Composing music in stir the citizenry and to honor France was expected of the better composers, a tradition that extended back at least as flit as the cantatas and marches for the fêtes nationales of the years following 1789. ("The nation has the right," Berlioz wrote in regard to one last-minute request, "to ask of each of its children an absolute commitment. And so I said to myself, Allons, enfant de Ia patrie!") A significant portion of Berliozs œuvre, indeed, consists of patriotic music of one sort or another composed either for a specific national occasion ot lot note general service in his concert repertoire. Not all his contributions in this idiom retain the meaning or sense of purpose they had in his day: the Napoleonic cantata Le CinqMai (1835), the Hymne à la France (1844), a Chant des chemins de fer for the inauguration of the Paris-Brussels railroad line (1846), and a Second Empire cantata, LImpériale (1854), that figured prominently in the closing formalities of the Festival de l'Industrie of 1855--these today seem mostly curiosities. Three of Berliozs ceremonial works are, however, to be numbered among his masterpieces: the Requiem, or Grande Messe des morts, of 1837; the Grande Symphonic funèbre et triomphale of 1840, his fourth and last symphony; and Te Deum of 1848-55, which Berlioz was fond of characterizing as a younger sibling of the Requiem. The Te Deum, born of thoughts about the pipe organ and memories of the Russian chapel choir and a massed childrens chorus at St. Pauls in London, never quite found its proper occasion and was performed but a single time during Berliozs life. Both the Requiem and the Symponie funèbre, by contrast, had certain purpose; both, as it happens, grew from the custom of commemorating the July Days.
The central image of the Requiem is the clangor tuba rum of the Day of Judgement, where four brass choirs provide the apocalyptic fanfares as agonized cries of humankind well forth from the thunder of timpani. This effect had first occurred to Berlioz (albeit in rather tamer fashion) as early as 1824, when he composed the Et Resurrexit of his Mass for chorus and orchestra a work he later, for the most part, destroyed. Similar thoughts came to him in mid-1835 as he began to draft plans for a colossal third symphony in seven movements tentatively titled Fête musicale funèbre and doubtless meant to incorporate remnants of the abandoned mass as well as ideas for a military symphony that had occurred to him when in 1832, returning to France from Rome, he imagined himself one with the victors of Napoleons Italian campaign. No fête musicale took place in the 1835-36 season, and whatever sketches and drafts there may have been were put aside pending the development of more appropriate circumstances.
What did take place that summer was an assault on the government from an unforeseen and remarkable source. On 28 July 1835 the Corsican anarchist Giuseppe-Maria Fieschi and his accomplices fired their "infernal machine" upon King Louis-Philippe and his entourage as they progressed through Paris on the first of the holidays celebrating the Trois Glorieuses. Among the 18 killed were the Maréchal de France Edouard-Adolphe Mortier, the kings commander-in-chief (Louis-Philippe, slightly wounded but in full control of the royal sangfroid, commanded "Messieurs, continuons.") A national commemoration would, once things were calmer and the assassins tried and guillotined, be necessary~
So it was that during an interview in early March 1837 the minister of the Interior, Count Adrien de Gasparin, suddenly proposed to Berlioz the commission of a Requiem mass for Mortier and Fieschis other victims: something reminiscent of the grand style of the 1790s, to be ready for the forthcoming July holidays and given at the church of St. Louis des Invalides. Berlioz retained his composure long enough to require five or six hundred musicians, then went home and succumbed to a period of dizzying intoxication at the prospect. "My brain felt as though it would explode with the pressure of ideas."
He had been given only four months, but his intellectual powers were at their peak and any number of previous ruminations had primed him to meet the challenge. "The outline of one movement," he writes, "was barely sketched before the next formed itself in my mind. It was impossible to write fast enough." He reveled in the composition of the Tuba mirum, "the moment for tears and gnashing of teeth, where I threw in such a violent stroke of the tam-tam that the whole church quaked." By late May he had the end in sight; the autograph was dated 29 June 1837, leaving a full month for diligent attention to rehearsals and necessary technical arrangements. Among these were having hundreds of chorus parts lithographed, the orchestral parts copied, ordering platforms to accommodate his performing force, finding extra players among the students at the Conservatoire and elsewhere, and of course locating adequate rehearsal space. A chorus rehearsal or two appears to have taken place in the last days of June.
And then, abruptly, the ceremony was canceled. The treasury, it was argued, had been depleted by the expenses of a royal wedding. Both Austria and Russia had complained of the unseemly glorifying of revolution. Berlioz, having like Robinson Crusoe (as he put it) built a canoe too large to launch by himself, was devastated. Moreover, the expenses of copying, lithography, and payment for some of the musicians had already been incurred. The discomfiture was general, with Berlioz scarcely able to meet his household expenses, his creditors unsympathetic, and the ministry acutely embarrassed.
In October 1837, however, news reached Paris of a more pressing occasion for national mourning. Charles, comte de Damrémont and governor-general of Algeria, had fallen during the French siege of Constantine. For his pompes funèbres the coffers of the Ministry of War could be tapped and Berliozs Requiem at last presented--and paid for. The ceremony took place on 5 December 1837 at the Invalides. With Berlioz overseeing the percussion section, François-Antoine Habeneck, royal chapel-master and chef dorchestre of the Société des Concerts, conductor; Gilbert-Louis Duprez, within a few months to be the first Benvenuto Cellini, was tenor soloist. A more eventful first performance it is difficult to imagine. Habeneck indulged his fondness for a pinch of snuff just as the Tuba mirum broke loose, and the composer had to leap to the rescue. Shortly thereafter a member of the chorus swooned. One of the priests burst into tears and had to be led away; the bereaved wept, and through it all the clergy went on chanting their liturgy. Nevertheless Berliozs composition was reckoned by all concerned a magnificent success, and the government made its satisfaction with the proceedings abundantly clear.
The Requiem, published by subscription a few months after the first performance, was the work with which many Europeans first became aware of the look of a Berlioz score. Berlioz went on, however, to refine details of declamation, scoring, and even formal organization, notably in the course of preparing the complete performances of 1846, 1850, and 1852. These changes were incorporated in a second edition of the score offered by Ricordi of Milan in 1853, with a few further refinements in Ricordis reprinting of 1867. Altogether, then, Berlioz was occupied with one aspect or another of his apocalyptic vision--Mass, Fe~te musicale, Requiem and its revisions and publications--for 43 of the 50 years he wrote music. He says in the postscript to his Memoirs that of his own works, he most prefers the love scene from his dramatic symphony Roméo et Juliette, but in 1867 writes with equal passion: "If I were threatened with seeing my entire œuvre burned, less one score, it would be for the Messe des morts that I would beg mercy."
Conscious for years of his heritage in the patriotic music of Gossec,
Méhul, and the others, Berlioz was by the late 1830s in impressive
command of the particulars of what he came to call architectural music:
acoustic phenomena, the deployment of musical armies, the critical issues
of pacing and frame. 'With its four brass choirs, dozen (or two) percussionists,
and extended orchestral and choral forces (the chorus in six parts: soprano
I-II, tenor I-II, and bass I-Il), the Berlioz Requiem can still lay claim
to being among the biggest works in the repertoire. Yet for all the colossalism,
what is most intriguing about the composition is its very finesse. Berlioz
does not hesitate, for example, to rearrange the Latin text where it suits
his dramatic or structural purpose, thus contriving to balance the shattering
movements (Dies irae, Rex tremendae, and Lacrymosa) with those of introspection
and promise (notably the Quaerens me, Offertorium, and Sanctus). The deftness
of his control is clear when the Quid sum miser dissolves and quells the
phrases that had begun the Dies irae, and when (much later) the second
strophe of the Sanctus is gently punctuated by new strokes of the bass
drum and cymbals, pianissimo. One begins to sense, too, the cohesive
power of the many chromatic relationships, such that the undulating A-B-flat
of the chorus in the Offertorium (subtitled on one occasion "Chorus of
Souls in Purgatory"), seems by then strongly thematic. And Berliozs ongoing
interest in how sound operates in its given space is manifest from the
first bars, where the music seems to gather and rise from the venue itself
Each of the great climaxes is given the time and space to echo and clear.
With the chords of trombones and flutes in the Hostias and Agnus Dei, the
ear is drawn from the lowest orchestral register to the highest and back
again. A more symbolic sort of space is at issue in the placement of the
brass choirs around the perimeter of the force (north, east, west, and
south, as specified in the score); this arrangement is particularly compelling
in the Lacrymosa, where thrusts of brass from the compass points seems
to give added momentum to an already grotesque dance of death. In the Agnus
Dei, Berlioz seeks to reconfirm the overall coherence of his Requiem, first
recalling the music of the Hostias, then prominently recapitulating the
"Te decit hymns" from the first movement. The conclusion recalls at "quia
pius es" the "fons pietatis" in the Rex tremendae and, at the last Amens,
the closing bars of the Introit and Kyrie. The timpani choirs, now tame
and assured, have become celestial.