Hector Berlioz

HECTOR BERLIOZ, one of the most renowned of modern French composers, and an acute critic and skilful conductor as well, was born, Dec. 11, 1803, at La Côte St. André, in France. His father was a physician, and intended him for the same profession. He reluctantly went to Paris and began the study of medicine ; but music became his engrossing passion, and medicine was abandoned. He entered the Conservatory as a pupil of Lesueur, and’ soon showed himself superior to all his masters, except Cherubini, — which aroused a strong opposition to him and his compositions. It was only after repeated trials that he took the first prize, with his cantata, ” Sardanapale,” which entitled him to go to Italy for three years. On his return to Paris he encountered renewed antipathy. His music was not well received, and he was obliged to support himself by conducting at concerts and writ ing articles for the press. As a final resort he organized a concert tour through Germany and Russia, the details of which are contained in his extremely interesting Autobiography. At these concerts his own music was the staple of the pro grammes, and it met with great success, though not always played by the best of orchestras, and not always well by the best, as his own testimony shows ; for his compositions are very exacting, and call for every resource known to the modern orchestra. The Germans were quick in appreciating his music, but it was not until after his death that his ability was conceded in France. In 1839 he was appointed librarian of the Conservatory, and in 1856 was made a member of the French Academy. These were the only honors he received, though he long sought to obtain a professorship in the Conservatory. A romantic but sad incident in his life was his violent passion for Miss Smithson, an Irish actress, whom he saw upon the Paris stage in the role of Ophelia, at a time when Victor Hugo had revived an admiration for Shakspeare among the French. He married her, but did not live with her long, owing to her bad temper and ungovernable jealousy ; though after the separation he honorably contributed to her support out of the pittance he was earning. Among his great works are the opera, Benvenuto Cellini ; ” the symphony with chorus, ” Romeo and Juliet ; ” “Beatrice and Benedict ;” “Les Troÿens,” the text from Virgil’s “AEneid; the symphony, “Harold in Italy;” the symphony, ” Funèbre et Triomphale ; ” the “Damnation of Faust;” a double chorused “Te Deum ; ” the “Symphony Fantastique, ” the ” Requiem ; ” and-the sacred trilogy, ” L’Enfance du Christ.” Berlioz stands among all other composers as the foremost representative of “programme music,” and has left explicit and very detailed explanations of the meaning of his works, so that the hearer may listen intelligently by seeing the external objects his music is intended to picture. In the knowledge of individual instruments and the grouping of them for effect, in warmth of imagination and brilliancy of color, and in his daring combinations and fantastic moods, which are sometimes carried to the very verge of eccentricity, he is a colossus among modern musicians. He died in Paris, March 8, 1869.

The Requiem

Ferdinand Hiller writes in his ” Künstlerleben : ” ” Hector Berlioz does not belong to our musical solar system ; he does not belong tô the planets, neither to the large nor to the small. He was a comet, shining far, somewhat eerie to look at, soon again disappearing; but his appearance will remain unforgotten.” The Requiem (” Messe des Morts “) exemplifies Hiller’s words. It is colossal, phenome nal, and altogether unique. It is not sacred, for it never came from the heart. It is not solemn, though it is a drama of death. It is a combination of the picturesque, fantastic, and sublime, in a tone-poem dedicated to the dead.

In 1836 Berlioz was requested by M. de Gasparin, Minister of the Interior, to write a requiem commemorating the victims of the July Revolution ; but the work was not given to the public until 1837, when it was sung at the Invalides in memory of General Damremont and the soldiers killed at the siege of Constantina. It was subsequently asserted by Berlioz that Cherubim had conspired with others in the Conservatory to prevent its performance and to secure that of his own, by virtue of the precedence which his position gave him. The charge, however, must have been a mere fancy on his part, as he had already written a letter to Cherubini, saying : —

” I am deeply touched by the noble abnegation which leads you to refuse your admirable Requiem for the ceremony of the Invalides. Be convinced of my heartiest gratitude.”

The work embraced ten numbers : I. Requiem and Kyrie (” Requiem aeternam dona eis “); II., III., IV., V., and VI., including different motives taken from the hymn, ” Dies Ire ; ” VII. ” Offertorium ; ” VIII. ” Hostias et Preces ; ” IX. ” Sanctus ; ” X. “Agnus Dei.” – It will be observed that the composer has not followed the formal sequences of the Mass, and that he has not only omitted some of the parts, but has also frequently taken license with those which he uses. This may be accounted for in two ways. First, he was not of a religious nature, Hiller, in the work already quoted, says of him :

“Of his Catholic education every trace had disappeared. Doubts of all sorts had possession of him, and the contempt of what he called ‘prejudice’ bordered on the monstrous. Berlioz believed neither in a God nor in Bach.”

Second, it is evident from the construction of the work throughout that it was his purpose simply to give free rein to his fancy and to express, even at the risk of being theatrical, the emotions of sublimity, terror, and awe called up by the associations of the subject. This he could not have done with a free hand had he been bound down to the set forms of the Mass.

After a brief but majestic instrumental introducdon, the voices enter upon the Requiem,” —a beautiful and solemn strain. The movement is built upon three melodies set to the words, “Requiem ternam,” “Tu decet Hymnus,” and the “Kyrie,” the accompaniment of which is very descriptive and characteristic. The ” Kyrie” is specially impressive, the chant of the sopranos being answered by the tenors and basses in unison, and the whole closing with a dirge-like movement by the orchestra.

The ” Dies Irae ” is the most spirited as well as impressive number of the work. It is intensely dramatic in its effects, indeed it might be called theatrical. Berlioz seems to have fairly exhausted the resources of instruments to produce the feeling of awful sublimity and overwhelming power, even to the verge of the most daring eccentricity and, as one prominent critic expressed it, “terrible cataclysms.” The first part of the “Dies Iræ will always be remarkable for the orchestral arrangement. After the climax of the motive, ” Quantus tremor est futurus,” there is a pause which is significant by its very silence ; it is the hush before the storm. Suddenly from either angle of the stage or haII, in addition to the principal orchestra in front, four smaller bands of trombones, trumpets, and tubas crash in with overwhelming power in the announcement of the terrors of the day of judgment. The effect is like that of peal upon peal of thunder. At its culmination the bass voices enter in unison upon the words, “Tuba mirum,” in the midst of another orchestral storm, which is still further heightened by an unusual number of kettledrums. From the be-ginning to the close, this part of the ” Dies Iræ” is simply cyclopean ; words cannot describe its overwhelming power. It is a relief when the storm has passed over, and we come to the next verse (” Quid sum miser “), for the basses and tenors, though mostly for the first tenors. It is a breathing spell of quiet delight. It is given in the softest of tone, and is marked in the score to be sung with “an expression of humility and awe.” It leads to the andante number (“Rex tremendae majestatis “), which is sung fortissimo throughout, and accompanied with another tremendous outburst of harmonious thunder in crashing chords, which continues up to the last _ eight bars, when the voices drop suddenly from the furious fortissimo to an almost inaudible pianissimo on the words “Salve me.” The next verse (” Quærens me “) is an unaccompanied six-part chorus in imitative style, of very close harmony. The “Dies Irae ” ends with the ” Lachrymose,” the longest and most interesting number in the work. It is thoroughly melodic, and is peculiarly strengthened by a pathetic and sentimental accompaniment, which, taken in connection with the choral part against which it is set, presents an almost inexhaustible variety of rhythms and an originality of technical effects which are astonishing. Its general character is broad and solemn, and it closes with a return to the “Dies Iræ,” with full chorus and all the orchestras. This finishes the “Dies Irae ” section of the work.

The next number is the ” Offertorium,” in which the voices are limited to a simple phrase of two notes, A alternating with B flat, which is never varied throughout the somewhat long movement. It never becomes monotonous, however, so rich and varied is the instrumentation. The ” Hostias et Preces,” — sustained by the tenors and basses, a very solemn and majestic movement, — displays another of Berlioz’s eccentricities, the accompaniment at the close of the first phrase being furnished by three flutes and eight tenor trombones, which one enemy of the composer says represents the distance from the sublime to the ridiculous. The “Sanctus,” a tenor solo with responses by the sopranos and altos, is full of poetical, almost sensuous beauty, and is the most popular number in the work. It closes with a fugue on the words’ Hosanna in Excelsis.” The final number is the “Agnus Dei,” a chorus for male voices, in which the composer once more employs the peculiar combination of flutes and tenor trombones. In this number he also returns to the music of the opening num ber, “Requiem æternam,” and closes it with an ” Amen ” softly dying away. Thus ends the Requiem,— a work which will always be the subject of critical dispute, owing to its numerous innovations on existing musical forms and the daring manner in which the composer has treated it.

The following sketch of the first performance of the Requiem, taken from Berlioz’s Autobiography, will be found interesting in this connection. It is necessary to preface it with the statement that the director of the Beaux-Arts had insisted ,that Habeneck should conduct the work. As Berlioz had quarrelled with the old conductor, and had not been on speaking terms with him for three years, he at first refused; but subsequently consented, on condition that he should conduct at one full rehearsal. Berlioz says : —

” The day of the performance arrived in the Church of the Invalides, before all the princes, peers, and deputies, the French press, the correspondents of foreign papers, and an immense crowd. It was absolutely essential for me to have a great success a moderate one would have been fatal, and a failure would have annihilated me altogether.

” Now, listen attentively.

” The various groups of instruments in the orchestra were tolerably widely separated, especially the four brass bands introduced in the ‘ Tuba mirum,’ each of which occupied a corner of the entire orchestra, There is no pause between the ‘ Dies Iræ’ and ‘ Tuba mirum,’ but the pace of the latter movement is reduced to half what it was before. At this point the whole of the brass enters, first altogether, and then in passages, answering and interrupting, each a third higher than the last. It is obvious that it is of the greatest importance that the four beats of the new tempo should be distinctly marked, or else the terrible explosion which I had so carefully prepared, with combinations and proportions never attempted before or since, and which, rightly performed, gives such a picture of the Last judgment as I believe is destined to live, would be a mere enormous and hideous confusion.

” With my habitual mistrust, I had stationed myself behind Habeneck, and, turning my back on him, overlooked the group of kettledrums, which he could not see, when the moment approached for them to take part in the general mêlée. There are perhaps one thousand bars in my Requiem. Precisely in that of which I have just been speaking, when the movement is retarded and the wind instruments burst in with their terrible flourish of trumpets; in fact, just in the one bar where the conductor’s motion is absolutely indispensable, — Habeneck puts down his baton, quietly takes out his snuffbox, and proceeds to take a pinch of snuff. I always had my eye in his direction, and instantly turned rapidly on one heel, and, springing before him, I stretched out my arm and marked the four great beats of the new movement. The orchestras followed me each in order. I conducted the piece to the end, and the effect which I had longed for was produced. When, at the last words of the chorus, Habeneck saw that the ‘ Tuba Mirum’ was saved, he said : ‘ What a cold perspiration I have been in ! Without you we should have been lost.’ ‘ Yes, I know,’ I answered, looking fixedly at him. I did not add another word. . Had he done it on purpose ? . Could it be possible that this man had dared to join my enemy, the director, and Cherubim’s friends, in plotting and attempting such rascality ? I don’t wish to believe it but I cannot doubt it. God forgive me if I am doing the man injustice !

” The success of the ‘Requiem’ was complete, in spite of all the conspiracies —cowardly, atrocious, officious, and official — which would fain have hindered it”