Hector Berlioz


Historical Background

During the 1830s, there were political revolutions all over Europe, and France was no exception to that. To commemorate the fallen heros in the July Revolution of 1830, the Minister of the Interior, a M. le Comte Adrien de Gasparin, on March 8, 1837, requested Berlioz to compose a requiem for the service. Berlioz was happy to receive the commission, since he had long wished to produce a large-scale, sacred work describing the Judgement Day. Several bureaucratic complications, however, delayed the performance of this work.

One of such complication had to deal with the Director of the Conservatoire at that time: Luigi Cherubini. As the Music Director, Cherubini thought that a government-sponsored ceremony should naturally use a work of his own, and not that of a young, eccentric composer like Berlioz. After Berlioz dealt with Cherubini's hindrance and after having the work composed, the French government decided to cancel the ceremony. Having spent all of his money on script copying and hiring players for rehearsals, Berlioz was in extreme financial trouble.

When General Charles Denys de Damremont fell with other French soldiers on October 13, 1837, during the capture of the town of Constantine, the Ministry of War at that time decided to hold a memorial service for the fallen soldiers. After being approached by the Minister of War, General Simon Bernard, this work was finally performed on December 5, 1837. Francois-Antoine Habeneck was the conductor, as he was responsible for performing works for state functions.

An interesting story was attached to this first performance of the Requiem. According to Berlioz, during a crucial moment in the work, the Tuba mirum, Habeneck decided to take his habitual pinch of snuff when he should have been guiding the orchestra through a complicated passage that involved the sequential introduction of 4 brass bands in the work. Berlioz described this event in his Memoirs:

The first performance was declared a success. It was reported that some even broke down and cried during the performance. Berlioz was finally paid by the state government, but without further bureaucratic complications. Ultimately, Berlioz dedicated the work to M. de Gasparin for his help and understanding.

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Jason C. Lee