And this is the man to whom I dedicated my journey to London.  Hector Berlioz, no less.

In blogposting 223 I was vain enough to list my eight Desert Island Discs, for what they’re worth.  One of them was Berlioz’ Requiem.  This is what I wrote about it way back in September 2010.

‘….Berlioz was a pre-Raphaelite renegade of the first water.  Like The Beatles, he consciously fought to move music forward, to experiment with new forms and new effects, to shake up the musical establishment of his era (up to about the 1850s).

He succeeded magnificently.  His works, all of which are orchestrated to within an inch of their lives, bounce down the decades and still stir the hearts of his many fans today.  Rousing overtures like
The Corsair, Les francs-juges, King Lear or Roman Carnival were years ahead of their time.  And he didn’t number his symphonies like everyone else - he named them; Harold In Italy and The Fantastic Symphony (which includes a heart-stopping musical representation of a beheading by guillotine).

But he really knocked spots off people’s preconceptions with his funereal works.  His
Symphonie funebre includes one of the most famous and most stately funeral marches ever written.  And the Grande Messe des Morts - the ‘great Mass for the dead’, more usually called the Requiem - must have had its audience gibbering in the aisles when it was first performed in 1837.

With astonishing Romantic-era panache, Berlioz’ score for the
Requiem requires....
*a 180-piece orchestra, including 16 kettledrums, 10 pairs of cymbals, 20 'cellos and 18 double-basses;
*four brass bands (placed at the corners of the auditorium) - 38 players in all;
*a choir of 210 voices, made up of 80 sopranos, 70 basses and 60 tenors; plus
*a tenor solo.

Despite the numbers involved, though, it’s not all deafeningly thunderous.  Berlioz was clever enough to intersperse the volcanic eruptions with areas of wistfulness and calm. Nevertheless, it’s the deafening thunder that clinches it for most people.

It’s not often performed, of course.  The cost is prohibitive, for a start.  So I’m lucky to have seen it twice.  Which means that I have felt that my life will never be the same again -

The part of the
Requiem that makes you wonder what on earth Berlioz was on when he wrote it is the Tuba mirum - the massed trumpet call to the Last Judgement of the Lord. (Even typing those words has given me goosepimples.)  The whole ensemble - all 429 of them - take part.  The trumpets blare at you from the four corners of the world, the whole of humanity calls to the Lord, who calls back using all those kettledrums, cymbals and double-basses….’

As I said then, it’s rarely performed because the number of people involved - and thus the cost - is prohibitive.  And a performance with a regular-sized orchestra and chorus would sound half-hearted and even silly.  You need at least something approaching Berlioz’ preferred scale, and a very big auditorium indeed, for the full effect.

And that’s what I got on Monday night - as you can see.  That’s the Royal Albert Hall, with a capacity ensemble waiting for the conductor to walk onstage.  Rank upon rank of singers and an enhanced Royal Philharmonic Orchestra;  there are twelve timpani - kettledrums - and two enormous bass drums, one of which was bigger than the drummer himself.

And the four brass bands which Berlioz’ score calls for aren’t even in the picture; they’re ‘up a-height’ in the ‘gods’ of the auditorium.

As you can imagine, the concert was visually and aurally spectacular.  The Tuba mirum was powerful enough to shatter windows, ribs and illusions - which made the quieter sections of the Requiem sound all the more longingly poignant.  And this was especially so because the performance was dedicated to the people of Paris, in their grief and their loss.

You can watch and hear a Lyon performance of the Requiem here - the Tuba mirum starts at 16:00 and ends at 23:12 -

This (older) performance under Leonard Bernstein brings out the power of brass even more (between 17:20 and 24:30) -

As far as I know, Berlioz’ Requiem has never been performed in Newcastle.  On the train home, I decided to dedicate at least part of the time I have left to rectifying this deplorable state of affairs.
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