Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra · Bertrand de Billy, conductor
Giuseppe Sabbatini · Violeta Urmana · Wiener Singakademie
Konzertvereinigung Wiener Staatsoper
Hector Berlioz’s Requiem was first heard at the Les Invalides cathedral
in Paris in 1837. The impression made by the huge orchestra and overwhelming choir was colossal – both then and today. But the Requiem also has long passages characterized by great delicacy and intimacy. In the cantata La Mort de Cléopatre, an exemplary work loved by all great mezzo-sopranos, we hear Violeta Urmana in the solo role. The third work by Berlioz on this CD, the Carnaval Romain, presents the RSO Vienna under its principle conductor Bertrand de Billy in its entire brilliance and virtuosity.
A Colossal Nightingale
In 1844, Heinrich Heine reported on the “Musical
Season in Paris” in the “Augsburger Zeitung”. What he says about Berlioz could still be considered today as a key to better understanding
the Grande messe des morts of 1837: “Here is the beat of a bird’s wing that reveals not a usual songbird, but a colossal nightingale – a thrush the size of an eagle, as was said to exist in the underworld. Yes, Berlioz’s music makes something of a prehistoric impression on me, possibly even antediluvian. It reminds me of extinct animals, of legendary kingdoms and crimes, of collections of impossible mythic extravagances: Babylon, the Hanging Gardens of Semiramis, Ninive, the wonders of Mizraim, as we see in the paintings of the Englishman Martin (Note: English painter John Martin, 1789–1854). Indeed, if we look around for an analogy to the art of painting, we find the most similarities between Berlioz and that amazing British painter: the same sense for the formidable,
the gigantic, the tangibly incalculable. In one case garish effects of light and shadow, in another jarring orchestration; in one a slight bit of melody, in another a bit of color, in neither any beauty and absolutely no emotion…”
The young Hector Berlioz was more than familiar
with legendary kingdoms and extinct animals – even as a child he was a passionate reader and devoured “all ancient and modern travel reports my father’s library contained”, discovering Vergil’s Aeneis at an early age as well. “By speaking of foreseen epic passions, the Latin poet soon found the way to my heart and knew how to ignite my awakening fantasy.”
The unhappy story of Dido set Berlioz in “nervous trembling”, and although his only musical training was in flute, guitar and voice, his nature later urged him to create “the most powerful orchestral effects and music à la Michelangelo” (all quotes from his “Mémoires”).
When he saw his first piece of blank music paper, he understood immediately “the immense possibilities of instrumental and vocal
sounds that could be captured on these staves. What an orchestra one could write down here!” At the age of 13, he tried writing his first compositions after teaching himself some harmony from a textbook – a 6-voice potpourri on Italian themes, two quintets and various romances.
Instead of studying medicine in Paris, as his father – a physician – had demanded, Hector soon changed to music. He heard his first big opera – Salieri’s Les Danaides, which put him in “confusion and excitement”, studied Gluck’s opera scores in the conservatory library, copied them and learned them by memory. They kept him up nights. He heard Iphigénie en Tauride in the Opéra and swore to become a musician. To hold himself above water financially,
he joined a theater choir after his father refused to continue to underwrite him. He studied composition at the Conservatoire with Jean-Francois Le Sueur (a church musician, then opera composer, then musical director of the royal chapel; from 1818 professor at the Conservatoire). At the same time, Berlioz venerated Gluck and Spontini, Vergil and Napoleon,
soon after, however, Beethoven and Weber, Shakespeare and Victor Hugo. He scorned the highly successful Boieldieu and Rossini: “More than once have I asked myself how I could start undermining the Théatre-Italien and blow it up on one evening, taking along all Rossini-lovers with it”. Years later, Debussy and Boulez had similar thoughts…
Berlioz studied counterpoint and fugue at the Conservatoire (headed by Luigi Cherubini as of 1822) with Bohemian composer Antonin Reicha. There were no classes in instrumentation
at the Conservatoire; Berlioz taught himself
by astute study of scores and discovered “the hidden relationship between musical expression
and the actual art of orchestration.” He published his own textbook on modern orchestration, Grand traité d’instrumentation et d’orchestration moderne, in 1843 (revised in 1905 by Richard Strauss). First, however, he applied for the highly desired “Prix de Rom”, which always prescribed a cantata for voice and orchestra, and whose first prize was a five-year stipend, including two years of study in Rome and one in Germany.
When Berlioz first applied in 1826, he didn’t even make it through the preliminary round. A year later, he entered the cantata La mort d’Orphée, which was declared impossible to perform, however. In 1828 he won second prize for Herminie. In 1829 he was unsuccessful
again with La mort de Cléopatre. Finally, in 1830, amidst the cannon thunder of the Paris Revolution, he won the long yearned for first prize for his cantata La mort de Sardanapale. This cantata was premiered in Paris before Berlioz’s departure for Rome in December 1830 together with his first masterpiece, the Symphonie fantastique. “I had an incredible
success,” Berlioz wrote to a friend. “The Symphonie fantastique was greeted with trampling and shouts of jubilation; the audience
wanted to hear the Marche au supplice again. The Sabbat carried the listeners away with its satanic effect.” Spontini, Meyerbeer and Liszt all let the young composer know how enthusiastic they were as well. At the end of his years of study, the 27-year-old composer had achieved his first major success.
But one must not forget the harsh criticism that Berlioz was subject to by his contemporaries.
After a relatively positive beginning, Fétis, publisher of the “Revue musicale”, judged the Symphonie fantastique with the following words: “In general, this music stirs up more amazement than pleasure; it lacks charm…” Goethe’s musical advisor Carl Fried-rich Zelter later wrote about La damnation de Faust that the music is an “abomination resulting
from horrific incest”. Mendelssohn also criticized Berlioz’s overture Les Francs-Juges – one of the composer’s early works – in an exceptionally harsh manner: “His orchestration
is so incredibly dirty and chaotically scribbled that one must wash one’s hands after having touched one of his scores. In addition,
it is harmful as well to assemble his music
of pure murder, misery and distress.” And finally, there was Richard Wagner, who wrote
to Robert Schumann in 1842, “This person has been so ruined by France – or even more so by Paris – that one can no longer see what he might have become in Germany due to his talent.
I loved him because he has thousands of traits that make him an artist, if he were only a complete buffoon. As only ‘half an artist’, he is insufferable – and what is even more dreadful – a complete bore.”
In Italy, Berlioz composed the two overtures
Roi Lear and Rob Roy, revised parts of the Symphonie fantastique and supplemented it with the monodrama, or semi-theatrical work, Lélio ou le retour á la vie. He returned to France after 14 months, meeting his great “platonic” love, English Shakespearean actress
Harriet Smithson, for the first time in Paris at the end of 1832. He married her one year later; their son Louis was born in 1834. Berlioz wrote reviews and literary essays in order to support his family. He composed Harold
en Italie, worked on his first major opera Benvenuto Cellini and presented a number of concerts every season. Paganini fell on his knees before him in Paris, and as a display of respect, gave Berlioz 20,000 francs, allowing the composer to work without pressure for some time.
In March 1837, the French Minister of the Interior commissioned Berlioz to compose a requiem for the anniversary of the death of Marschall Mortier, one of the assassination victims of 1835. “The requiem text was prey that I had long desired, that I was finally given, and onto which I threw myself with a type of fury,” wrote Berlioz in his “Mémoires”. “My head seemed almost to burst at the exertion of my burning thoughts.” The work was complete in only three months, in July, – the rehearsals had already begun – when a new order came from the ministry (now staffed by different officials) that the ceremony for the July heroes
was to take place without music. Berlioz suspected some sort of intrigue by Cherubini, who would have loved to have his own second requiem performed. Several months later, the army celebrated an important strategic victory
in its conquest of Algeria, begun in 1830, when it took Constantine. Now, the requiem commission was renewed for the memorial service for fallen General Charles Comte de Damrémont. Finally, on December 5, 1837, Berlioz’s Requiem was heard for the first time in Les Invalides cathedral “in the presence of princes, the minister, the Pairs, the members of parliament, the entire French press, correspondents
of foreign newspapers and a huge audience” (Berlioz), conducted by Francois Habeneck.
“The fright spread by the five orchestras and eight pairs of tympani cannot be described,”
Berlioz wrote in his “Mémoires”. “One of the singers in the choir fainted. It was truly of awesome greatness.” At each of the four corners of the large, centrally placed choir and orchestra apparatus, Berlioz positioned
four additional groups of brass with a total of 38 instruments, whose sound symbolized
the terror of the apocalypse and the omnipotence of God in the Tuba mirum, Rex tremendae, and even in the Lacrymosa and Agnus Dei. Even to this day, the effect is colossal.
But Berlioz’s intention was not mere effect
or to write primitive music for the throngs, but to compose a fitting work for the large, extremely reverberant cathedral and to “tame the musical masses whose solution I have tried [to proffer]… through the use of exceptional
means.” Further: “But it is primarily the form of the movements, the broad style and the terrible slowness of certain developments – whose goal cannot be divined – that gives these works (Note: Berlioz is referring here to his other two monumental compositions Symphonie
funèbre et triomphale and Te Deum as well as his Requiem) their bizarre, gigantic appearance,
their colossal habitus.” Berlioz self-confidently speaks of new experimentation in this genre, that “is part of my dreams” and “in which I – as almost the only one of the modern
composers – have penetrated, and which the older [composers] don’t have the slightest idea of.”
In addition to the powerful elements of the terrible, used only sparingly in the Requiem, it is primarily the “sublime in the style of the antique” (Wolfgang Dömling) that dominates, as well as a type of archaic-religious contemplation
expressed by many different musical styles and variations – simple psalmody, three- to six-voice a cappella sections (Quaerens me), traditional fugues, opera-like ensembles, an Italian tenor aria (Sanctus), unison choir declamation, etc. In his colorful orchestration, Berlioz goes for daring, previously unheard combinations such as high chords in the flutes accompanied by the lowest bass note of the offstage trombones, harsh chordal hand-overs between strings and winds, pianissimo string arpeggios underscored by soft tympani clusters and softly struck cymbals – all long before Wagner’s Parsifal, Verdi’s Requiem and
Mahler’s Eighth Symphony. Berlioz’s Grande messe des morts is much less a liturgical requiem (he handles the text quite freely) than a monumental concert piece for large halls. It also served the national glorification in 1837 in the same sense as the hymns and celebration of the French Revolution. But Berlioz composed
the prayers of the individual in the face of death and the Last Judgment with great emphasis and deep personal expression.
La Mort de Cléopatre
In 1829, the 26-year-old Berlioz was unsuccessful
with his cantata La mort de Cléopatre, which he had entered in the Prix de Rome competition. That year, the jury gave no prize whatsoever. One of the jury members, the highly
successful Paris opera composer Francois-Adrien Boieldieu (La Dame Blanche) – whom Berlioz despised – saw himself caused to utter the remark, “I am no great harmonist, but I am simply not able to follow your unearthly chord progressions.” Today, it is just this failed work that is so happily sung by all great mezzo-sopranos
and that has conquered the concert stages, whereas Berlioz’s prize-winning cantata
from 1830, La mort de Sardanapale, is completely unknown. The text of this scène lyrique by P.A. Viellard paints a picture of the Egyptian queen in the last minutes before her suicide through snakebite. Pain, the remembrance
of long-gone days, dramatic accusation
and resignation permeate the music. Berlioz
precedes the final Meditation with Julia’s words from the Shakespeare drama: “How if when I am laid into the tomb…” Even in this early composition, Berlioz develops a style that seems to him to be “splendid and innovative”.
The manner in which he ignored making clear distinctions between recitative and aria, his headstrong harmonic and rhythmic changes,
daring orchestral effects such as pizzicato ostinatos in the strings over low, eerie wind chords, or the ghastly dissonance when the snake bites must all have deeply disturbed the jury. Melodically, however, one is reminded of Gluck and Weber. Thematic material from this cantata returns again in the overture Carnaval Romain.
In 1844, between two exceptionally successful tours of Germany conducting his own works, Berlioz composed the overture Carnaval Romain,
weaving into it various elements of his unsuccessful opera Benvenuto Cellini from six years before, as well as a theme from La mort de Cléopatre. The brilliantly orchestrated, virtuosic
and striking composition is still Berlioz’s most popular and frequently performed work. Even at the premiere on February 3, 1844, which he conducted himself, it was so tumultuously
received that it had to be repeated. Later, Berlioz used it as the overture to his opera Benvenuto Cellini. The music begins with a colorful picture of the turbulent-happy Roman Carnival; a large-scale romantic melody
(the opera’s love-duet) is reworked in the middle section, and the overture closes with an exuberant Saltarello – a true bacchanalia of unrestrained passion.
Giuseppe Sabbatini, Tenor
Translation: Elizabeth Gahbler
From his debut at the 1987 Spoleto Festival as Edgardo in Lucia di Lammermoor, tenor Giuseppe Sabbatini has sung in most of the major international opera houses including the Opéra-Bastille de Paris, the Deutsche Oper Berlin, the Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona,
the Metropolitan Opera in New York, the New National Theatre in Tokyo, the Royal Opera House-Covent Garden, the Teatro alla Scala and the Wiener Staatsoper.
His extensive concert work has brought him to the Carnegie Hall, the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam,
the Festival of Schwetzingen, Suntory Hall in Tokyo, the Royal Festival Hall, the Barbican
Center, the Salzburger Festspiele et al.
Giuseppe Sabbatini started singing after having begun his musical life as a double bass player. He has won many national and international
voice competitions. On April, 25th 2003 he was awarded the honour-title of Kammersänger
by the Wiener Staatsoper.
Violeta Urmana, Sopran
The Lithuanian singer was first noticed by the music world after her appearances as a mezzo-soprano, primarily in the roles of Kundry in Wagner’s Parsifal or Eboli in Verdi’s Don Carlo.
After she had already sung Sieglinde in Wagner’s Die Walküre at the Bayreuth Festival,
her actual debut as a soprano took place in December 2002 in Milan, when she sang the title role in Iphigénie en Aulide under Riccardo Muti at the opening of that year’s Scala season.
Since then, she has sung numerous role debuts as a soprano.
Her upcoming debuts will include the title role of Ariadne auf Naxos in New York in 2005 and Norma in Dresden in 2006 as well as the role debuts as Elisabetta in Don Carlo in Turin in 2006 and as Amelia in Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera in Florence in 2007.
As a concert and Lied singer, Violeta Urmana’s
broad repertoire ranges from works by Johann Sebastian Bach to Alban Berg. She has sung in all major music centers in Europe, the USA and Japan.
Violeta Urmana sings Kundry in Tony Palmer’s
film The Search for the Holy Grail.