Berlioz’s Mass of the Dead Comes to Life

Seattle Symphony Orchestra and Chorale

Death, drama, a day of reckoning and a choir to tell the tale—the Catholic Mass of the Dead has mesmerized audiences throughout history. From the classical melodies of Mozart to the chord cluster harmonies of György Ligeti, famous composers from every era of the classical music tradition have at one point or another lent their pen to a Requiem.

But perhaps no composer used more ink than Hector Berlioz. Composed in 1837, Berlioz’s Grande Messe des morts calls for unprecedented orchestral forces: four offstage brass ensembles, an enormous orchestra and choir—over 250 musicians in total. This weekend, the Seattle Symphony and Chorale bring Berlioz’s Mass of the Dead to life under the baton of Ludovic Morlot, with the help of Seattle Pro Musica and members of Vocalpoint! Seattle.

“It’s going to be akin to a rock concert in terms of its overall power and magnitude,” says Joseph Crnko, associate conductor for choral activities at the Seattle Symphony.

Berlioz’s Grande Messe des morts is the latest in a string of wide-ranging Requiems the Seattle Symphony and Chorale have performed over the past few years. Since 2013, Crnko has prepared the Chorale to perform Requiems by Britten, Verdi, Fauré, Mozart, Ligeti and now Berlioz—each one a massive orchestral work of profound depth and drama.

Requiems were not always such monumental spectacles. Traditionally, a Requiem was a Catholic Mass honoring the dead and held in a church setting. In Medieval times, Requiems featured Latin liturgical texts sung in monophonic plainchant (a single melodic line without accompaniment). It wasn’t until the turn of the Renaissance that Requiems began to grow in musical complexity, containing polyphony, instrumental accompaniment and sometimes soloists. Mozart’s 1791 Requiem in D Minor is regarded as one of the first major Requiems destined for the concert hall and considered a benchmark of the classical choral tradition.

In the Romantic era, Requiems continued to grow in drama and extravagance, with settings by the likes of Berlioz, Brahms and Verdi attracting churchgoers and concertgoers alike. “As a format, it lends itself to great drama: you have the struggle of man to confront mortality versus immortality,” Crnko says.

In the 20th century, Requiems continued to transform, both in content and orchestration. Britten’s 1962 War Requiem, for instance, juxtaposes the traditional Latin texts with poetry written by a World War I soldier, articulating what Crnko calls “an emotional tug between the real world experience of the terror of war versus the spiritual world of organized religion.” Similarly, Ligeti’s 1965 Requiem gives a voice to those extinguished by the Holocaust—his family among them. He portrays the darkness and terror through 20-part vocal harmonies that blend into dense clouds of sound.

Like Ligeti, many composers who wrote Requiems were not actually Catholic. Berlioz considered himself agnostic, yet his Requiem was a deeply important work for him. In his memoirs, he 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.”

And for good reason: Berlioz’s Requiem was revolutionary for its time—ambitious in scope, earth-shaking in intensity and extraordinarily innovative in orchestration and color. Combine this with the incredible magnitude of the subject at hand and the result is transcendent.

“Berlioz wasn’t a practicing Christian,” Crnko says. “So it is fascinating to see how he wrestles with the question of what is our purpose on Earth, and what is man’s place in relation to the continuum?”

Berlioz’s Requiem is unique not only in its enormous orchestral forces but also in its use of the concert hall itself. With hundreds of musicians onstage and multiple brass ensembles stationed throughout the hall, the audience is completely immersed in sound.

“The relationship of space within the creation of music is very central to Berlioz in his compositional style,” Crnko says. “For a generation that has been brought up on surround sound in your living room, it’s a way to experience the music at an even more powerful level—and at a more human level.”

The Seattle Symphony and Chorale perform Berliozs Requiem Nov. 9 & 11 at Benaroya Hall.