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

by 5:4

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!

By a happy twist of fate, i now possess the actual copy of the CD that i listened to all those years ago, a CD that for a long time was sadly out of print but has subsequently been repackaged with Fauré’s Requiem. The recording (Louis Fremaux conducting the CBSO and CBSO Chorus) dates from the mid-70s, and lacks just a hint of clarity at times, but is enormously exciting nonetheless. The two choir-only sections, ‘Quid sum miser’ and ‘Quaerens me’, sound strikingly delicate and intimate amidst so much mayhem. and there is much mayhem here; the transition from the ‘Dies irae’ to the ‘Tuba mirum’ (which Verdi could only fail to imitate in his Requiem) is one of the great moments of western music, as the four brass bands (presenting a 19th century form of surround sound) give way to all 16 timpani, pounding out chords that inflict the “day of wrath” in shattering fashion. The ‘Offertorium’ is one of the most beautiful tracts of choral writing (Schumann adored it), the choir given a mere two notes, between which they humbly oscillate while the orchestra evolves around them; another example of Berlioz’ amazing restraint. The ‘Sanctus’, the only part to feature a soloist, is a vision of heaven so coruscating that Dante would have been proud; the ‘Hosanna in excelsis’ fugato that concludes it is utterly moving (i still cry every time i hear it). 16 years ago i had wanted to hear something new; and even now, each time i listen to this i still hear something new. Over 170 years after its première, Berlioz’ Grande messe des morts still sounds as radically sobering and uplifting as ever. Let Passiontide commence.

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I am surprised he is still singing! He is in his, oh, mid-sixties, perhaps nearer 70. I always liked his voice but while I shall always be grateful for his help I have to say that I always thought he was rather too full of the joys of being Robert Tear.


Hi, i hope you like the Berlioz; it’ll be clear how much i love the work. i heard Robert Tear some time last year (a broadcast on TV); not sure how long ago the performance was, but his voice didn’t appear to have aged very well. But here, in the Sanctus, he’s marvellous!


Sorry to read about the headache.


I am delighted to have this, thank you! When I saw it on classical_share I thought “Oh, interesting. I don’t know this work and should get 5/4 to tell me something about it. Then I came here and voilà! I am looking forward to hearing this later this evening (I am about to go to a piano recital b y Michael Roll and then a symphony concert tonight (Tschaikovsky4 and Stravinsky Violin Concerto).By the way, Robert Tear was a friend of mine(and vocal coach) in the ’70’s.

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