and popular theologian was describing Berlioz when he wrote, “He who believes nothing is not far from believing everything; you have conjurors when you cease to have prophets, enchantments when you renounce religious ceremonies.”
None other than W.H. Auden has written that “in order to understand the nineteenth century, it is essential to understand Berlioz.” This journey toward understanding is endlessly fascinating and filled with enigma and paradox. Since his death, many distinguished musicologists have pondered these mysteries, but the final answers are found in the composer’s greatest scores. This Requiem held a special place in the composer’s output. Two years before his death, he wrote, “If I was threatened with the destruction of all my scores save one, it is the Requiem that I would ask to be spared.”