Hector Berlioz

Hector Berlioz – Grande messe des morts

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Today’s work in my ongoing series on the subject of death is not contemporary, not in the least, but is one which nonetheless still sounds as vital and as daring as it did when it was premièred 177 years ago. The Grande messe des morts was Hector Berlioz‘s epic response to a commission to write a setting of the requiem mass in commemoration of soldiers who had perished in the 1830 French Revolution. Despite being only his fifth published work, the key word in its title is ‘grande’, as it utilises forces on a scale unprecedented in 1837 and almost never equalled since. Berlioz’s orchestral line-up is huge enough by itself, including 8 bassoons, 12 horns, 16 timpani, 10 cymbals, 4 tamtams, and a string section of 108, but this is expanded further with four separate off-stage brass brands (38 extra players) distributed around the performance space; the addition of a choir numbering at least 200 makes for an assembly of performers rather mind-boggling to imagine. And imagine is what most people have to do with this piece; i was fortunate to experience a performance in The Hague many years ago, but for obvious reasons the Grande messe des morts for the most part remains an under-performed curiosity, famous more for its gargantuan size than for the music itself. Read more

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Mix Tape #10 : Melancholia

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Lent—’tis the season to be dolorous, and so the tenth 5:4 mix tape has melancholia as its theme. Both songs and instrumental music are included, taken from a diverse selection of artists and composers.

It begins with the opening of one of the best of William Basinski‘s Disintegration Loops, “d|p 3”. While as a whole these albums constitute a thoroughly over-egged pudding, this track conjures up a rather wistful sort of atmosphere, like a sad sunset. The Kilimanjaro Darkjazz Ensemble create fabulous nocturnal music, stylishly flecked with jazz mannerisms. All of Burial‘s work is shaded by melancholy; “Night Bus” is one of his shortest tracks, bereft of beats, its melody etching out the contours of a furrowed brow. Biosphere seems to capture remoteness in his work better than most, and “Poa Alpina” (from the remarkable Substrata album) is infused with this, underpinned by a deep bass that makes the music sound, literally, heavy. Fellow Norwegian Deathprod ploughs even darker troughs, and “Dead People’s Things” is like music from the end of time, postdiluvian, exhausted, its haunting melody falteringly singing surrounded by ruins. Perennial favourite of mine, Andrew Liles, has produced nothing so strikingly unusual as his “Concerto for Piano and Reverberation”; i included part of the opening in my Piano mix tape, but felt compelled to include it here as it creates such a black, velvety atmosphere, laden with gravitas. Franz Liszt‘s large-scale sacred work Via Crucis is modelled on the Stations of the Cross; two excerpts from the twelfth are featured here. It explores the moment of Christ’s death, beginning with his desperate cry, “Eli, Eli, lama sabacthani” and concluding with a gorgeous setting of the chorale, “O Traurigkeit, O Herzeleid” (which inspired my own setting). Thomas Adès‘ early string quartet, Arcadiana, has “O Albion” as its penultimate movement, and is a poignant comment on a lost world; Adès once described this movement to me as having two “chest pains”, the moments where the harmony shifts so painfully. Read more

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Days of wrath and mourning: Berlioz’ Grande Messe des Morts

Posted on by 5:4 in Miscellaneous, Seasonal | 4 Comments

Passion Sunday, and my thoughts move into more sombre, vermilion territory. Not in a morbid sense but, nonetheless, death unavoidably starts to pervade things from now on. and with it, a return to some music that can accurately be said to have changed my life. At the time i first encountered the work—when the world was very much greener and i was far less purple—i was a floundering music student, sat in a large music studio at lunchtime, wanting to hear something new. The school had a reasonable quantity of recordings, so i worked my way through them over many months, beginning love affairs with many composers’ works. On this occasion, i picked up the Grande Messe des Morts of Hector Berlioz, with little idea of what to expect. As the music unfolded (and this really is music that unfolds), i was utterly drawn into Berlioz’ vision, with all its grandeur, terror and awe-struck beauty.

Composed in 1837, it is one of the most radical, ground-breaking choral works ever written (all the more remarkable that it is only Berlioz’ Op.5!). Its instrumentation is astonishing, including quadruple woodwind (but 8 bassoons!), 12 horns, four separate brass bands placed at the four points of the compass, 4 tam-tams, 10 cymbals (!), 108 strings, and a choir stipulated to be at least 210-strong, but Berlioz writes a footnote on the first page of the score saying “If space permits, the Chorus may be doubled or tripled and the orchestra be proportionately increased”. But if this is massive music, it is not just in terms of its orchestration; emotionally and spiritually too, there is a vastness to the scope of Berlioz’ vision that is unique among settings of the Requiem (a text set to music far too often). These gargantuan forces are only occasionally unleashed en masse (no pun intended); much of the time, Berlioz explores smaller combinations of instruments, demonstrating that while he may be wild, he is far from reckless. At its first performance and for months afterwards, it was a sensation; he even took the piece on tour, playing selections of movements from the Requiem in concerts throughout Europe. From such a large, eclectic group of instruments, Berlioz extracts remarkable sounds and effects, some of which were invented for this piece (e.g. horns playing cuivré). One effect actually caused some controversy; in the ‘Hostias’, he writes a recurring chord played only by 3 very high flutes and 8 trombones playing deep pedal notes; even into the earlier 20th Century, writers of books on orchestration insisted it was unpleasant and shouldn’t be replicated! Read more

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