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Berlioz wrote his Requiem with a specific space in mind – the cathedral of St. Louis des Invalides in Paris. The cathedral was built as part of the Invalides, a hospital for disabled army veterans designed by Libéral Bruant and completed in 1677. The cathedral’s vaulted nave, with galleries above its side aisles, presented an acoustical challenge to Berlioz, and its size encouraged him to use massive performing forces. He took a “measure the medicine to the man” sort of attitude to the size of his orchestras and choruses with respect to performance space, an attitude born of a disappointing experience at St. Peter’s in Rome. During his stay in Italy, he went there expecting to hear a chorus of thousands, voices uplifted in the praise of God, supported by a thundering organ, but instead encountered an 18-voice choir and a chamber organ on wheels.

He made no such mistake in his Requiem, which deployed 188 instrumentalists and 210 choristers to St. Louis des Invalides for its first performance December 5, 1837. In a footnote in the published score, Berlioz wrote that those numbers were only relative; if space permitted or required, the chorus and orchestra could be doubled or tripled. He was concerned in all of his music that the performing forces and the music itself fit the performance space, but this concern was especially important in what he called his “architectural works”: the Funeral and Triumphal Symphony, the Te Deum, the cantata L’impériale, and the Requiem. In his Memoirs, Berlioz wrote, “In connection with the Requiem it is worth mentioning a field which I have been almost the only modern composer to cultivate, and of which the old masters did not envision the possibility. I refer to those enormous compositions which certain critics have designated by the name of architectural or monumental music, and which made the German poet Heine call me a ‘colossal nightingale, a lark the size of an eagle, such as existed, we are told, in the primordial world’.”

In the Requiem, Berlioz wanted to create a profound communal experience, “mankind gathered together on the last day,” he once wrote, one by which the listener would be “shaken to the depths of his soul.” The audience had to feel the sound – something 400-plus performers would accomplish – but there were other concerns to be addressed in the Requiem as well.

The resonance of a space as massive as St. Louis des Invalides had to be dealt with, and Berlioz did this in several ways. He wrote silences into his score, something we hear immediately, as the solemn tread of strings, winds, and horns at the Requiem’s opening halts long enough to re-emerge from total quiet each time it begins again. Certain voices emerge from the choral and orchestral texture at specific moments; for example, the contrast between the cumulative wash of sound of the opening “Requiem aeternam” and the sharply etched “Kyrie,” with the chorus exposed, skillfully reflects the arc of the text from communal, comforting prayer to impassioned outcry. The majestic progress of the work, both in terms of tempo and harmony, may also have been a response to the resonant acoustic. In discussing the Requiem and his other works of “architectural” music, Berlioz pointed to these characteristics, singling out “the breadth of style” and “the formidably slow and deliberate pace of certain progressions” as being responsible for the works’ “‘gigantic’ character and ‘colossal’ aspect.”

A work of such monumental proportions was only fitting, considering its original purpose. The Requiem was commissioned by the French government to mark King Louis-Philippe’s survival of an assassination attempt, but the work was replaced at those celebrations after a series of intrigues. The eventual premiere took place during another public occasion, a memorial ceremony for a French general who had died during the capture of the Algerian city of Constantine in October 1837. With this in mind, the Requiem should be thought of not only as a mass for the dead, with the mourning tone that function implies, but also as a celebration of the glory of the French nation, an aspect underlined both by the stately pace of the music and the number of performers involved.

The Requiem’s premiere was probably the greatest success of Berlioz’ career, at least in Paris, whose inhabitants were singularly unable to recognize the genius in their midst. He wrote to his father two days after the performance, “We too captured Constantine the day before yesterday, the Constantine of music!… Since yesterday I’ve received I don’t know how many letters of congratulation; I can’t possibly describe to you how excited all my friends are. There’s no question but that [the Requiem] made an extraordinary impact. In the movement describing the Last Judgment, one of the chorus had a nervous seizure and the curé burst into tears at the altar. The good fellow was still crying in the sacristy a quarter of an hour after the performance. The current topic of conversation in all the places where music is discussed is whether my Requiem is or is not superior to all those that are generally known; it seems that out of every hundred artists there are nearly ninety who come down on the side of the affirmative.”

It’s easy to hear why the Requiem was such a success. In the work, Berlioz falls back on both his kaleidoscopic knowledge of French sacred music and his sure-fire dramatic instincts. His only real teacher was Jean-François Le Sueur (1760-1837), who had been a leading composer since the days of the Revolution, mainly because of his large-scale works for public festivals, including one performed at Les Invalides by four orchestras and four choirs. Berlioz also absorbed the lessons of the Opéra, where he spent most of his nights either transfixed by the raptures of Gluck or heckling performers for desecrating masterpieces by Mozart. These two strains, the spiritual and the dramatic, combine in the Requiem, and the result is a work of hypnotic power and overwhelming cumulative impact.

Like a librettist, Berlioz “assembled” the text of the Requiem, rewriting and reordering it to conform to his own dramatic vision. The resulting work is in ten sections. Broadly speaking, these alternate between meditative introspection and dramatic, celebratory extroversion. But even in the more inward movements, Berlioz the dramatist surfaces from time to time, as in the “Requiem aeternam,” when luminous D major bursts through the grave, minor-key atmosphere at the word “luceat.”

The work’s greatest dramatic stroke comes in the “Dies irae,” when four brass bands positioned antiphonally sound the last trump. Berlioz intended the effect to immerse the audience in his musical vision of the Day of Judgment; the thundering entry of timpani at this point is truly overwhelming, surely an example of the composer shaking his listeners to the depths of their souls. In the bleak “Quid sum miser” that follows, Berlioz captures the disoriented shock of the faithful in music marked to be sung “with an expression indicating humility and fear.”

The work is filled with similarly ingenious moments – the hushed utterances of “Jesu, Jesu” and “salva me” that contrast with the grandeur of their surroundings in the “Rex tremendae,” the meditative qualities of the “Quarens me” and the “Offertorium,” the latter’s repetition emphasizing the perpetual prayer of the soul in Purgatory, the grim swing of the “Lacrymosa,” or the stark drama of the “Hostias,” with its expansive flute and trombone chords.

The concluding “Agnus dei” opens with a series of antiphonal effects in the orchestra, first between winds and strings, and then, after the initial choral “Agnus dei,” the return of the trombone and flute chord from the “Hostias.” This return marks the first of many in the movement, which also echoes portions of the opening “Requiem aeternam” and of the “Rex tremendae.” The Requiem closes with the chorus’ “Amen”s shrouded in radiant strings, supported by winds, as well as trombones and tubas from the four brass ensembles, and punctuated by solemn drumbeats, a serene conclusion to the gripping spiritual drama of Berlioz’ musical vision of the apocalypse.

Notes by John Mangum