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Hector Berlioz (1803-1869)

Grande Messe des morts

Gabrieli Players, NFM Wrocław Philharmonic Orchestra, Paul McCreesh (conductor)
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Label: Signum Classics
Recording details: September 2010
Mary Magdalene Church, Wrocław, Poland
Produced by Nicholas Parker
Engineered by Neil Hutchinson & Andrew Halifax
Release date: October 2011
Total duration: 88 minutes 34 seconds

This is the first in a new series of releases from the world-renowned conductor Paul McCreesh and his Gabrieli Consort. Recorded in Poland as part of the Wratislava Cantans Festival (of which McCreesh is artistic director) this staggering performance of Berlioz's 'Grand Mass for the Dead' is produced by a force of over 400 performers—drawn from the Gabrieli Consort and Players, the Wroclaw Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir and students from Chetham's School of Music.

Founded in 1982 by Artistic Director Paul McCreesh, Gabrieli Consort & Players are world-renowned interpreters of great choral and instrumental repertoire, spanning from the renaissance to the present day. Their performances encompass virtuosic a cappella programmes, mould-breaking reconstructions of music for historical events, and major works from the oratorio tradition. They are regular visitors to the world's most prestigious concert halls and festivals and have built a large and distinguished discography.


'It was a crazy project involving 500 musicians, but what better way to celebrate the Polish-English direction of the Wroclaw Festival, Wratislava Cantans?' says Paul McCreesh, who, as artistic director, works alongside the dynamic general director Andrzej Kosendiak. For this stunning recording of Berlioz's Grande Messe des Morts, the Wroclaw Philharmonic and Choir plus the Gabrieli Consort and Players joined forces with young Polish string players and brass players from Chethams, who mastered nineteenth-century instruments with ease: 'I'm a great believer in working with young people, and they rose to the challenge superbly, which makes this award particularly thrilling' (BBC Music Magazine)» More

'McCreesh provides pretty much the enormous forces Berlioz demands—60 tenors at least—singing French Latin, as well as mostly original instruments (including ophicleides), leavened with Polish forces from his own Wratislavia Cantans festival … even those used to the Colin Davis or Charles Munch tradition may find its airy beauties compelling' (BBC Music Magazine)» More

'Commissioned in 1837 by the French Minister of the Interior, Berlioz's monumental Requiem setting was intended to commemorate soldiers supportive of the winning side in the July Revolution of 1830 … anyone in search of a transformative listening experience, Berlioz agnostics among them, should make this release a priority purchase. Expect to hear terrific choral singing and an uncommonly close corporate involvement in the ritual of making music' (Classic FM Magazine)» More

Berlioz grew up in a tradition which harnessed music to the service of la gloire, for the French Revolution had found large-scale ceremonial very much to its taste, and composers of the time were able to extend themselves in a manner highly prophetic of the coming romantic passion for the infinite and the immeasurable. The great outdoor fêtes of the 1790’s employed enormous choruses accompanied by armies of wind and percussion. This music was no longer played when Berlioz arrived in Paris as a medical student in 1821!, but his first teacher, Jean-François Lesueur, had been a leading composer of such ceremonial music, with a style of monumental simplicity that exactly suited large-scale outdoor performances. A generation later, it was Berlioz’s infusion of an expressive poetic style into the grandiose outlines of the Grande Messe des Morts and the Te Deum that endowed these works with such striking individuality.

The matching of space and sonority was one of Berlioz’s lasting obsessions, and the scoring of the Grande Messe des Morts, notorious for its requirement of four brass ensembles in addition to a large orchestra and chorus, owes much to his disgust, in 1831, at finding the vast interior of St Peter’s Basilica in Rome provided with a choir of 18 voices and a small organ on wheels. Such a building, he felt, surely cried out for immense forces. Twenty years later he witnessed the annual service for Charity Children in London’s St Paul’s Cathedral, at which 6000 children intoned ‘All people that on earth do dwell’. The effect of huge numbers of voices in a huge interior space threw Berlioz into a delirium of emotion from which he took days to recover.

Conversely, he hated noisy pit bands in small theatres, objected constantly to the over-use of trombones and bass drum at the Opéra-Comique, and felt deeply that the experience of music must relate to the building in which it is heard and to the disposition of perfomers and audience within that building. The Te Deum is based on the concept of pitting an organ against an orchestra at opposite ends of a large church. His aim in such works as these was to construct a huge three-dimensional block of sound in which the contemplative soul might lose itself in humility and wonder and, in the Grande Messe des Morts, to create an all-consuming apocalyptic musical equivalent of the Last Judgment. It was the kind of musical experience no one had dreamed of before. Saint-Saëns seems to have grasped the nature of the acoustical idea when he said, ‘It seemed as if each separate slim column of each pillar in the church became an organ pipe and the whole edifice a vast organ’.

His opportunity to exploit these ideas came in 1837 when a Requiem was commissioned by the Minister of the Interior for a grand public ceremony to be performed on the second anniversary of the death of General Mortier, killed in an attempted assassination of King Louis-Philippe. He set to work at once like a man possessed: ‘The text of the Requiem was a quarry that I had long coveted. Now at last it was mine, and I fell upon it with a kind of fury. My brain felt as though it would explode with the pressure of ideas. The outline of one piece was barely sketched before the next formed itself in my mind. It was impossible to write fast enough, and I devised a sort of musical shorthand which was a great help to me.’

Without hesitation Berlioz decided to assemble vast forces, both orchestral and choral, to do justice to the text. As well as the four additional brass groups, placed at the four corners of the performing mass, he requires an array of 16 timpani, bass drums, massed gongs and cymbals, four flutes, oboes and clarinets, eight bassoons, 12 horns and a string section for which he recommends at least 50 violins, 20 violas, 20 cellos and 18 double basses, in addition to a choir of at least 210 singers. He was finally able to show that the single trombone that represents the Last Judgment in Mozart’s Requiem was inadequate—pathetic, he might have said.

The task of composition was made easier by recycling various ideas from earlier projects. The Messe solennelle of 1824 had included, in embryonic form, the immense fanfare that Berlioz now used to depict the Last Trump, ‘tuba mirum spargens sonum’. The Kyrie of the early Mass also provided a theme that Berlioz thoroughly reworked for the Offertoire, which is romantically subtitled Choeur des âmes du purgatoire (chorus of souls in purgatory). Other passages were doubtless drawn from an oratorio entitled Le dernier jour du monde, planned in 1832, and from a huge seven-movement work begun in 1835 (but never finished) called Fête musicale funèbre à la mémoire des hommes illustres de la France. Its cumbersome title reveals what Berlioz meant when he said he had long coveted the text of the Requiem mass; he may well have begun working with it two years earlier.

No sooner had the score been completed than the ceremony was cancelled, much to Berlioz’s annoyance; but an opportunity to perform it arose a few months later when the French army, carving out an Empire in North Africa, lost its commander-in-chief in the heat of battle. So the Grande Messe des Morts was first performed in a memorial service in the church of the Invalides in Paris on 5 December 1837, a remarkable occasion of which Berlioz left a vivid account in his Memoirs. According to this account, the conductor, Habeneck, put down his baton at the very moment that he most needed to set the broad new tempo for the Tuba Mirum, since he felt the urge—obviously irresistible—to take a pinch of snuff. Berlioz, sitting near, leapt to his feet and gave the four beats of the new tempo and thus saved the performance from disaster. Unlikely though it seems, this incident is now widely regarded as historical, if unverifiable, fact.

The service was a stirring public occasion which conferred official approval upon the composer and created a wider awareness in Parisian circles of just how powerful and novel Berlioz’s music was. No one could be left in any doubt of the force and originality of the composer’s genius, an impression which is made equally strongly by the work today. Although the full score was published soon after its first performance, Berlioz gained more prestige than money from the event; indeed it was a high point in what was ultimately a tragic and disappointing career. He gave two more complete performances in Paris in later years, both in the church of St Eustache, near Les Halles. Elsewhere he played extracts in his concerts, including a performance of the Offertoire in Leipzig in 1843 that deeply impressed Schumann.

It was the Grande Messe des Morts that inspired Heine to call Berlioz an ‘antediluvian bird, a colossal nightingale, a lark the size of an eagle’. Berlioz himself was stirred as much by the volcanic power of the Requiem text as by the technical innovations of his score. The vast spatial sonorities are a stroke of imaginative daring; but only three sections of the score employ the full panoply of instruments. The music is for the most part solemn and austere, even ascetic. There is little of the brilliant colour of Berlioz’s overtures, little of the intimacy of the songs, but a stern contrapuntal manner and an occasional modal flavour. The music is not that of an orthodox believer but of a visionary inspired by the dramatic implications of death and judgment. The images of Blake and John Martin come to mind. The Grande Messe des Morts reaches back to the long tradition of French choral music from before and after the Revolution, and offered inspiration to many who came after, including Verdi, Saint-Saëns, Messiaen and Britten.

Hugh Macdonald © 2011

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