Hector Berlioz

Born: 11 December 1803, in La Côte-Saint-André
Died: 8 March 1869, in Paris

{Biography} {Requiem} {A Personal Note} {Selected Compositions} {For Further Reading}


Berlioz was born in southeastern France, near Grenoble, the son of a prominent doctor.  He learned flute and guitar (two popular instruments) growing up, though never piano (unusual for someone who turned out to be a major composer), and taught himself harmony through textbooks he acquired.  He began composing as a teenager.

After receiving a bachelor’s degree at Grenoble, in 1821 he was packed off to medical school in Paris (his parents’ idea, not his); the city was to remain home for the rest of his life.  Although he stuck it out in medicine for two years, even receiving a degree along the way, his heart was never in it.  Instead, the musical world of Paris (the center of French music-making, and of course a major European capital) inexorably drew him in.  Prior to his arrival in Paris he had heard nothing but the local military band; now he was exposed to the wonders of the Paris opera, chorus, and orchestra.  As Hugh Macdonald puts it (in the New Grove), before Paris he knew “only the slightest works by minor composers” and had never seen a full score.  That changed rapidly, and in 1821 he began private composition studies with Jean-François Le Sueur (1760–1837), a leading figure in the French musical world of the time and professor of composition at the Paris Conservatoire.  Forget about med school; he was going to be a composer.

Well.  You can see where this is heading.  Papa Berlioz was, unsurprisingly, unimpressed by Hector’s change of direction—Berlioz père’s game plan was for Hector to return to La Côte-Saint-André and take over Daddy’s business.  Accordingly, a severe curtailment of financial support was in order.

Money struggles were thus to dog Berlioz for most of his life; in his early years he dealt with them by taking on some guitar students, borrowing money from friends, working briefly as a chorister at the Théâtre des Nouveautés (yes!  Berlioz was a choral singer!), and by journalism.  This last path, that of a professional music critic, was one he followed for almost 40 years.

In 1826 Berlioz formally entered the Paris Conservatoire, studying composition with Le Sueur and counterpoint and fugue with Antoine Reicha (1770–1836).  Right away he entered the competition for the Prix de Rome in composition, established in 1803, administered by the Conservatoire, and awarded annually to the most promising young composer.  The winner received two years of paid residence in Rome and additional paid time elsewhere—obviously a great gift for a young artist.  Here is the saga of Berlioz and the Grand Prix:

  • 1826: eliminated on the first round.
  • 1827: advances to next round, but his work is declared unplayable.
  • 1828: wins second prize.
  • 1829: no prize awarded; Berlioz evidently wrote the best work, but the judges did not want to approve someone who “betrayed such dangerous tendencies.”
  • 1830: Berlioz gets the message, tones it down, and is one of two winners (the other being A. Montfort; no, I never heard of him either).

Naturally, now that Berlioz had finally won, on his fifth attempt, he decided he didn’t want to go to Italy after all.  He made several formal applications to get out of it (I need to maintain my professional presence  in Paris! I’m not healthy!) but the officials turned a deaf ear, and off he went, though he remained less than the requisite two years.  If his time there did not immediately generate any masterpieces, it gave him a chance to meet and become friends with Mendelssohn, and have lots of interesting experiences that he drew on for inspiration in later works.

One of the real reasons Berlioz did not want to go to Italy was that he was engaged to the pianist Camille Moke.  She had chased him, so it’s easy to imagine his fury when he learned that she was instead going to marry wealthy piano manufacturer Camille Pleyel.  Berlioz immediately set off to France with the intention of killing Moke, Pleyel, Moke’s mother (who had broken the news to Berlioz), and then himself.  He got as far as Nice, changed his mind, and instead wrote the “lyric monodrama” Le retour à la vie (the return to life).

Moke had been preceded in Berlioz’s affections by the Irish actress Harriet Smithson, whom he had first seen in 1827 when she played Ophelia in a production of Hamlet.  Berlioz fell in love simultaneously with Shakespeare (even though the production was in English, a language he did not yet know) and with Smithson.  As Hugh Macdonald puts it, Berlioz’s “emotional derangement was immediate and violent.”  

Did Berlioz meet her after the show for a cup of tea?  Did mutual friends introduce them at a party so they could get to know each other?  Did he attempt to learn English so that they might actually communicate if they met?  Why, no.  This is a passion unsullied by direct contact.

To be fair: Berlioz did try to make contact with her but was unable to.  Remember, in 1827 Berlioz was an impecunious student and Smithson was a successful professional actress.  The equivalent today would be for you or me to try to reach (fill in the blank of favorite celebrity crush: George Clooney, Cate Blanchett, whomever).  This was a crazed fan’s love, based on a public projection of a self (or really, a character in a play) rather than actual knowledge of an individual.

Music lovers, of course, can be happy about this mess because the result was the Symphonic fantastique of 1830, Berlioz’s best-known composition and an eternal audience favorite.  The symphony is unusual and important in many respects.  It is for five movements (rare but not unknown; see Beethoven Symphony #6) and is programmatic throughout.  The subtitle is “episode de la vie d’un artiste” (episode in the life of an artist).  Movement 1 represents “Dreams, Passions” of the beloved; in Movement 2 (a waltz) he sees his beloved at a ball.  Movement 3 is “Scenes in the Country,” with another appearance of the beloved.  In Movement 4, “March to the Scaffold,” he dreams that he has murdered his loved one and is to be executed, and in Movement 5, “Dream of the Witches’ Sabbath,” the beloved takes part in a diabolic orgy.  Throughout the work the beloved is represented by a melody known as the “idée fixe” (fixed idea).  It appears in every movement but is altered in each to represent the different phases of her appearance, a technique known as thematic transformation.  Berlioz is not the first to use this technique (we can find it in Schubert’s terrific Wanderer Fantasy, for example), but it became a popular practice in nineteenth-century music and Liszt probably learned it from him, for example.  In the original version of the work, the last two movements were indicated as representing an opium dream; Berlioz later said the entire symphony an opium dream.

In 1832, back in Paris, Berlioz mounted a performance of both Symphonie fantastique and what he now viewed as its sequel, Le retour à la vie, the latter retitled Lelio.  Harriet Smithson was in the audience; a meeting was effected; a stormy courtship followed; and voilà!  The two were engaged.

Both families were opposed to the marriage, but the wedding went ahead anyway in October 1833 (Liszt was a witness), and their only child, Louis, was born the following August (Berlioz’s first name was actually Louis-Hector; hence his son’s name).  Alas, the marriage was not a success, and mutual disillusionment led to their separation in 1842.  After Harriet died in 1854, Berlioz married his long-term mistress, the singer Marie Recio.  That marriage didn’t fare too well, either (creative genius is probably best experienced at a distance), and after Marie passed away in 1862 Berlioz sought out Estelle Leboeuf, a woman with whom he had fallen in love when he was 12 and she was 18.  He found her, declared that she was the only woman he had ever loved, and after his proposal of marriage was refused, settled into a (platonic) relationship of frequent letters and occasional visits.  Then his son died of yellow fever in 1867, a terrible blow for the composer, and the remaining two years of his life were lonely and sad.  At his funeral, Gounod was one of the pallbearers.

So much for his unhappy personal life.  His professional life did not fare much better.  His opera Benvenuto Cellini was a failure when performed at the Paris Opéra in 1838, effectively closing off any further possibilities for Berlioz to be performed there—a huge blow for an intensely dramatic composer fascinated by opera his entire professional life.

His primary means of earning a living was as a professional music critic (mainly for the Journal des débats and the Gazette musicale, though he wrote for other publications as well).  Though it paid the bills, music criticism had two considerable disadvantages.  First, if you are attending other people’s concerts and then writing about them, you are not writing your own music; we surely lost compositions that Berlioz would otherwise have created had he more time.  Second, when you are busy criticizing other musicians, a side effect is that they are not inclined to help further your own career.

Berlioz was thus the main person arranging performances of his own music, not anyone else, and his conducting career began in 1835 when he realized he could do a better job than the people to whom he entrusted his works.  He became widely recognized as an excellent conductor and was also a proponent of the baton, still a relatively new device.  Concerts he arranged included music by other composers as well, and excellent musicians such as Chopin and Liszt took part.  In fact, the best musicians of his time, many of whom he came to know, typically recognized his ability; admirers included Liszt, Schumann, Tchaikovsky, Saint-Säens, and Wagner (who, in 1878, named his pet rooster “Berlioz”).  Bizet, though, quipped that Berlioz had “genius, but no talent.”  

One of the many who saw Berlioz as a successor to Beethoven was the virtuoso violinist Nicolò Paganini (1782–1840), a rock star before rock existed.  It was common knowledge that he had sold his soul to the devil in exchange for his staggering technical abilities.  In 1834, having acquired a Stradivarius viola, Paganini asked Berlioz to write something for him.  Berlioz responded with his symphonic work Harold en Italie (inspired by Byron’s Childe Harold), which has an important viola part but is not a concerto per se.  Paganini rejected the portion of the work that he saw, disassociating himself from the project, but in 1838, when he finally heard the finished composition, he spontaneously sent Berlioz a gift of 20,000 francs in recognition of Berlioz’s achievement.  The money was very welcome to Berlioz, who then wrote the dramatic symphony Roméo et Juliette (this is a work that includes chorus) in gratitude for the unexpected gift.

Berlioz ended up being appreciated much more outside of France than within, and spent much of the 1840s and 1850s and part of the 1860s conducting his own works in Germany, Austria, Russia, England, Hungary, and Bohemia.  He also wrote several important books during this time.  One was his Traité de l’instrumentation, a treaty on orchestration first published in 1843.  Although this was not the first book of its kind, it was the most influential.  Any performer of the Requiem (or for that matter, almost any of his works) knows that Berlioz was one of the most brilliant orchestrators of his time, and the book reflected his intimate knowledge of instrumental abilities and colors (the nineteenth century was graced by rapid changes in instrument construction and even the development of new instruments).  A second edition appeared in 1855, it was translated into five languages, and another fine orchestrator, Richard Strauss, expanded the work still later.

Another book, from 1852, was Les soirées de l’orchestre, known in English as Evenings with the Orchestra.  The conceit for the book is that members of an opera orchestra in a provincial French town are so bored by the junk they are playing that they tell stories every night to pass the time.  Berlioz, of course, uses this device as the impetus for spreading his own musical philosophy and ideas, and it is a very fun read.  On a few nights, when the musicians are playing music that’s worthwhile, there are no stories; the operas that make the cut for this tribute (i.e., are operas that Berlioz thinks are good) are Don Giovanni (Mozart), Der Freischütz (Weber), Fidelio (Beethoven), La Vestale (Spontini), Il Barbiere di Seviglia (Rossini), Iphigénie en Tauride (Gluck), and Les Huguenots (Meyerbeer).  Inspired by this list when I read the book as an undergraduate, I raced off to the Music Library to listen to La Vestale, anticipating a heretofore unexpected masterpiece (I knew, or knew of, the other works).  Alas, it was not to be; the opera seemed dull and uninteresting to my undergraduate ears.  Perhaps it was the recording; perhaps I was too uninformed to appreciate the subtleties of the work.  Maybe I’d think differently now.  Or just maybe La Vestale is not actually an opera for the ages.

Another important work was Berlioz’s Mémoires.  This is the first really good autobiography by a composer, and another good read (even though, or maybe because, Berlioz acknowledges that he has exaggerated parts of it).  He published excerpts during his lifetime, but held off on the complete thing because he knew full publication would make life more difficult for him than it already was.  Or rather, he printed 1200 copies and stored them in his office at the Conservatoire (where he held the minor post of librarian, a travesty for someone of his abilities), with instructions to release the book after his death.

Pierre Citron, in the Cambridge Companion to Berlioz, succinctly summarizes the indignities and difficulties Berlioz had to deal with “when such a man has spent his life confronting the most severe material difficulties, seeing his family opposed to his calling, and chained for survival to a column of music criticism that he detested and dreaded almost to the point of apoplexy; when he could not obtain the conductor’s post at the Paris Opéra, even though he was one of the best conductors of his day and was admired across the European continent; when he found himself denied the harmony class at the Conservatoire, even though he was one of the greatest harmonists of the century; when the only official post offered him for many years by the magnanimous powers-that-be was that of associate librarian at this same Conservatoire; and in view of the fact that the public failed to appear at his concerts, that intrigue or indifference led to the ignominious failure of masterpieces such as Benvenuto Cellini and La Damnation de Faust, that the doors of the halls of the Conservatoire and Opéra were closed to him, and that he saw himself rejected by the Institute [the Académie des Beaux-Arts] in favor of Ambroise Thomas, Onslow, and even Clapisson....”  

Berlioz eventually became Head Librarian at the Conservatoire (1850) and was admitted (after four failed attempts) to the Académie des Beaux-Arts in 1856, but these moves were both long overdue.  Berlioz’s contemporary, the writer Théophile Gautier, accurately recognized Berlioz as the musical part of the “trinity of Romantic art” with writer Victor Hugo and painter Eugène Delacroix, but such tributes were all too rare in the composer’s native country.  We are fortunate that Berlioz, by far the best French musician of his time, kept composing despite having every reason to give up.

Requiem (Grande Messe des Morts), Op. 8

First, a little history lesson on nineteenth-century France.

When Berlioz was born, in 1803, Napoleon Bonaparte was Consul of France, then in its First Republic.  Earlier he had been General of the French Army in Egypt, returning to France in 1799 with the plan of eliminating the Directoire that governed France (the Directoire being the result of the 1789 French Revolution that got rid of Louis XVI and the monarchy, and sent royalty, nobility, the clergy, and anyone the revolutionists disagreed with, including other revolutionaries, to the guillotine.  Not really a positive outcome).  Napoleon managed to become one of three Consuls in charge, then First Consul, and then Sole Consul (“does not play well with others” his kindergarten report probably read).  In 1804 he declared himself Emperor, and spent the next eight years conquering most of Europe.  His attempt to take Moscow (in the winter, what an idiot!) was his undoing, and after suffering other defeats, he abdicated in 1814.

The monarchy was then restored, with Louis XVI’s brother, Louis XVIII, becoming king.  He wasn’t popular, though, and in 1815 when Napoleon escaped from the island of Elba (just a few miles off the coast of Tuscany), where he had been exiled, he was able to gather an army, drive Louis from Paris, and begin a new reign.  The new reign lasted only 100 days or so, and ended with a defeat by the British Duke of Wellington and the Prussian Marshal Blücher in the Belgian town of Waterloo (Belgium then being a part of France).  This time the French sent Napoleon to St. Helena, an island in the South Atlantic, so that it would be much, much, harder to escape (and indeed, Napoleon spent the remaining six years of his life there).

Louis XVIII stumbled on as king, succeeded by Charles X in 1824.  In July 1830, a brisk three-day revolution replaced Charles with “citizen-king” Louis-Philippe, who lasted until the more substantial revolution of 1848 (a year of unrest across Europe), when the monarchy was again abolished and the Second Republic created, with Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte as its President.  In 1852 Louis-Napoleon decided he was tired of being President, so he declared himself Emperor and started the Second Empire.  That held until France got its tail whipped by the Prussians in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870–1871, after which it was bye-bye Second Empire, hello Third Republic.  By this time Berlioz was dead, but just so you know: the Third Republic lasted until 1940, replaced by the Vichy regime (in cahoots with the Nazis) until 1944.  A provisional government was in place until 1947, after which we have the Fourth Republic to 1958.  France is now on its Fifth Republic.  Long may it last!

The point of this historical detour is that Berlioz experienced empire, monarchy, and republic, with jarring transitions in between, and a fresh set of power players with each switch.  That doesn’t make it easier to support yourself in the arts.

In late March 1837 Berlioz received a rare commission from the Ministry of the Interior.  The goal was to honor both the dead of the 1830 revolution that brought Louis-Philippe to power as well as the 18 victims of an 1835 terrorist attack whose intended target was Louis-Philippe himself.  Berlioz asked for 500 or 600 musicians and threw himself into composing in a blaze of inspiration.  The autograph score was signed June 29, which left just about a month for copying and learning the music (if that seems short, read “A Personal Note” below).  And then everything was cancelled after rehearsals had started; supposedly a royal wedding had drained the treasury, leaving insufficient funds for the event’s music.

All was not lost, however.  In October, Charles, comte de Damrémont, was killed in the Algerian war, and the Ministry of War decided to pay for a funeral service in December, using Berlioz’s Requiem.  The work thus received its first performance on 5 December 1837 at the church of St. Louis des Invalides in Paris (the Invalides being a hospital cum residence of vets).  The leading French tenor of the day, Gilbert Duprez, was the soloist.

The conductor was François-Antoine Habeneck, not one of Berlioz’s friends.  According to the Memoires (not the most trustworthy of sources, admittedly), the premiere was even livelier than might be expected.  Berlioz wrote that, at the performance, “with my habitual distrust I had stayed just behind Habeneck.”  When Habeneck laid down his bow (he conducted with a violin bow, an older practice) to take a pinch of snuff just at the beginning of the Tuba mirum, where the tempo changes and a conductor is urgently required (was this deliberate sabotage?), Berlioz leapt into action.  “In a flash I turned on my heel, sprang forward in front of him and, stretching out my arm, marked out the four great beats of the new tempo.  The bands followed me, and everything went off in order.  I conducted the piece [the Tuba mirum] to the end.”  Other excitement included a priest bursting into tears and a chorus member fainting.

Berlioz later revised the work for performances of 1846, 1850, and 1852, and sometimes programmed individual movements in his concerts—hard for us to imagine today.

As for singing the Requiem, most of the time the tempo is andante; the vocal parts are not wildly chromatic; Berlioz remains calm in terms of counterpoint—really, in many respects this is not all that hard to sing.

Unless, of course, you are an alto, for Berlioz famously wrote the work for SSTTBB.  That’s right, no separate alto part except for the Sanctus.  This negation of altos occurs in many of his other vocal works as well; it is only after the Te Deum that he regularly uses SATB scoring.  Berlioz is not alone in his avoidance of altos; other French composers of the time did the same, and the Requiem masses of both Lesueur (Berlioz’s teacher) and Cherubini (head of the Conservatoire), two pieces Berlioz knew, eschew parts for altos as well.

This means that for a modern SATB chorus (thus pretty much every mixed chorus out there these days), altos have to double the SII parts, or double the TI parts, or flip between the two, or take some things down an octave, or chop up the score among these various options.  Doubling the SII part is probably the most common practice, but it’s not great.  Almost every alto I know has various high notes in her repertoire (if I remember correctly, Chorus I altos in Mahler 8 go up to A# at one point), but my feeling about high notes (shared by most altos, I suspect) is that they are a fun neighborhood to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there.

Having said that, if the choice is between some (at times) uncomfortable singing in the Requiem and not singing the Requiem at all, that’s an easy decision to make.  Pacing, breath support, dropping out briefly if necessary—all that sensible stuff will get altos through.  And the new edition by Adrian Horn is getting a lot of traction in its subtle rearranging of the vocal lines to accommodate the reality of choruses today.

Here’s what Berlioz asks for in the Requiem, according to the Critical Edition: 4 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 English horns, 4 clarinets, 8 bassoons, 12 horns, 8 pairs of timpani (with 10 timpanists), 2 bass drums, 4 gongs, 10 pairs of cymbals, a string section of 50 violins, 20 violas, 20 cellos, and 18 double basses, a solo tenor, a choir of 80 sopranos, 60 tenors, and 70 basses, and four separate brass “orchestras” (I = 4 cornets à pistons, 4 trombones, 2 tubas; II = 4 trumpets and 4 trombones; III = 4 trumpets and 4 trombones; IV = 4 trumpets, 4 trombones, and 4 ophicléides [the bass of the keyed bugle family]).

Big, right?  But for Berlioz, more is never enough, so he writes the following instructions in the score:  “These numbers are only relative.  If space permits, one may double or triple the number of voices and increase the instrumental body a little in the same proportions.  Only if one had an immense chorus of 700 or 800 voices, for example, the whole group would sing only in the Dies irae, the Tuba mirum, and the Lacrymosa, using only 400 voices in the rest of the score.”  

Berlioz divides the work into ten parts; his titles are given below by those numbers.  In caps I provide the liturgical functions.  For a discussion of Requiem masses in general, see “Requiem I” under the Mozart Choral Singer’s Companion essay.

Introit and Kyrie

1.  Requiem et Kyrie.  Introit.

This andante movement is in a slow triple throughout; G minor is the key.  With a huge number of musicians arrayed on stage, Berlioz begins with a piano unison line between second violins and violas, gradually building from there.  There’s a big change when we get to the psalm verse of the Introit, “Te decet hymnus,” with a switch to the relative major of Bb and a more lyrical melodic line that eventually builds to the fortissimo return of the antiphon text (m. 110, Requiem aeternam).  The Kyrie (the second movement of any mass) is tacked on the the end of the movement, beginning in hushed recitative at m. 171 and building to a dissonant climax at m. 194 (hear that bass Ab against the soprano G!) before dying away to nothing.


2.  Dies irae.  Prose.

As is normal, Berlioz divides the mass sequence (“prose” is a medieval term for the sequence) into multiple movements, but unlike most composers he messes with the actual order of the text; he does this in other movements as well.  The opening section uses the famous “Dies irae” (day of wrath) text that often generates considerable excitement (e.g. Mozart’s snappy rhythms, or Verdi’s thunderbolts).   Berlioz, though, begins once again very softly, with a relatively slow (moderato), low-lying melody in cellos and basses.  A minor is the key. After that opening melody Berlioz gives us a big contrast by moving up several octaves for a soprano melody doubled by three high instruments: flute, oboe, clarinet.  And then we get a return of the opening melody that Berlioz uses for a slow build through the next several verses, with various counter-melodies or phrases against it.  One appears in m. 25, in the tenor line; at m. 53 the original line and the tenor line are combined with the original soprano line; at m. 68 we begin the soprano bursts of repeated notes; the choppy tenor motive shows up in m. 72; the rising and falling TI melody enters at m. 104.  Build, build, build, build!  Right up to the incredible “Tuba mirum” (the “tuba"—trumpet—is the trumpet of the last judgment).  There’s a tempo and key change (to Eb major) to mark this next section.  The chorus is now silent; all the attention is focused on the four brass bands, positioned at “four angles to the large choral/instrumental mass” (or thereabouts; obviously locations will vary according to the venue).  Remember that Berlioz grew up with the sound of a military band as the main musical excitement in town, so he knew what these instruments were capable of.   After the initial blast of all the brass, Berlioz brings in the bands one after another, each one rising a third in pitch, with onstage brass chiming in as well.  The fanfare-like calls build to a thundering climax at m. 162, where, under a fortissimo fermata in the brass, the timpani go crazy.

Basses then enter with the actual “Tuba mirum” text, sung against continued timpani rolls and brass interjections, again building to a satisfying fortissimo cadence on m. 178.  Everything gets quiet again, there’s some back and forth with the “mors stupebit” text (with the full choir now), and then one more run-up to another big cadence, this time on Bb in m. 202 (we’ve modulated to the dominant), and we get a return of the brass fanfare music, this time with the choir singing as well.  First it’s the basses with the “Liber scriptus” text, and then, when it’s timpani roll time, the full chorus is in with “Judex ergo.”  After one more massive cadence, this time back on Eb in m. 239, the brief coda has us singing quasi-a cappella against a hushed orchestra to bring the movement to a close.  Berlioz may have begun the movement with an unexpectedly quiet treatment of “day of wrath,” but he more than makes up for it by the time the movement concludes.

Berlioz had predecessors in terms of spatial play.  The Gossec Requiem of 1780, which Berlioz would have known, used a separate wind and brass ensemble, and in 1801 Berlioz’s teacher Le Sueur wrote a work for the same venue, Les Invalides, that positioned four orchestras in four different corners.  But none of that takes away from the magnificent effect that Berlioz achieves.

3.  Quid sum miser

After all that excitement, Berlioz knows we need a break.  “Quid sum miser” is quiet throughout, and we are back to an andante tempo.  The tenors are alone, singing a plaintive melody in G# minor that is actually a transposed version of the melody that opens the Dies irae.  Tenors drop out only at the very end, leaving the final four notes of the movement to the basses.  The orchestra is sparse: just two English horns and two bassoons, supported by unison low strings.  Short, soft, slow—a mere 49 measures.

4.  Rex tremendae

After that refreshing pause (refreshing for everyone except the tenors), it’s back to full action for the Rex tremendae, in a bright E major (the first movement that hasn’t started in a minor key).  The brass bands make an appearance again in this movement.  Although the initial tempo indication is once more andante, we “animez un peu” (speed up a little) at m.  25, then “animez un peu plus” (speed up a little more) at m. 30, then “animez encore” (speed up again) at m. 37, until m. 42, where Berlioz tells us that at this point everything should be twice as fast as it was at the beginning.  This is thus the liveliest movement of the whole piece, as we sing snappy melodies and tumble through a variety of harmonies until Berlioz wrenches us back to tempo primo and a repetition of earlier text and melody (“Qui salvandos salvas gratis”).  The movement concludes with alternation between our crisp “rex tremendae majestatis” exclamations and our gentler pleas to “salva me fons pietatis” (save me, fount of goodness).  The latter takes us to our triple piano conclusion.

5. Quaerens me

Again Berlioz knows that a contrast is in order after the exuberance of Rex tremendae, so he dials things way back.  The movement is a cappella, and it’s back to andante (in fact, Berlioz says it should be the same tempo as the preceding movement, and “always very sweet.”)  The dynamic is almost always soft, with a single forte six measures before the end of this short movement.  We are in A major now, with a recurring imitative melody presented first by the sopranos.  My favorite part is a different imitative line, though, on “ingemisco tamquam credi,” where one after another the six voice parts enter with delicious suspensions—E against F in the tenors, B against C in the sopranos, and a whole step D against E in the basses.  Exquisite!

6.  Lacrymosa

My favorite movement!  This is the conclusion of the sequence, where the text indicates that it’s a  mournful day when the guilty are judged (Berlioz does a little playing with the text here to suit his purposes).

After the motet-like calm of the Quarens me, it’s time to spice things up again.  Berlioz does this in various ways.  The full orchestra is back, including the brass bands.  We’re back in minor (A minor) and still with an Andante tempo marking (but “non troppo lento”—not too slow), but we have a meter signature that’s unique for the mass: 9/8.  And most of the time (though not always) the dynamic is pretty loud.

The movement follows the approximate formal scheme of A B C A' B' D.  The A music has as its orchestral underpinning an amazing motive split rhythmically through low strings, winds, high strings, and brass: a crazed elephant gallumping across the score.  Tenors enter first with the melody that we will all get eventually—nice and high for them (okay, it’s not an easy sing for them, either).  By the time this section closes, at m. 42, we’ve modulated to the relative major, C Major.

The B section is much softer overall, with a calmer orchestral accompaniment, though we keep chugging along in our 9/8 meter.  Beginning at letter F (m. 65) we build sequentially towards a strong cadence on C to conclude this section.

At m.74, letter G, our new section uses the “Pie Jesu” text (merciful Jesus).  Basses provide a slow pulse of reiterated notes over which tenors and sopranos sing lyrical arching lines (a favorite touch: the duple close of the soprano line in m. 81).  The dynamic remains soft; tenors and first violins are told to be “dolce,” sweet.  We sail along serenely in C major until Berlioz starts moving us back towards minor, with this section concluding on the dominant seventh chord of A minor.

That takes us to a return of the A music (m. 91, letter I), and A minor, but this time with a bigger orchestral presence (the brass bands and massed timpani now weigh in).  By the time we get to the repeated B section, though (m. 124), we are not in the expected C major (the relative major), as before, but rather in the parallel major, A major.  And when this section ends (m.155, letter O), we do not return to the C music but rather begin the build toward the climax with chromatic rising lines (and again, cool duple rhythms in m. 157).  Those rhythms lead to a switch back to A minor (m. 158); our sustained repeated Fs in all voices alternate with blasts from the brass.  The static motion eases at m. 162, when we begin moving as one with the orchestra—for the next 11 measures we are a massive block of sound progressing together, frequently repeating the same motive again and again, building tension.  Then the brass bands are temporarily silent, in part so that our fantastic choral suspensions are more evident—just look at m. 176, with soprano G against F, tenor G against F, and the dissonant bass E underneath all of that!  Then there’s the out-of-nowhere Bb major triad at m. 179 (where the heck did that come from? we’re supposed to be in A minor!  Okay, it’s a neapolitan chord.  But it’s still unexpected).  

Tonal instability is the whole point here.  Berlioz wants us to be aurally reeling, unhappy, longing for resolution.  The Bb triad is followed by a diminished seventh chord on A, then an Eb major triad (also unwelcome in A minor), and a funky transitional Eb/C/G# sonority to land us on a diminished seventh chord (D#/F#/A/C), which we have reached by dramatic (and chromatic) ascending lines in both soprano and tenor.  Nineteenth-century composers loved diminished seventh chords because they are about as unstable harmonically as you can get; they can move in any of four separate directions.  But what Berlioz does (and this is my absolute favorite part in the whole Requiem) is to resolve all this triumphantly to A major in m. 185.  Bass and Tenor II converge on octave Es; Soprano I and Tenor I hang on to their As to provide the root of the A major triad, and Soprano II (my part!) shifts up to C# to make the sun come out: this is a major triad, and the home we are heading to.  I have to work to keep from choking up here; what Berlioz does is just magic.

We’re not quite done yet; we need to dance around a bit harmonically and melodically until our final cadence, but from m. 185 on we know exactly where we are.  All uncertainty is past.


7.  Offertoire. Chœur des âmes du Purgatoire (“Chorus of Souls in Purgatory”)

After the excitement of the Lacrimosa, the chorus (and the audience) need a break.  Berlioz gives us one with the Offertory, where we are back in A minor, 4/4 meter, and a moderato tempo.  This is about as vocally untaxing as it can get.  All the focus is on the orchestra, which swirls around on a fugal subject taken from a mass Berlioz wrote in his early days.  We’ve got the text, of course, but it’s chopped up into little tiny bits and fitted to the same recurring motive: a dotted quarter note A, an eighth-note Bb, and then a return to the A.  Berlioz plays with the motive a little, sometimes expanding it, sometimes making it faster, sometimes cutting it down, but it’s always a surging, pleading, half-step turn.  Only towards the end do we do something different.  At m. 157 each of the six voices expands the motive rhythmically, and we enter imitatively on the descending pitches of a D Major triad (so the Soprano II F# in m. 138 is the first pitch anyone has sung in this movement that is neither A nor Bb).  Our final “Domine Jesu Christe” cadences nicely on D major, and our final “amen” is the motive we’ve sung all along, except now with a bright B natural as the second pitch.  Very satisfying.

8.  Hostias

Women get even more of a rest in the Hostias, where we do not sing at all.  In this short movement (47 measures, G major changing to G minor, Andante again, 4/4 again), the men’s chordal declamations are often a cappella.  There is some brief string accompaniment, mostly unison, but the instrumental emphasis is on the only other players: three high flutes and the low trombones from brass bands 3 and 4: an unexpected combination!


9.  Sanctus

Another movement where Berlioz messes with the text, as he simply leaves out the Benedictus.  The formal structure is thus A B A' B'.  The soft A sections are the lovely tenor solo, soaring up to a high Bb (the key is Db major, andante again, 4/4 again).  The louder B sections are the Osanna (chorus only), a bright fugal setting of the melody.  The orchestration is once again amazing: the strings are divided into thirteen parts, with tremolo violas, and there’s lots of percussion, but it’s handled very delicately.  The instructions from Berlioz are that the beats of the bass drum and the cymbals are to be as weak as possible.  This is the only solo of the entire work, but if you’d rather not showcase an individual voice, Berlioz helpfully says that the solo part could by sung instead by ten tenors in unison (!).

Agnus / [Communion]

10.  Agnus dei

Berlioz closes as he began, in some respects.  The meter is “3” again, just as it was in the Introit, and the tempo is the familiar Andante.  The movement opens with a series of tonally ambiguous sustained orchestral chords, and the first part of the movement, which presents the Agnus text, is sung by men only, with music borrowed from the Hostias.  Their chordal exclamations are interspersed with more orchestral chords, including some where the instruments are the same flute/trombone combo that we heard in the Hostias.

The last round of flute/trombone chords gives way to something unexpected: the music and the text of the Introit psalm verse, “Te decet hymnus,” and a corresponding key shift to Bb major—another connection with the first movement (and no, this text does not belong here).  We thus have a huge repeat of the Introit material, only slightly rearranged: mm. 81–171 of the first movement become mm. 82–172 of the last, text included.  The next six measures are reminiscent of the initial “Kyrie” music, but with text that belongs to the Requiem Communion (“cum sanctis tuis in aeternum”).  This is followed by the sweet coda on more Communion text (“quia pius es”), the music taken, however, from the “fons pietatis” conclusion to the Rex tremendae movement.  The final Amen chords float above arpeggiated strings and sustainged winds and brass, with timpani entering on our rests; we conclude in G major.  If you have ever sung the weird Christopher Rouse Karolju, this is where he got his ending—a direct steal from Berlioz.

The romance, passion, and drama of this work are pure Berlioz throughout.  He was once asked which of his many compositions would he save if he could only save one?  The Requiem was his choice.  It would be mine, too.

A Personal Note

Fraternity houses are typically associated with lots of nefarious goings-on, but my first experience of the Berlioz Requiem was in a fraternity house, courtesy of a fellow Penn State Singer, Church Cooke, who said I absolutely must, must, hear a recording of the Lacrymosa.  And he was right—I was completely blown away.  So, no booze, drugs, or hanky-panky in this fraternity house interaction.  Just one choir geek introducing another to an unbelievable piece of choral music.

The recording was the famous Colin Davis one on Philips with the great portrait of Berlioz by Gustave Courbet on the cover, part of Davis’s Berlioz cycle to mark the centennial of the composer’s death.  I bought my own copy (even though I didn’t even own a record player at the time) and talked friends into letting me use their rooms and stereo players so I could learn the whole thing and fall completely in love with it.

Some months later I was planning to spend spring break in California with my boyfriend, who lived there.  I would be flying into San Francisco, and you can imagine my giddiness when I learned that the Berlioz Requiem would be performed there during my visit.  Boyfriend was given instructions to buy tickets immediately for the event, which would certainly be one of the highlights of the trip.

So I arrived in San Francisco that March day long ago, fired up with excitement about going to hear, live, this wonderful work.  Except, of course, that Boyfriend had neglected to purchase tickets until everything was sold out—he hadn’t expected many people to be interested in seeing a work like that, and....mumble, mumble, mumble.

Reader, I dumped him (eventually).  Anyone who did not “get” the Berlioz Requiem was unlikely to “get” who I was, either.

Thanks to dopey Boyfriend, I have never been in the audience for a Berlioz Requiem, but I have had the chance to perform it multiple times (the best revenge, of course).  The first time was with the Boston Symphony and Tanglewood Festival Chorus, but that happened by accident.  The BSO had scheduled a Stravinsky concert (Symphony of Psalms and Oedipus Rex) for its regular subscription series and for a Carnegie Hall outing.  That was one of the perks of singing with TFC—regular trips to Carnegie Hall.

But the orchestra had hired the controversial Vanessa Redgrave to be the narrator for Oedipus Rex, and that did not sit well with numerous orchestra patrons, so on April 1 my journal reads “Confusion reigns.  I’m sitting here listening to my beloved Berlioz Requiem, which I’ve just learned is to be substituted for the Stravinsky program...”

The concerts were (ready for this?) April 15, 16, and 17 in Boston, and April 21 and 22 in Carnegie Hall.  Yes, we had a whole two weeks to learn this ca. 90-minute score.  Or actually only 10 days, since the first rehearsal was April 5 (journal entry: “singing second soprano.  That’s a high part!”)  Or actually less than ten days, since we needed to know the piece before the rehearsals with the orchestra.  Or actually not even that, since we were also preparing for a Beethoven 9 performance at Avery Fisher Hall on April 23, and had to rehearse that, too.

Well, we did it, and did it well, too.  The BSO had a champagne reception after the last Boston performance (not a normal feature of our concerts, but we deserved it), and my family came up to New York to see the first Carnegie Hall performance.  After the second, I simply wrote “emotional” in my journal.  One normally thinks of learning the Berlioz as a marathon of sorts, but this was a sprint.  And I loved every minute of it.

Selected Compositions

Berlioz was not especially interested in standard performing forces or formal structures.  That’s one of the reasons his music is so interesting to perform and listen to.  He also had close to zero interest in chamber music or works for solo keyboard.  Dates given below are of completion.


  • Les nuits d’été (1841)
    Gorgeous, gorgeous, gorgeous.  A setting of six poems by Théophile Gautier.  They were written with piano accompaniment; Berlioz orchestrated them later.  “Nuits d’été” means “summer nights,” and I try to listen to this piece every July.


  • Méditation religieuse (1831; Tristia #1)
  • Sara la baigneuse, ballade  (1834)
  • Grande messe des morts (Requiem) (1837)
  • Marche funèbre pour la dernière scène d’Hamlet  (1844; Tristia #3)
  • Prière du matin (1846 or earlier)
  • La damnation de Faust, légende dramatique (1846)
    The three best known excepts are the Hungarian March (Rakoczy March), the Ballet des sylphs, and the Minuet of Will o’ the Wisps.
  • La mort d’Ophélie, ballade (1848; Tristia #2)
  • Te Deum (1849; Berlioz called this the younger sibling of the Requiem)
  • L’enfance du Christ, trilogie sacrée (1854)


  • Symphonie fantastique: épisode de la vie d’un artiste (1830)
    Sequel = Lelio, ou Le retour à la vie (1832; monodrame lyrique; uses chorus)
  • Le roi Lear, grande ouverture  (1831)
  • Harold en Italie  (1834)
    The best-known excerpt is the Pilgrim’s March.
  • Roméo et Juliette (1839)
    The best-known excerpt is the Queen Mab Scherzo.
  • Grande symphonie funèbre et triomphale (1840)
    Originally for military band, optional string parts were added later, as was a choral part.
  • Le carnaval romain, ouverture caractéristique (1844)
  • Le corsaire, ouverture (1844)


  • Benevenuto Cellini  (1838)
  • Les Troyens  (1858)
    The best-known excerpt is the Royal Hunt and Storm.  This gets played separately in  orchestra concerts, but almost never with the choral part.  When the chorus is included, however, you sit on stage for most of the piece and then stand up at the climax to sing  “Eee-tah-lee-uh!  Eee-tah-lee-uh!” (Italie! Italie! in French pronunciation, to goad Aeneas into leaving Dido and Carthage and heading off to found the Roman Empire.)  Then there’s a bunch of lively wordless singing immediately afterwards.  Great fun!
  • Béatrice et Bénédict (1862)

For Further Reading

The interested music lover has many good choices to learn more about Berlioz, including four English-language biographies.  Berlioz and the Romantic Century (2 volumes) by Jacques Barzun (3rd edition, 1969) is especially valuable in its discussion of Berlioz’s world.  Another two-volume work published in 1999 by David Cairns provides the most detailed information on the composer’s life: Berlioz 1803–1832: The Making of an Artist and Berlioz 1832–1869: Servitude and Greatness.  Those interested in shorter treatments should investigate Peter Bloom’s The Life of Berlioz (1998), intended for the general reader; D. Kern Holoman’s Berlioz (1989), which is more detailed in its musical analysis; and Hugh Macdonald’s Berlioz (2nd edition, 1991) for Dent’s Master Musician series.  And there’s also the excellent Cambridge Companion to Berlioz (2000), edited by Peter Bloom.

July 2018