Sunday, December 23, 2018

Berlioz, A Snuff Box, and a Requiem. It's Pretty Fantastic!

By Andy Fein, Luthier at Fein Violins,
and Ivana Truong

File:Berlioz conducting.jpg
A cartoon of Berlioz conducting, originally captioned "Fortunately the hall is solid... it can stand the strain!"
Hector Berlioz, like many composers, was pretty crazy. In between composing masterpieces, he even almost murdered his ex-lover  (and her fiance and her mother!) while cross dressing as a maid. (You can read the full story on our past blogpost here)

But besides the murder-suicide plots, he was also pretty paranoid. So while the truth is questionable, here is a story from his memoir, of how his famous Requiem, the "Grande Messe des Morts," was almost sabotaged at its premiere.

head and shoulders of middle-aged white man, with dark bushy hair; clean-shaven except for neat side-whiskers
Portrait of Berlioz in 1845
In 1836, Adrien de Gasparin, the Minister of the Interior, wanted to promote new music in France and set aside money for a new piece to be commissioned and premiered. All at the expense of the French Government. His first selection for this commission was Hector Berlioz, who was recently made famous by his Symphonie Fantastique. The Minister asked Berlioz to compose a piece honoring those who died in the French Revolution of 1830.

However, Edmond Cavé, the director of Beaux-Arts, did not approve of Berlioz's music. So, in the first of a long string of obstacles, he delayed some documents that were needed for the commission to be finalized. After some help from de Gasparin, who originally asked for the commission, the documents were settled and the commission was finalized. Berlioz could finally began composing. He was looking forward to writing such a large-scale piece, saying that the Requiem was "a prey I had long coveted; at last it was mine, and I fell on it with a sort of fury. My brain seemed ready to burst under the pressure of creative ferment. Hardly had the plan of one piece been sketched that another one would suggest itself."

File:Berlioz Requiem 1838.jpg
A first edition copy of Berlioz's Grande Messe des Morts
But the drama was hardly over. Just as the piece was about to be rehearsed, it was decided that the service would be held without music. The piece had already been composed, copied, and musicians had been hired, so without the money promised to him, Berlioz was in financial trouble. However, just as he left the office of Edmond Cavé after an argument about the piece, it was announced that a battle resulted in the death of General Damrémont. The service was going to be organized by the War Ministry, who wanted Berlioz's Requiem to be performed.

Edmond Cavé (1794–1852), Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres (French, Montauban 1780–1867 Paris), Oil on canvas
Edmond Cavé, Director of Beaux-Arts
After yet another plot to stop Berlioz had been foiled, rehearsals began in earnest. Before the rehearsals started, Berlioz was informed by Edmond Cavé that he would not be conducting his piece. Instead, François Habeneck, who also disliked Berlioz, would conduct. Berlioz, who we have seen to be not particularly trusting, agreed, but kept an eye on rehearsals. But the rehearsals went surprisingly well, and the Requiem seemed ready to be performed.

François Habeneck
The night of the performance had "princes, ministers, peers, deputies, the entire French press, and the correspondents of foreign newspapers" in attendance. Berlioz later said "I had to score a great success [that night]. A moderate one would have been fatal, and a failure would have been the end of me." According to Berlioz, it was almost a disaster. The Requiem went well, until the tuba mirum. The mirum is half the tempo of the previous part, so it was crucial that Habeneck marked the new tempo clearly, or else Berlioz's carefully prepared brass fanfare would sound more like a train wreck.

Grande Messe des Morts

At this moment, Habeneck took out his snuffbox. (Snuff is tobacco that is snorted through the nose). It seemed like Habeneck wasn't paying attention to the score, didn't care about the tempo, or both.

Berlioz saw this out of the corner of his eye and leapt in front of Habeneck. He gave the first four beats of the mirum, and continued to conduct until the end. The mirum went as planned and the piece in its entirety was received well. In Berlioz' defense, Habeneck might have been trying to sabotage Berlioz' new work. He really didn't like the guy. Or, he might have just wanted a hit of the euphoria induced by his snuff. At that time, snuff often contained cocaine or opium to enhance the effects. Maybe Berlioz just didn't want some drugged out conductor leading his new piece.

Despite the requiem's success, it took Berlioz eight months, a violent episode at Edmond Cavé's office, and a few threats before he was paid. Today, the "Grande Messe des Morts" remains one of Berlioz's most famous pieces.

Image of the London Symphony Orchestra rehearsing Berlioz's requiem in St. Paul's Cathedral
© Steve Bowbrick / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-3.0 / GFDL


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