Music and Vision homepage




RODERIC DUNNETT writes about Berlioz' Grande Messe des Morts


 << Continued from page 1 

Richard Cooke, who unites his two successful large choirs, the Royal Choral Society and the Canterbury Choral Society, for this weekend's performances, has no doubt of the work's stature.

'Making a big noise' - involving the use of vast forces, with a breathtaking array of brass and percussion, as well as huge choirs - was certainly not something new. It had become increasingly popular in the period following the Revolution, and was typical of large scale works by the generation of composers Berlioz knew from his youth, such as Cherubini, Spontini, Méhul and Le Sueur.

Yet despite its large forces, Cooke points out, the Grande Messe des Morts is not a bombastic showpiece at all. ' It was actually when Berlioz visited St.Peter's, Rome in 1831 that he became enthused at the idea of using largescale forces to fill large spaces. In the 'ideal' or 'optimum' version he calls for 65 violins, 16 pairs of tympani, 20 horns, 12 bassoons, and so on!

'But for all its brilliant grand moments, it's a beautifully controlled work, and shows evidence, moreover, of a deep sincerity.

'At certain key points Berlioz makes strategic use of very economical forces. Thus he paints a contrast between the Day of Judgement (in the graphic ' Rex Tremendae Maiestatis' of the Dies Irae, where Berlioz calls for four separately placed brass ensembles), and the powerful Lacrymosa (the biggest section of them all) and other more fragile passages. 'Quid sum miser', for instance, he has set as a single unison solo line (chorus tenors, with basses added later), together with solo cor anglais and bassoon, occasionally doubled. The effect of the exposed cor anglais playing so high in its register is amazingly poignant.

'There's a magical moment in the Offertoire ('Domine Jesu Christe') where he makes the choir sing just two notes - an A natural alternating with B flat, like an ostinato - while round it in the orchestra he weaves a contrapuntal web that is pure Berlioz. That particular moment is an orchestrator's dream : it's as if the sun peers through and shines out in a wonderful way - and it's all encompassed in a passage of just twenty bars.

'One is reminded of Beethoven, who wrote at the start of the Sanctus of his Missa Solemnis the words 'mit Andacht' - 'with devotion'.  I almost feel Berlioz could have written the same there.'

When Berlioz wrote the Grande Messe des Morts he was at work on composing his opera Benvenuto Cellini, which he shelved in order to work on the Requiem. And he tells us that for six days his head was spinning, because the ideas just kept tumbling out.

'At first', his diary recalls, 'the ideas of the Dies Irae so intoxicated and excited me that nothing lucid came to me at all - my head boiled, I felt dizzy. Today the eruption is under control, the lava has hollowed out its bed and - God willing - all will go well.'

Those who get seats in Canterbury Cathedral and the Albert Hall this weekend will find out for themselves.


Copyright © Roderic Dunnett, October 28th 1999


Canterbury Festival (returns only, Sat) : +44 (0)1227 455600.
Royal Albert Hall Box Office : +44 (0)171 589 8212.

 << Music & Vision homepage        Wexford Festival Opera >>