The Proms raises the titantic

Over 600 musicians will perform Berlioz's colossal Requiem this Sunday. Does size matter in music?
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The Independent Culture

Hector Berlioz hit the headlines in unexpected places last year, when Berlioz: Servitude and Greatness, the second volume of David Cairns' biography, deservedly swept up an astonishing succession of awards. Its epic scale - a staggering 1,582 pages - is worthy of its subject, the most colossal of whose works, Requiem, can be heard at the Proms on Sunday evening.

Hector Berlioz hit the headlines in unexpected places last year, when Berlioz: Servitude and Greatness, the second volume of David Cairns' biography, deservedly swept up an astonishing succession of awards. Its epic scale - a staggering 1,582 pages - is worthy of its subject, the most colossal of whose works, Requiem, can be heard at the Proms on Sunday evening.

When in 1836 Berlioz received a commission to write a grand ceremonial piÿce d'occasion, it touched something deep in his soul. The idea of music on a massive scale had been with him since childhood, when his impassioned reading of Plutarch brought his bubbling imagination into contact with the huge festivals of the ancient world. Those images of classical grandeur soon fused with a more modern element. In Paris in 1822, Berlioz became a student of Jean-François Le Sueur and listened to his teacher's reminiscences of how the composers of revolutionary France would mount carts in the street to teach tunes to the people, to be sung in massive gatherings on the Champs de Mars.

Cherubini, another of Berlioz's professors was another prominent contributor to this nascent fashion for musical gigantism, as was Etienne-Nicolas Mehul. The man who took matters to a logical extreme was François-Joseph Gossec, whose Te Deum beggars belief: it is scored for 1,200 singers and 300 woodwinds. Gossec's oratorio La Nativité experiments, too, with the spatial disposition of forces, as did Le Sueur's Symphonic Ode of 1801, which stationed its four orchestras at the corners of Les Invalides.

All these influences Berlioz absorbed, so Cairns cautions against judging Berlioz out of context: "People assumed that he was just a megalomaniac who had to have gigantic forces, but he was very much following in that tradition. It was meant to symbolise and express the French nation gathered together, but what he does is to universalise it, makes it for the whole human race, takes it to a higher plane."

Berlioz also learned a vast amount from his teacher of counterpoint and fugue, the Czech-born Antoine Reicha. For all the neglect that attends his name now, Reicha was one of the most inventive composers in musical history, constantly looking beyond the rules that bound his conservative colleagues.

By his early thirties, Berlioz's ambitions were well-known - one contemporary journalist slyly remarked that he had been "knocking on the tombs of the great", looking for an opportunity to release the vast proportions of the music held in his head. His Messe Solennelle, composed in 1824, when he was 20 (and later lost until its rediscovery in 1991), shows that even after only a year and a half of formal musical instruction he was already reaching towards the grandiose: he found several of the ideas of the mass strong enough for re-use in the Requiem. So the 1836 commission undammed a torrent of inspiration that was primed and ready. "It was hard to control my ideas," Berlioz wrote to his sister. "My head was boiling and my brain felt as if it were so full of ideas it would burst."

The Requiem that resulted contains some of the most exciting sounds in all music: to his massive choral and orchestral forces (including quadruple woodwind and twelve horns, though omitting, surprisingly, the mezzos from the chorus), he added four brass choirs, which, following Gossec and Le Sueur, are separated from the main body of performers. And his old teacher Reicha would have been delighted by Berlioz's use of sixteen timpani - their entry in the "Dies Irae" has to be one of the most thrilling moments in all music.

Yet for all the massive forces at his command, it is Berlioz's restraint that strikes the listener: the dominant orchestral colour, David Cairns point out, is not brass but woodwind. Sunday's performance falls neatly into the two main themes of this year's Proms - youth and religious music. In a project five years in the making, the performers are drawn from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London and the Paris Conservatoire, under the baton of that most outstanding of Berliozians, Sir Colin Davis, a man who, with David Cairns, has done more for Berlioz than any other living individual.

The orchestra itself is integrated, the French and British players sharing desks. But Berlioz's four brass groups, explains Raphael Gouthiÿre, a trumpeter in the Paris contingent, are divided by nationality, as rehearsal rationale would dictate. Alison Balsom, a Guildhall trumpet student, thinks that the different sounds of the two schools of brass-playing will add a dimension of colour. Both speak for hundreds of colleagues of the hope that this extravaganza will lead to further cross-Channel collaboration.

Davis returns to the Proms on 2 September to conduct Berlioz's Te Deum. "The Requiem has a brother," the proud composer told Liszt on its completion. There are resemblances, though Cairns points out that its sonorities are more massive, less delicate than much of the Requiem. Nor does it pack the punch to the guts of the Requiem's most outlandish moments.

For all that Sunday evening's performance is being broadcast live on BBC2 and Radio 3, those massive forces - 150 orchestral musicians and 450 singers - really have to be experienced in the flesh. So what if all the seats have been sold? There are still some 1,400 promming places to be had on the day, and never a better reason for spending 90 minutes on your feet.

Berlioz's 'Requiem' will be broadcast live on BBC2 and Radio 3 on Sunday at 7.30pm

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