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Berlioz Requiem at Davies Hall: A Spectacle of Napoleonic Proportions


San Francisco Lyric Chorus, Redwood Symphony and New York's Fingerlakes Choral Festival present the spectacular Berlioz Requiem and other works, at Davies Symphony Hall, Sunday August 5.In July 1837, Hector Berlioz was approached by the French Minister of the Interior to compose a Requiem Mass to be performed as part of a three-day event commemorating soldiers who died in the Revolution of 1830. But just days before the scheduled performance, the event was shortened over concerns that it might again revive revolutionary passions, so the premiere of the Requiem was canceled. Fortuitously, at least for the Requiem, in October of that year, the commander of a French force in Algeria, General Damrèmont, was mortally wounded in a siege on the city of Constantine. Berlioz was summoned by the Minister of War and asked to premiere the Requiem at a ceremony in December commemorating General Damrèmont and the soldiers killed in the siege.

The Requiem is an imposing work, with a score that calls for an orchestra of over 200 players, including four offstage brass bands and a chorus of 220 singers. But this is only the starting point. Berlioz suggests that these forces may be doubled or tripled if space permits. It is a work of stunning contrasts; gentle and urgent pleas for mercy, frightening visions of the apocalypse, majestic, glorious, and mysterious sonrities, and finally, an ethereal conclusion that captures the essence of eternity. In his memoirs Berlioz 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.”

One unusual aspect of the work is that it is scored only for sopranos, tenors and basses. Since the reality is that most choruses have large alto sections, most performances require drawing up a complicated set of instructions for altos to follow that has them switching between the second soprano and first tenor parts. This performance features a new edition that adds an alto part to the score, relieving the altos of the tedious practice of entering these instructions in their scores.

One performance only: Sunday, August 5 at 3 PM at Davies Symphony Hall.

Visit sflyric.org for more information.