Friday, September 11, 2020

Grande messe des morts


This montage from our Podcast Vault revisits a post from March 15, 2013. It can be found in our archives at 


This week’s throwback montage was chosen to commemorate the 19th anniversary of the terrir attacks of September 11, 2001. Hector Berlioz's 1837 Grande Messe des Morts ("Great Mass for the Dead," often referred to as his Requiem Mass) is an appropriate work to mark this somber anniversary. As I pointed out in the original commentary, the performance of the Requiem I retained marked another commemoration – the bombing of Dresden by Allied forces at the height of the Second World War.

In a Classical Notes article, we are reminded that, although Berlioz retained warm memories of his religious upbringing, he referred to God as "standing aloof in his infinite unconcern," dismissed worship as "revolting and absurd," called Catholicism "charming now that it no longer burns people. Berlioz's cynical attitude colors perceptions that his Requiem is predominantly secular.

The article provides critiques of Berlioz’s Requiem that, some might say; underscore the dichotomy of Berlioz’s agnostic views and the Mass’ ambitious scale. George Bernard Shaw disparaged the Berlioz Requiem as "only a peg to hang his tremendous music on; to a genuinely religious man the introduction of elaborate sensational instrumental effects into acts of worship would have seemed blasphemous." One suspects that such reproaches reflect the critics' shallow view of religion as merely providing worshipers with spiritual comfort, a narrow purpose to which they also consign requiems. Andreas Kluge credits Berlioz with balancing social protest with religious hope, "rais[ing] a voice of protest at human suffering on earth while also casting a wistful glance in the direction of divine redemption in the world to come."

Our filler work, marking the tenth anniversary of the 1830 Revolution, is the Grande Symphonie funèbre et triomphale, comprising three sections evoking eruptions of battle amidst a mournful cortege, a funeral oration as the victims were reinterred in a new commemorative monument in the Place de la Bastille, and a hymn of glory as the tomb was sealed. Initially written for a large symphonic band, in 1842 he added string and choral parts "which, although not obligatory, add considerably to the effect."

The filler, as for the main work this week, is performed under Sir Colin Davis.

I think you will (still) love this music too.

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