Hector Berlioz


Discussion on Individual Movements

General Characteristics

Berlioz's Requiem consists of 10 movements, as listed below:

An interesting symmetry is associated with the arrangement of these movements. The combined measure total of the first 5 movements is equal to 603, which is also the combined measure total of the last 4 movements. Furthermore, the center movement of this work, Lacrymosa, has only 201 measures, which is a third of 603. While the first movement, Requiem et Kyrie, and the last movement, Agnus Dei, are in 3/4 meter, sixth (Lacrymosa) is in 9/8 meter. Whether these symmetrical properties were intentional or not, they are remarkable and give the work a sense of balance and orderness.

Each of the ten movements describes a different setting and conveys a different mood. For example, while the Dies irae-Tuba mirum is loud and dramatic, the Quaerens me gives a quiet and gentle feeling. The loud or fast movements (II, IV, VI, VIII) tend to be flanked by much quieter and slower movements (III, V, VII, IX).

I. Requiem et Kyrie

This movement sets the key and the tone for the whole Requiem work. It conveys a dark, somber mood throughout the movement. The opening is marked by repeated rising scale played by the violins and violas. These strings are later on joined by horns, oboes, and English horns, all before the voices are finally introduced. The middle segment of this movement suggests agony and despair, as displayed by agitating music, but is contrasted soon by a hopeful prayer (through the voices) that calms the anxiety. Ending this first movement in a bleak way, the voices sing quietly "kyrie eleison" in dissonance until the end.

II. Dies irae - Tuba mirum

This movement depicts the vision of Judgement Day. An atmosphere of far-off desolation and ritual lamentation is evoked by initial themes, as conveyed by music in series of leaps and counter-melodies. A rhythmic music suggesting a march ensues, and the juagged chromatic interruption sends the music reeling upward. The tenor's and women's voices are accompanied by woodwinds. When the shrill octaves are reached by the woodwinds, it suggests that the Day of Judgement is here and now.

The four groups of brass, including trombones and tubas, blast in from four different locations, suggesting the blow from four corners of the earth. Their entrance, one by one, is critically marked. (During the first performance in 1837, conductor Habeneck was said to decide to break for his pinch of snuff during this crucial moment in the work. Berlioz was said to have to leap rescue his work from disaster. See Historical Background) This fanfare lasts for about 20 bars before the choir enters. With the bass suggesting Mephistopheles, the fanfare is soon repeated with the basses. The whole chorus sings again, with overlapping entries between the voices. A sudden break starts a awed whisper from the choir. The movement ends with woodwinds and pianissimo strings.

Click HERE to hear a sample of Tuba Mirum.

III. Quid sum miser

In this brief, fragmentary movement, the aftermath of Judgement Day is suggested. The main melody interwovens with theme from the previous Dies irae. With this link, the confession of the man's weakness and humility is suggested.

IV. Rex tremendae

This movement contrasts the awesome and majestic God with the weak and vulnerable man. Throughout the movement, you can hear moments that represent agitating cries for the majestic Jesus; these moments then end with a humble beg for help and mercy in "Salva me" and "voca me." Towards the end of the piece, there is vision of an abyss; from there, the cries of "Rex tremendae" rises again, but then soon ends with a quiet "Salva me." This contrasting pattern is repeated several times, further depicting the two moods of man, as he pleads for help from God and at the same time expresses his awe at the majestic Lord. The movement ends quietly.

Click HERE to hear a sample of Rex tremendae.

V. Quaerens me

This quiet movement contains unaccompanied prayer in three-part counterpoint, with a middle section in six parts. The second section repeats the first, with slight variation. A brief climax rises before the gentle closing.

VI. Lacrymosa

In 9/8 meter times, the Lacrymosa suggests that whole human race is being driven to lament toward the Judgement. The restless rhythm depicts people being whipped and pushed forward uncontrollably. This is undoubtedly the central movement and the focus of the Requiem for several reasons. It is the last movement that refers to pain and suffering. It is also the last movement in the work that uses large, extra brass bands and choruses to express any extended loud outbursts. Lastly, it is the only movement in the work that was written in perfect sonata form.

VII. Offertorium

During the first performances of Requiem in 1837, this movement fascinated many of Berlioz's contemporaries. For example, Robert Schumann admired its originality in style. The entire movement (which can be almost 11 min long) is based almost solely on a repeated 3-notes phrase: A, B-flat, A. These notes are sung vocally almost without any variation, at the same pitch, by the chorus. While the voices are progressing in A, B-flat, A, the orchestral accompaniment (mostly strings) goes in a fugal style and plays along the voices through varitions of melodies. It sounds as if the orchestra is interweaving around the repeating monotonic voices.

This almost unchanging chant of the voices symbolizes the unchanging prayer of those in Purgatory. It feels as if the chant goes perpetually, with the orchestral melodies moving independently around, as if expressing sympathies to the voices. This chant by the voices continues almost until the end of the movement. Then, the voices break off from this chant, and ends as if in peace and tranquility. Berlioz's originality is demonstrated in this movement through his choice of setting constantly changing music along with the unique, unvarying vocal parts.

VIII. Hostias

A much shorter movement than Offertorium, the Hostias again demonstrates how Berlioz conveys mood in his music uniquely through specially placing music and vocal settings. This movement is centered by male voices throughout, but is punctuated by chords of flute and trombones, which gives an interesting combination sound. This pattern remain throughout and gives a sense of isolation and space around the human voices. It depicts the gulf between heaven and earth and suggests as if the men are trying to reach God from afar.

IX. Sanctus

The sole movement in the work that uses a solo tenor voice, the Sanctus shows depicts man's bliss and happiness as he feels closer to God's glories. The solo tenor voice starts the movement accompanied by violas; his phrases are answered, in turn, by women's voices. The quietness and stillnesss mood is built further by long held notes of flute. After the Hosanna fugue, the Sanctus returns, accompanied by cello and cymbals. The Hosannas is repeated, this time with a full orchestra, before the movement ends.

X. Agnus dei

In the beginning of this movement, one notices the special effect given by the playing of the long woodwind chords and ending with echoes of the violas. Since this is the last movement of the work, Berlioz uses recapitulation (or recalling musical techniques and materials previously used in the work) to make the whole piece seem complete and whole. One such device is re-using the chromatic succession of male voices already heard in "Hostias." Similarly, the "Te decet hymnus" segment from "Kyrie" was re-introduced in variation. This movement conveys a feeling of calm and peace. It ends with a series of "amen," supported by lightly beating drums and woodwinds and strings accompaniment.

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Jason C. Lee