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Les Mots de Berlioz by Clifford Bevan

"This work is a tribute to Berlioz, a composer I greatly admire for many reasons. Unlike him, I am not inclined to attempt the impossible, and while aspiring to create a well-crafted composition, I have not in any way sought to match the master.

After the first performance of his Messe solennelle in Paris on 10 July 1825, the twenty-one-year-old composer wrote to Albert Du Boys, a law student friend from Grenoble (not far from Berlioz's home town) whom he had met in his own early student days in Paris. Du Boys was interested in music and literature; Berlioz later set two of his poems to music. Through Du Boys' connexions, Berlioz obtained permission from the Head of the Department of the Arts to use the Opera orchestra in the performance (at the composer's expense), so Duy Boys had several reasons for wishing to hear an account of it. When Berlioz wrote to him, ten days later, he was still in a state of high excitement, and this is reflected in the style and content of his letter. Les mots de Berlioz is a setting of about a fourth of Berlioz's communication. This section is reprinted overleaf, along with an English translation.

In his Messe solennelle, Berlioz used several themes familiar to modern audiences as a result of his having used them again in later works. One of these, heard in the "Gratias" of the Messe, was utilized in the "Scene aux champs" of the Symphonie fantastique. I have used the idée fixe, which appears in every movement of the Symphonie, as one of the two main themes of Les mots de Berlioz. The other theme, which is prominent in the Symphonie but does not appear in the Messe, is the plainchant Dies Irae.

Elsewhere there are references to styles of melody, characteristic rhythms, textures and harmonies which are aimed at keeping in the listener's mind an awareness of Berlioz's presence, but there are no other direct quotations (so far as I know). To avoid the impression of Berlioz pastiche, I have been anxious to place his own music in an historic context.

For example, although the voicing of the opening chords of Les mots is a direct reference to his experimental use of flutes to strengthen the high harmonics of trombone pedal notes in the "Agnus dei" of the Grande messe des morts, the second choir is characteristic of Poulenc and other early twentieth-century French composers.

Towards the end of the work, the choir is instructed to declaim, rather than sing, a style of enunciation favoured by Racine and other dramatists which strongly influenced not only the presentation of early French opera but also later composers like Stravinsky (Perséphone) and Honegger (Le roi David)."

Clifford Bevan, Winchester, Hampshire

Original text for Les mots de Berlioz

Paris, 20 juillet 1825
Je crois que ma messe a produit un effet d'enfer; surtout les morceaux de force tells que le Kyrie, le Crucifixus, l'Iterum venturus, le Domine Salvum, le Sanctus.
Dans l'Iterum venturus, après avoir annonce par toutes les trompettes et trombones due monde l'arrivee du jegement supreme, le choeur des humains sechant d'epouvant s'est deploye; o Dieu! Je nageais sur cette mer agitee, je humais ces flots de vibrations sinistres; je n'ai voulu charger personne du soin de mitrailler mes auditeurs, et après avoir annonce aux mechants, par une derniere dordee de cuivres, que le moment des pleurs et des grincements de dents etait venu, j'ai appliqué un si rude coup de tam-tam que toute l'eglise en a tremble.

Ce n'est pas ma faute si les dames surtout ne sont pas crues a la fin du monde.

Text translation:

Paris, 20 July 1825
I think my Mass has caused a sensation; above all, the powerful movements such as the Kyrie, the Crucifixus, the Iterum Venturus, the Domine Salvum, the Sanctus.

In the Iterum Venturus, after all the trumpets and trombones in the world had announced the Day of Judgment, the terrified chorus of humans was heard; O God! I swam on that stormy sea, I drank in those waves of horror; I would not have given anyone else the task of bombarding my listeners, and having announced to the wicked, through a final broadside of brass, that the moment for tears and the gnashing of teeth had arrived, I hit the tam-tam so hard that the whole church shook.

It was not my fault if the ladies, in particular, did not think it was the end of the world.

exploring the role of
early 19th century brass
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