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RODERIC DUNNETT writes about Berlioz' Grande Messe des Morts


The l999 Canterbury Festival draws to a rousing close this weekend with two performances of Berlioz's massive Grande Messe des Morts (Requiem, l837), given by the Canterbury Choral Society, together with the Royal Choral Society and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, under the baton of Richard Cooke.The performances are on Saturday 30th October at 7.30 in Canterbury Cathedral (a sell-out), and on Sunday 31st at 7.30 in the Royal Albert Hall (for which some tickets are still available : +44 (0)171-589-8212).  

The Canterbury Choral Society and Richard Cooke. Reproduced with the permission of Canterbury Choral Society.
The Canterbury Choral Society and Richard Cooke.

Recent Canterbury Choral Society concerts have included widely praised performances of Dvorak's Stabat Mater, Beethoven's Missa Solemnis and Britten's Spring Symphony, in addition to another Berlioz marathon, his La Damnation de Faust, with Brian Bannatyne-Scott (currently Longborough Festival Opera's resident Wotan in Wagner's Rheingold and Walküre) in superb form as Mephistophélés. Brahms's Requiem (lst April) and Mozart's C minor mass (24 June) follow in the new year (+44 (0)1227-455600).  

But this weekend's two events will involve some of the largest forces amassed in recent years.

Berlioz (l803-69) composed his Grande Messe des Morts in his mid-thirties, with the success of the Symphonie Fantastique already behind him and Benvenuto Cellini (l838) and Romeo and Juliet (1839) on the way. He once declared that if all but one of his works were to perish, he would be content for his reputation to rest on the Requiem alone.

Behind it is the idea of 'la Gloire' : the Requiem was a State commission, originally proposed to honour the dead of the l830 insurrection, although in fact composed in the mid-l830s and first heard later that decade at an elaborate ceremony staged in the chapel of Les Invalides to commemorate a Napoleonic commander who perished in the recent Algerian campaign.

Berlioz recalls in his memoirs the jealousies, intrigues, arguments and resignations that surrounded its first performance - not least the fact that he was forced to bow to tradition and allow M.Habeneck, who held the ancient office of 'premier violon de la musique du roy', and was a man with whom the 34 year old composer had been known to cross swords before - to conduct. Berlioz himself was let loose on one rehearsal.

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Copyright © Roderic Dunnett, October 28th 1999


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