The Transformation of Ritual Space: Berlioz’s “La Grande Messe des Morts” at Tanglewood
Tanglewood Festival Chorus, Russell Thomas, tenor
Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by Charles Dutoit, July 9, 2011
For medieval and modern readers, Dante’s Inferno imparts to the after-life a spatial grandeur, a vision of echoing vaults, vast beyond the reaches of terrestrial architecture, filled with souls in various stages of damnation or beatitude. Our imaginations seem capable of constituting visual and three-dimensional experiences from such partial cues as words on the page or moving images on a screen. Natural locales such as the top of Pike’s Peak or the rim of the Grand Canyon inspire awe, if not vertigo, but provide a different order of experience. Closer to Hell-Purgatory-Heaven, or to the view from the space-ship Enterprise, perhaps, are the interior architectures designed by humans to enclose us in ideological spaces. Chief among these, in the Western historical experience, is the Gothic and post-Gothic cathedral, in which spatial experience is given a precise theological definition.
In the medieval Christian tradition, the primary purpose of a sacred space was to enclose the enactment of the liturgy, particularly the miracle of Communion. Enclosure was required because the facilitating action for the miracle was the melodious chanting of an appropriate liturgical text within a sanctified acoustical space, one which served as the initiation point for a journey whose destination was the ear of God. An essential component of awe-inspiring interiors such as San Marco in Venice or the great cathedral in Cologne is the acoustical experience they offer. A reverberation period of 5-8 seconds transforms human-generated sound into tiny specks in a vast, echoing void, almost but not quite, silent. Those spaces are designed to be set into vibrant life by the massed sounds of voices singing in faceless anonymity; what they sing is part of a super-human conversation.
The Hôtel Nationale des Invalides (the national residence of the invalids) was built by Louis XIV (1670-1679) not to house a supernatural ritual, but to celebrate a state event: honoring the soldiers and their military endeavors on behalf of the new imperium, the realm of the Sun-king. Through architecture such as this, the state appropriated the grandeur and awe associated with the sacred. At the time of the French Revolution (1789), the process of displacement of the church by the nation was virtually complete. The hero who perpetuated the new order was Napoleon, whose remains (after a period of ambivalence) came to rest at the Hôtel in 1840 at the order of the bourgeois king, Louis Philippe. Three years earlier, in 1837, a great ritual was held there to honor the deaths of other soldiers, those who had fought on behalf of the Republic in the second revolution of July, 1830. It was at this point that the two great world-views, medieval theocracy and modern nationalism, converged in a work that had long been germinating in the imagination of an artist uniquely suited to perform the necessary alchemy, Hector Berlioz.
The conjunction of Berlioz, the Hôtel, and the occasion was a magical one; the powerful ideological role that space plays in architecture had been appropriated by musicians before, most notably the “maestri di capella” in San Marco during the 16th century, and especially Giovanni Gabrieli. (Spatial effects were imaginatively appropriated by his successor, Claudio Monteverdi, for his first opera Orfeo, 1607, rather than for his church music.) But since Gabrieli’s death in 1611, nothing essentially new developed within the spatial-acoustic dimension of music until the nineteenth century, and no one thinking along these lines came close to the spatial sensibility and audacity of Hector Berlioz. This composer was virtually besotted with space, with crowds, with massed voices and instruments by the hundreds and the thousands. He may have been influenced in this by his teacher, Jean-François Lesueur, who had composed monumental ceremonial music to be performed by the masses at outdoor meetings during the Revolution. While Berlioz was not yet born at that time, hearing about this later must have inflamed his (readily aroused) imagination. As a child of his time, the concept of the People offered him a new, powerful contemporary image and experience. It was they who had seemed to triumph in the July Revolution; their struggles were defining the politics of the new industrial states; and their sensibilities were just starting to shape the culture of newspapers, transportation, communication, and the arts.
Berlioz was a maverick; he defied the orthodoxies of composition which were being perpetuated at the Conservatoire by its ageing director, Luigi Cherubini. But Berlioz fought for recognition and, in this case, won. It was he rather than Cherubini who was selected by the Minister of the Interior to provide the music for the great requiem to be performed in December of 1837. Despite his conservatory training and his winning the Prix de Rome in 1831, Berlioz’s music never adhered to any of the established standards: his understanding of the basics—melody, harmony, and counterpoint—bore little resemblance to what he inherited or to what his contemporaries were doing. And he literally wrote the book on modern orchestration. His sensitivity to acoustics combined with an acute literary sensibility shaped his musical conceptions in ways that were unprecedented. While orchestral works like his overtures or the Symphonie Fantastique are ear-tingling and spectacular, winning over modern audiences through color and audacity, his vocal works register with flowing, open-ended melodies (much closer to Wagner’s ideal of “endless melody” than his own) and harmonic progressions that seem to meander unpredictably but always manage to generate a powerful atmosphere and surprisingly end up in the right place. These works, while romantic, also breathe an air of classicism that is entirely his own. Berlioz’s sound is, like Chopin’s, instantly identifiable, but unlike Chopin’s, it is highly diversified, and particular to each work.
A great deal of the Requiem sounds modal at the same time that there are chromatic elements; its language avoids the predictive syntax of tonal harmony and keeps every gesture sounding surprising and fresh. Modality lends a sense of timelessness that looks back to medieval traditions while looking forward to modern musical resources. The rising scales on the low strings in the opening section (“Requiem aeternum”) evoke the opening of a vast and weighty space, looking upward with frailty and hope from the depths of the grave. The central a capella movement, “Quaerens me,” begins like a Gregorian chant, continues like a renaissance motet (in relatively pure counterpoint) and accumulates romantically expressive touches as it continues with its plea intimately addressed to Christ. Here Berlioz seems to connect to the Caecilian movement of the 19th century with its revival of the aesthetics of purity based on the rediscovered a capella music of Palestrina and his contemporaries, even though Berlioz professed distaste for Palestrina. Each of the other movements defines a unique texture of voices and instruments. In the preceding “Rex Tremendae”, the contrasts between terrible massed fortissimo outbursts (“King of awful majesty”) and gasping pianissimo pleas (“Remember, merciful Jesu”) is shocking, especially when Berlioz interjects the name of Jesus into the text of the “Confutatis,” a juxtaposition of cursing the damned and pleading for mercy that is implied by but not explicit in the original word order. In a less concentrated but more architectural way, this juxtaposition plays itself out across the entire work. The “Hostias” begins with a texture of “falso bordone” or chanting in rhythmic unison on an unchanging chord that reaches back to the early renaissance. Close to the conclusion, the personal element expresses itself most intimately through a solo voice in dialogue with the hushed chorus in the “Sanctus” (the ninth section out of ten). It is not simply the textural drama that registers so powerfully here, but also the remarkable combination of very simple melodic materials and almost post-romantic harmonic shifting that constantly throws new light on the melodies.
The basses have their moment of glory in the “Tuba mirum” when they sing in unison against the massed forces of four spatially separated brass bands and rolling percussive thunder; it is the iconic moment of the work in that it is easy to describe, but there are many other equally striking and original “coups du théatre,” such as the end of the “Hostias” with its combination of heavenly flutes and hellish bass trombone or my favorite, the end of the second “Sanctus” where the solo tenor and floating strings are joined by quiet bass drum thumps and soft scraping of crash cymbals—a post-modern juxtaposition that prevents the moment from becoming a cliché, a reminder of the complexity of an event in which comfort and terror emanate from the same source.
The sound of the Requiem is particular to the acoustics of the space for which it was designed, one with about a 6-second reverberation period. You cannot compose finicky details for such a space; a Beethoven symphony would be swamped with excessive reverberation in it. The sound of the music has to be constructed like a huge fresco, one where you need to step back to take in the image; such music needs to be listened to in that way: the characteristics of the moment are expanded, each moment occupies a significant span of time, the listener must “step back” in order to register the event. Contrasts are offered on a large scale; each event unfolds in its own appropriate time-frame. The chorus, which carries the burden of the musical argument forward all the way through, has a Herculean task to perform. As heard at Tanglewood, without intermission, the listener is plunged into a unique time-space, a meditative but physically palpable experience of huge forces interacting, a movement oscillating between the sombre prayers of the departing individual and the mighty cosmic forces that are encountered in the journey to the after-life. This is, of course, a very different after-life than the one encountered in the spectacular Witches’ Sabbath of Symphonie Fantastique: it is vested with dignity and awe, partly thanks to four brass bands, six pairs of timpani, two bass drums, and one hundred and fifty voices, but mostly to the patient, slow unfolding of the musical-spatial panorama.
Edward T. Cone has written perceptively about this work (T. Cone, “Berlioz’s Divine Comedy: The Grande Messe des morts,” 19th-Century Music, Vol. 4, No. 1, Summer, 1980):
“What Berlioz presents…is not so much the celebration of a Mass as the emotional experiences of a contemplative auditor attending such a Mass—one who, allowing his imagination full play, visualizes himself as present at the wonderful and terrible scenes described, and who returns to reality at the conclusion of the service with a consequent sense of catharsis. The measure of the composer’s success is the extent to which he forces each of us—members of the audience at an actual performance of the Messe des morts—to assume the role of that protagonist and to share, as it were, those experiences.”
The response of the audience at Tanglewood seemed to bear this out. The ending is extended, quiet, and simple, a long balancing moment after the grandiose power of so much of the work. The solo had been brief, and the chorus held its central role to the last. The conductor’s role as interpreted of Charles Dutoit was that of dutiful custodian, holding the vast forces together as a coordinator and subtle animator rather than as a central focus or lightning rod. Thus, there was no starring figure for the audience to fasten onto, to stand up and cheer for. The experience was a stunning one, but the lasting effect was to turn one’s thoughts inward.
Although not ideal for many types of music, the front of the Tanglewood shed proved to be a fine space for this work. The bands sounded almost like they came from the four points of the compass (as they actually did at the Hôtel des Invalides). Maestro Dutoit proved expert in keeping the forces rhythmically together, no mean feat when the distance between them requires factoring in the speed of sound. Yet despite the power, skill, and accuracy of the orchestral playing, the principle virtues of the performance lay with the chorus, which performed from memory and which stood on its feet from beginning to end (reminder: without intermission). Their leader John Oliver rightly shared the honors with Dutoit; the concentration, energy, and commitment of each of the 145 (±) singers was compelling. This is a very demanding score; the tessitura of the sopranos can be very high; their first entry is on a high G, “mezza voce,” without any preparatory vocalizing. Other passages linger close to high C for significant amounts of time. The only departure from perfect accuracy occurred during the Quaerens me, where the pitch of the 150 unaccompanied voices dropped almost a half-step. Thus the ensuing “Lacrymosa” sounded it like it began a half-step higher when in fact it should have been at the same pitch-level. I can only imagine the challenge of trying to hold pitch with that number of singers. I can also only imagine what a gratifying experience it would be to participate in such a performance.
Requiems since Mozart tend to be the most popular kind of church music; the subject matter has great dramatic appeal and we hear them regularly in concert halls, even though they are often not intended for them. The exception is the non-liturgical Brahms Requiem. But Mozart, Verdi, Fauré, Duruflé, and Britten have produced church pieces that are also staples of concert life. Of all of them, the one that the Berlioz most resembles is Britten’s War Requiem, another work written to mark a public and political event. The two of them share a dark spatiality; Britten’s opening is similar to Berlioz’s, but evokes specifically the darkness of a battlefield, and that image is brought back repeatedly through Wilfred Owen’s poetry, which sets up dialectical tensions not only between the individuals and the massed voices of the celebrants, but ideological tensions between the peace of “Dona nobis pacem” and the war waged by the Christian nations. It is as if Berlioz were brought from the nineteenth into the twentieth century. But the one does not displace the other. Berlioz’s work deserves to be heard often enough for concert-goers to have access to it. The Boston Symphony did not get around to performing it until they had a music director, Charles Munch, who had a special affection for it and who introduced it in 1951. It was last heard at Tanglewood sixteen years ago. While many of the Tanglewood programs recycle works that have been favorites year after year, the inclusion of Berlioz’s “Grande Messe des Morts” was an act of faith not only in the chorus, orchestra, and conductor, but in the audience as well.