Berlioz's Requiem

by Camille Saint-Saens

BerliozThe reading of the score of Berlioz’s Requiem makes it appear singularly old-fashioned, but this is true of most of the romantic dramas, which, like the Requiem, show up better in actual performance.  It is easy to rail at the vehemence of the Romanticists, but it is not so easy to equal the effect of Hernani, Lucrece Borgia and the Symphonie fantastique on the public. For with all their faults these works had a marvellous success. The truth is that their vehemence was sincere and not artificial. The Romanticists had faith in their works and there is nothing like faith to produce lasting results.

Reicha and Leuseur were, as we know, Berlioz’s instructors. Leuseur was the author of numerous works and wrote a good deal of church music. Some of his religious works were really beautiful, but he had strange obsessions. Berlioz greatly admired his master and could not help showing, especially in his earlier works, traces of this admiration.  That is the reason for the syncopated and jerky passages without rhyme or reason and which can only be explained by his unconscious imitation of Leuseur’s faults. In imitating a model the resemblances occur in the faults and not in the excellences, for the latter are inimitable. So the excellences of the Requiem are not due to Leuseur but to Berlioz. He had already thrown off the trammels of school and shown all the richness of his vigorous originality to which the value of his scores is due.

In his Memoirs Berlioz related the tribulations of his Requiem. It was ordered by the government, laid aside for a time, and, finally, performed at the Invalides on the occasion of the capture of Constantine (in Algeria) and the funeral services of General Damremont. He was astonished at the lack of sympathy and even actual hostility that he encountered. It would have been more astonishing if he had experienced anything else.

We must remember that at this time Berton, who sang Quand on est toujours vertuex, on aime a voir lever l’aurore, passed for a great man. Beethoven’s symphonies were a novelty, in Paris at least, and a scandal. Haydn’s symphonies inspired a critic to write, “What a noise, what a noise!” Orchestras were merely collections of thirty or forty musicians.

We can imagine, therefore, the stupefaction and horror when a young man, freshly out of school, demanded fifty violins, twenty violas, twenty violoncellos, eighteen contrabasses, four flutes, four oboes, four clarinets, eight bassoons, twelve horns, and a chorus of two hundred voices as a minimum. And that is not all. The Tuba Mirum necessitates an addition of thirty-eight trumpets and trombones, divided into four orchestras and placed at the four cardinal points of the compass.  Besides, there have to be eight pairs of drums, played by ten drummers, four tam-tams, and ten cymbals.

The story of this array of drums is rather interesting. Reicha, Berlioz’s first teacher, had the original idea of playing drum taps in chords of three or four beats. In order to try out this effect, he composed a choral piece, L’Harmonie des Spheres, which was published in connection with his Traite d’Harmonie. But Reicha’s genius did not suffice for this task. He was a good musician, but no more than that.  His choral piece was insignificant and remained a dead letter. Berlioz took this lost effect and used it in his Tuba Mirum.

However, it must be confessed that this effect does not come up to expectations. In a church or a concert hall we hear a confused and terrifying mingling of sounds, and from time to time we note a change in the depth of tone but we are unable to distinguish the pitch of the chords.

I shall never forget the impression this Tuba Mirum made on me when I first heard it at St. Eustache under Berlioz’s own direction. It amounted to an absolute neglect of the author’s directions. The beginning of the work is marked moderato, later, as the brass comes in, the movement is quickened and becomes andante maestro. Most of the time the moderato was interpreted as an allegro, and the andante maestro as a simple moderato. If the terrific fanfare did not become, as some one ventured to call it, a “Setting Out for the Hunt,” it might well have been the accompaniment for a sovereign’s entrance to his capital. In order to give this fanfare its grandiose character, the author did not take easy refuge in the wailings of a minor key, but he burst into the splendors of a major key. A certain grandeur of movement alone can preserve its gigantesque quality and impression of power.

Granting all his good intentions, in trying to give us a suggestion of the last judgment by his accumulation of brass, drums, cymbals, and tam-tams, Berlioz makes us think of Thor among the giants trying to empty the drinking-horn which was filled from the sea, and only succeeding in lowering it a little. Yet even that was an accomplishment.

Berlioz spoke scornfully of Mozart’s Tuba Mirum with its single trombone. “One trombone,” he exclaimed, “when a hundred would be none too many!” Berlioz wanted to make us really hear the trumpets of the archangels. Mozart with the seven notes of his one trombone suggested the same idea and the suggestion is sufficient.

We must not forget, however, that here we are in the midst of a world of romanticism, in a world of color and picturesqueness, which could not content itself with so little. And we must remember this fact, if we would not be irritated by the oddities of L’Hostias, with its deep trombone notes which seem to come from the very depths of Hell. There is no use in trying to find out what these notes mean. Berlioz told us himself that he discovered these notes at a time when they were almost unknown and he wanted to use them. The contrast between these terrifying notes and the wailing of the flutes is especially curious. We find nothing analogous to this anywhere else.

The delightful Purgatoire, where the author sees a chorus of souls in Purgatory, is much better. His Purgatory has no punishments nor any griefs save the awaiting, the long and painful awaiting, of eternal happiness. There is a processional in which the fugue and melody alternate in the most felicitous manner. There are sighs and plaints, all haunting in their extreme expressiveness, a great variety beneath an appearance of monotony, and from time to time two wailing notes. These notes are always the same, as the chorus gives them as a plaint, and they are both affecting and artistic. At the end comes a dim ray of light and hope. This is the only one in the work save the Amen at the end, for Faith and Hope should not be looked for here. The supplications sound like prayers which do not expect to be answered. No one would dare to describe this work as profane, but whether it is religious or not is a question. As Boschot has said, what it expresses above all is terror in the presence of annihilation.

When the Requiem was played at the Trocadero, the audience was greatly impressed and filed out slowly. They did not say, “What a masterpiece!” but “What an orchestra leader!” Nowadays people go to see a conductor direct the orchestra just as they go to hear a tenor, and they arrogate to themselves the right to judge the conductors as they do the tenors.  But what a fine sport it is! The qualities of an orchestra conductor which the public appreciates are his elegance, his gestures, his precision, and the expressiveness of his mimicry, all of which are more often directed at the audience than at the orchestra. But all these things are of secondary consideration. What makes up an orchestra conductor’s worth are the excellence of execution he obtains from the musicians and the perfect interpretation of the author’s meaning—which the audience does not understand. If such an important detail as the author’s meaning is obscured and slighted, if a work is disfigured by absurd movements and by an expression which is entirely different from what the author wanted, the public may be dazzled and an execrable conductor, provided his poses are good, may fascinate his audience and be praised to the skies.

Formerly the conductor never saluted his audience. The understanding was that the work and not the conductor was applauded. The Italians and Germans changed all that. Lamoureux was the first to introduce this exotic custom in France. The public was a little surprised at first, but they soon got used to it. In Italy the conductor comes on the stage with the artists to salute the audience. There is nothing more laughable than to see him, as the last note of an opera dies away, jump down from his stand and run like mad to reach the stage in time.

The excellence of the work of English choristers has been highly and justly praised. Perhaps it would be fairer not to praise them so unreservedly when we are so severe on our own. Justice often leaves something to be desired. At all events it must be admitted that Berlioz treated the voices in an unfortunate way. Like Beethoven, he made no distinction between a part for a voice and an instrument. While except for a few rare passages it does not fall as low as the atrocities which disfigure the grandiose Mass in D, the vocal part of the Requiem is awkwardly written. Singers are ill at ease in it, for the timbre and regularity of the voice resent such treatment. The tenor’s part is so written that he is to be congratulated on getting through it without any accident, and nothing more can be expected of him.

What a pity it was that Berlioz did not fall in love with an Italian singer instead of an English tragedienne! Cupid might have wrought a miracle. The author of the Requiem would have lost none of his good qualities, but he might have gained, what, for the lack of a better phrase, is called the fingering of the voice, the art of handling it intelligently and making it give without an effort the best effect of which it is capable. But Berlioz had a horror even of the Italian language, musical as that is. As he said in his Memoirs, this aversion hid from him the true worth of Don Juan and Le Nozze di Figaro. One wonders whether he knew that his idol, Gluck, wrote music for Italian texts not only in the case of his first works but also in Orphee and Alceste. And whether he knew that the aria ”O malheureuse Iphigenie” was an Italian song badly translated into French. Perhaps he was ignorant of all this in his youth for Berlioz was a genius, not a scholar.

The word genius tells the whole story. Berlioz wrote badly. He maltreated voices and sometimes permitted himself the strangest freaks.  Nevertheless he is one of the commanding figures of musical art. His great works remind us of the Alps with their forests, glaciers, sunlight, waterfalls and chasms. There are people who do not like the Alps. So much the worse for them.



Original text by Camille Saint-Saens, translated by Edwin Gile Rich [1919], edited and revised by D. J. McAdam - this text © 2005.  Please note: all applicable material on this website is protected by law and may not be copied without express written permission. 


Daniel McAdam Guide to Classical Music