National Philharmonic to Perform Berlioz's Requiem

By Williams, David | The World and I, November 2010 | Go to article overview

National Philharmonic to Perform Berlioz's Requiem


Williams, David, The World and I


The National Philharmonic, conducted by Chorale Artistic Director Stan Engebretson, will perform Hector Berlioz's grand Requiem (Grande Messe des Morts, Op. 5), one of the musical masterpieces of the ages, on Saturday, November 6, 2010 at 8 pm at the Music Center at Strathmore. The featured soloist will be tenor Robert Breault.

This will be the first ever performance of the Requiem at the Music Center. A monumental undertaking, the Requiem will involve the nearly 200-voice National Philharmonic Chorale, the Washington Men's Camerata and Montgomery College Chamber Singers, in addition to a massive orchestra, which will include four antiphonal brass ensembles.

The 10-movement piece derives from the traditional Latin Requiem Mass and is one of Berlioz's best-known works. The Requiem was composed in 1837 after Adrien de Gasparin, France's Minister of the Interior, asked Berlioz to write a Requiem Mass to remember the soldiers who died in the July 1830 Revolution. Berlioz readily accepted the request, having wanted to compose a large orchestral work.

Performance of his finished composition lasts approximately ninety minutes and requires a large orchestra of woodwind and brass, including four brass ensembles at the corners of the concert stage, and a chorus placed throughout the concert hall. Over four hundred performers were involved in the 1837 premiere. Berlioz indicated in the score that, "The number [of performers, singers and strings] is only relative. (T)he chorus may be doubled or tripled, and the orchestra be proportionally increased ... in the event of an exceptionally large chorus, say 700 to 800 voices, the entire chorus should only be used for the Dies Irae, the Tuba Mirum, and the Lacrymosa, the rest of the movements being restricted to 400 voices."

Francois-Antoine Habeneck conducted the premiere performance. But it is said that the conductor paused during the dramatic Tuba Mirum to take a pinch of snuff. Berlioz rushed to the podium and took control, conducting the piece himself and saving the performance from disaster.

Berlioz is known to have revised the work twice, in 1852 and again in 1867. The final revisions were made just two years before his death.

A French Romantic composer, Berlioz (Dec.11, 1803--March 8, 1869) is best known for the Requiem and another composition Symphonie Fantastique. He made significant contributions to the modern orchestra with his "Treatise on Instrumentation," and specified huge orchestral forces for some works. Berlioz personally conducted several concerts with more than 1,000 musicians. But the Requiem was reportedly his favorite work. "If I were threatened with the destruction of the whole of my works save one," he wrote to a friend, "I should crave mercy for the Messe des Morts."

Overview of the Requiem

The Requiem opens gravely. Rising scales in the strings, horns, oboes, and cor anglais precede the choral entry. The music becomes agitated with despair. The first movement contains the two sections of music for the Mass (the Introit and the Kyrie).

The Sequence commences in the second movement, with the Dies irae portraying Judgment Day. The four brass ensembles appear one by one, joined by sixteen timpani, two bass drums, and four tam-tams. A loud flourish is followed by the choral entry. Strings and woodwinds bring the movement to a close.

The short third movement, Quid sum miser, features orchestration of chorus, cor anglais, bassoons, cellos, and double basses. The Rex tremendae invokes contrasting opposites. The choir sings beseechingly, as if for help, and majestically. Quaerens me is a quiet, soft movement completely a cappella.

The sixth movement, Lacrimosa, is in 9/8 time signature, and is considered the center of the entire Requiem. It is the only movement written in recognizable sonata form and the last movement depicting pain. The dramatic effect of this movement is heightened by the addition of the massed brass and percussion. …

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