There is no more thrilling place to be, says conductor Brian Wright, than standing in the middle of Berlioz’s Grande Messe des Morts. So he’s in luck: on Monday 30 November, he and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra will perform the piece at the Royal Albert Hall – a good place for it, according to Wright.
That’s because Grande Messe des Morts, written in 1837, is the King Kong of requiems. Berlioz, who intended it to memorialise the victims of the French revolution in July 1830, was never stingy with decibel levels. But in this work, he excelled himself, including, in addition to his enormous orchestra and gargantuan choir, four brass bands. Positioned around the other performers, these take turns to bludgeon the audience into submission; no wonder it’s rather a trial to put this piece on. ‘Trying to get all that lot together, as conductor, you’ve got to be very clear in what you’re doing and just keep the most enormously cool head.’ Then, of course, there’s the expense: ’I remember once doing it in the Albert Hall, when amazingly, we managed to get an audience of 3,000 in. I think we made £100 profit in the end.’
So why do performers keep coming back to it? Exactly because of its eccentricity. ‘In the middle of the piece especially, Berlioz lets his imagination go absolutely wild in a totally theatrical way,’ says Wright. ‘In one place there is this unbelievably bare sound of three flutes, right at the top of the flute range, with no harmony underneath, but then you suddenly have the sound of four bass trombones coming in from the brass. It’s haunting.’
As he points out, this is the sort of contemporary effect you’d associate with a mid twentieth-century composer rather than someone at the beginning of the nineteenth century. And it’s certainly not what you’d call reverential church music. But for all its originality, this piece didn’t spring from nowhere: ‘During the revolution, there were great open air celebrations with brass bands in four corners of a square, who would go out into the population and teach thousands of people the latest revolutionary tunes.’ What Berlioz essentially did, Wright explains, was to take this practice and put it in a religious context. ‘It’s a bit like somebody today taking the latest ideas from pop music and putting them into a classical context,’ Wright explains.
To deafening effect, some might say. But on this, Wright has his own opinion: ‘The interesting thing about this piece is that it’s not just about those enormous moments which almost have the feeling of growing out of the French Revolution. There are also these incredible moments of intimacy, for example in the Sanctus where the solo tenor comes in with this very ethereal line.’
But the diabolical shrieks also have their place, not least of all in the Lacrimosa: ‘It’s frankly a dance of death. The basic speed is a waltz, but it’s a manic waltz over the edge into the abyss. It’s the beckoning of death, Hell and all the rest of it,’ Wright says with relish. ‘And Berlioz really knew how to conjure that up.’
Written by Hannah Nepil