Berlioz was not an orthodox Christian, yet he set sacred texts with a strong personal vision that has deep religious roots. The Messe solennelle of 1824 was partially modelled on the masses of Cherubini and Le Sueur, but Berlioz’s distinctive tone is already marked, especially in the forceful close of the Kyrie, the closing ‘Domine salvum’, and the powerful ‘Resurrexit’. Although Berlioz turned against the work after its second performance in 1827 and claimed to have destroyed it, it was discovered in an Antwerp church in 1992, revealing that many later works, including the Symphonie fantastique, the Requiem and the Te Deum, borrowed or adapted passages from it. The Requiem (1837) and the Te Deum (1849) form a pair of monumental sacred works that exploit Berlioz’s sense of numinous space on a grand scale. Space and direction are essential elements in both. In the Requiem the large orchestra is supplemented by eight pairs of timpani and four groups of additional brass placed at the four corners of chorus and orchestra. These large forces are used for the ‘Tuba mirum’, where Berlioz’s vision of the Last Judgment is realized with overwhelming vividness and force, and there is no doubt that the music requires a building (such as the church of Les Invalides, for which it was composed) that can do justice to its sonority. This broad ceremonial style was a legacy from the outdoor music of the French Revolution, when immense forces of wind and percussion were assembled for public occasions; yet Berlioz was careful to contrast the great with the small. The ‘Quid sum miser’ and the ‘Quaerens me’ form a strikingly restrained contrast with the outbursts on either side of them. The Offertorium, adapted from the Kyrie of the 1824 Mass, is written in a subdued contrapuntal style, with the chorus intoning two alternating notes over a winding orchestral accompaniment. The Sanctus is a trifle worldly in its sweetness, and the ‘Hostias’ exploits the extraordinary sonority of high flutes and low trombones in combination. The Requiem is expressive without being theatrical, solemn without being sanctimonious. It marks an extreme point in his music, where Shakespearean and literary ideas have no place; all is subsumed in a vision of humanity in collective obeisance to the presence of God.
The feeling for space in the Te Deum is expressed by the contrast of the organ with the orchestra and chorus. The organ should be at a distance from the rest and is not often heard simultaneously with them; the opening chords particularly exploit the directional idea. There are parts for two choruses and an extra body of 600 children’s voices, in a manner similar to the ripieno line in the opening chorus of Bach’s St Matthew Passion. Counterpoint again plays an important part in the formulation of the style. The ‘Dignare’ is constructed on a highly original device of moving the bass line through a succession of pedals, a 3rd apart, and Berlioz’s technique of harmonic variation is much in evidence. The full forces produce moments of great dynamic impact, especially in the ‘Tibi omnes’ at the conclusion of each of three verses, and in the ‘Judex crederis’, described by Berlioz as ‘Babylonian, Ninevitish’, perhaps the most immense movement of his entire output: climax breaks over climax like an unending sea. The last movement is an orchestral march for the presentation of the colours, enacted at St Eustache in 1855, and an additional movement, never used by Berlioz, is a ‘Prélude’ designed for military occasions only. A tenor soloist sings in the ‘Te ergo quaesumus’, a movement retrieved from the Agnus Dei of the 1824 Mass.
There are other choral works in which the same monumental style is applied on a narrower scale, for example the Hymne à la France (1844) andL’impériale (1854) whose titles betray their patriotic origins. The Chant sacré (1829) and the Méditation religieuse (1831), both settings of Thomas Moore, can be coupled as contemplative works, short but broad in style. The Scène héroïque(1825–6) and Le cinq mai (1835) are more narrative, like dramatic cantatas. Sara la baigneuse, to a text by Victor Hugo, especially in its version for three separate choruses and small orchestra, is exquisitely poetic, one of Berlioz’s most delicate and refined compositions. A number of choral works were composed with piano accompaniment, and the best of these are Le ballet des ombres(1828), a remarkably daring evocation of nocturnal spirits, and the Chant guerrier and the Chanson à boire, both in the Irlandecollection of 1829, both exploiting expressive contrast as an element of form.
La damnation de Faust was described by Berlioz at the time of composition as an ‘opéra de concert’ but was finally issued as a ‘légende dramatique’. In 1847, when there was a proposal to turn it into an opera, it became clear that Berlioz would have wanted to revise it considerably for the stage. Its effect rests too strongly on the imagination to be directly transferable to the theatre, and the same can be said of Roméo et Juliette and L’enfance du Christ. Transformations of time and place are sometimes dramatically sequential and sometimes kaleidoscopic, since Berlioz used only those parts of Goethe’s Faust that met his needs. Taking the rejected Huit scènes de Faust of 1828–9 and inserting his rousing arrangement of the Rákóczy March at the end of the first part, he expanded the work into a broad conception of Faust as an aspiring, yearning soul, overwhelmed by the immensity of nature, with a heart sensitive to emotion at many levels, yet ultimately damned by his inner weaknesses, which Mephistopheles both represents and exploits. The nature music is particularly striking, in Faust’s welcome of spring at the beginning and the invocation early in the fourth part, where harmony and orchestration display Berlioz’s genius for the unexpected within the span of a huge melodic line. The chorus plays a large part, as penitents, carousers, sylphs, soldiers, students and as the occupants of both Heaven and Hell. The finale of the second part, combining the songs of both soldiers and students, is a tour de force; and the Pandaemonium, at the climax of the precipitous ‘Course à l’abîme’, is an apocalyptic scene worthy of John Martin (a comparison first made of Berlioz’s music by Heine) or even Blake.
L’enfance du Christ (1850–54) shows the same mixture of dramatic action and philosophic reflection as La damnation de Faust, though Berlioz still refrained from calling it an oratorio. It is constructed in three parts, ‘Le songe d’Hérode’, ‘La fuite en Egypte’ and ‘L’arrivée à Saïs’, the second of which was composed first. Like La damnation de Faust, the score contains stage directions to explain (to the imagination) the movement of events. The third part, with the Ishmaelites’ welcome of the holy family, is the most immediately theatrical. In the first part Berlioz’s concern was for the tormented soul of Herod, disturbed in his dreams yet at the mercy of his soothsayers; then, with a clear change of mood, the listener is taken to Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem and the angels’ warning. The second part is seen largely through the eyes of the narrator, with instrumental music in the overture setting the tone and distancing the action. At the end, when the Saviour has found repose, the music draws away from the portrayal of action to a serenely contemplative farewell, ‘O mon âme’, the nearest Berlioz ever came to a devoutly Christian mode of expression.
Perhaps these dramatic choral works would never have existed if Berlioz had won early success and acceptance in opera. Yet they constitute a heterogeneous genre entirely characteristic of his faith in expressive truth as superior to consistency of method. They left their mark, too, on the dramatic style of Les Troyens into which his symphonic, choral and dramatic impulses were then all compulsively channelled.