Boston Symphony in Rehearsal – Charles Munch, Cond. – April 21, 1951 – Gordon Skene Sound Collection
More Boston Symphony rehearsals this week. This time it’s The BSO and their Music Director Charles Munch rehearsing the Berlioz Requiem, as broadcast on April 21, 1951.
Mentioned by announcer Ben Grauer that this work hadn’t been performed by The BSO in over 70 years. It’s a huge work, which probably explains why it hasn’t been performed more often.
The Grande Messe des Morts is one of Berlioz’s best-known works, with a tremendous orchestration of woodwind and brass instruments, including four antiphonal offstage brass ensembles. The work derives its text from the traditional Latin Requiem Mass. It has a duration of approximately ninety minutes, although there are faster recordings of under seventy-five minutes.
In 1837, Adrien de Gasparin, the Minister of the Interior of France, asked Berlioz to compose a Requiem Mass to remember soldiers who died in the Revolution of July 1830. Berlioz accepted the request, having already wanted to compose a large orchestral work. Meanwhile, the orchestra was growing in size and quality, and the use of woodwinds and brass was expanding due to the increasing ease of intonation afforded by modern instruments. Berlioz later wrote, “if I were threatened with the destruction of the whole of my works save one, I should crave mercy for the Messe des morts.” That performance to commemorate the soldiers who died in the 1830 Revolution was cancelled. Soon a ceremony commemorating the death of General Damrémont and the soldiers killed at the Siege of Constantine provided the occasion for the premiere at Les Invalides, conducted by François Habeneck on 5 December 1837
In his Mémoires, Berlioz claimed that at the premiere of the work, conductor François Habeneck put down his baton during the dramatic “Tuba mirum” (part of the “Dies irae” movement) while he took a pinch of snuff, prompting the composer to rush to the podium to conduct the rest of the work himself, thereby saving the performance from disaster. The premiere was a complete success.
Berlioz revised the work twice in his life, first in 1852, making the final revisions in 1867, only two years before his death.
For a half-hour the amassed Orchestra and Chorus run through the piece and we get a fly-on-the-wall glimpse of the proceedings.
Enjoy, as always.
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