Grande messe des morts (Requiem)

Extracts from the Memoirs

Translated by Michel Austin

© Michel Austin

This page is also available in French

Grande messe des morts (Requiem)

Memoirs, chapter 46

    In 1836 M. de Gasparin was Minister of the Interior. He belonged to that small number of statesmen who were interested in music, and to the even smaller number of those who had a feeling for it. Religious music had long fallen into general neglect in France, and he wanted to restore it to its place of honour. His idea was to allocate every year, from the funds available to the department of Beaux-Arts, a sum of 3000 francs to a French composer appointed by the minister, to write a mass or a large-scale oratorio. In M. de Gasparin’s mind, the minister would also undertake to have the new work performed at government expense. "I will start with Berlioz, he said, he must write a Requiem mass, and I am sure that he will make a success of it." I heard these details from a friend of M. de Gasparin’s son, and I was as surprised as I was delighted. To verify the truth of these reports I requested an audience with the minister, who confirmed to me the accuracy of the details that had been given to me. "I am about to leave the ministry, he added, and this will be my musical testament. Have you received the commission which concerns you for the Requiem? – No, sir, and it is only by chance that I learned of your good intentions towards me. – How is this possible? A week ago I gave instructions that it should be sent to you! This delay has been caused by bureaucratic negligence. I will see to it."

    All the same several days elapsed and the commission did not arrive. I anxiously turned to M. de Gasparin’s son, and he informed me of a plot of which I did not have the slightest suspicion. M. XX…, the director of the Beaux-Arts did not approve of the minister’s plan concerning religious music, and still less of my selection to inaugurate the sequence of composers in this project [Foonote: He died some ten or twelve years ago, but it is better not to name him (Edmond Cavé)]. He knew besides that within a few days M. de Gasparin would be leaving the ministry. Hence by delaying until he stepped down from office the drafting of the decree which set up the institution and invited me to compose a Requiem, nothing would be easier than to scupper the project by persuading his successor not to carry it out. That was the director’s plan. But M. de Gasparin was not prepared to be fooled, and on learning from his son that nothing had been done the day before he was due to leave the ministry, he finally sent to M. XX… a strongly worded injunction to draft the decree immediately and to send it to me, and this was actually done.

    This first setback suffered by M. XX… could only increase his animosity towards me, as actually happened.

    This arbiter of the destinies of art and artists would only deign to recognise real musical merit in Rossini, alone among composers. But one day, after dismissing before me all past and contemporary masters of Europe, with the exception of Beethoven whom he had forgotten, he suddenly had second thoughts and said: "But there is another one, I think, who is… what is his name? he is a German… whose symphonies are performed at the Conservatoire… You must know that, M. Berlioz… – Beethoven? – Yes, Beethoven. Well, that man was not without talent." I heard the director of the Beaux-Arts speaking in those terms. He admitted that Beethoven was not without talent.

    In this M. XX… was only the most prominent representative of the musical ideas which permeated the French bureaucracy of the time. Hundreds of connoisseurs of that kind occupied all the avenues through which creative artists had to pass, and controlled the government machine which our musical institutions had perforce to move in step with. Nowadays…

    Once equipped with my commission I set to work. The text of the Requiem was a prey I had long coveted; at last it was mine, and I fell on it with a sort of fury. My brain seemed ready to burst under the pressure of creative ferment. Hardly had the plan of one piece been sketched that another one would suggest itself. Unable to write fast enough I devised a system of shorthand which was of considerable help, particularly with the Lacrymosa. Composers will be familiar with the agony and despair caused by the loss of ideas that have not had the time to be set down in writing and which are thus gone forever.

    As a result I wrote this work at great speed and it was only long after that I made a small number of changes to it. They can be found in the second edition of the score, published by Ricordi in Milan. [Footnote: Is it not strange that at that time, while I was writing this great work and was married to miss Smithson, I twice had the same dream? I was in the small garden of Mme Gautier at Meylan, sitting at the foot of a delightful weeping acacia, but on my own. Mlle Estelle was not there, and I was saying to myself "Where is she? Where is she?" Who can explain this? Sailors, perhaps, and scientists who have studied the movements of a magnetic needle, and who know that the heart of some men moves in a similar fashion …]

    The ministerial decree stipulated that my Requiem would be performed at government expense, the day of the funeral service celebrated every year for the victims of the 1830 revolution.

    When the time of the ceremony in July approached, I had the separate choral and orchestral parts of my work copied, and following the advice of the director of the Beaux-Arts I started the rehearsals. But almost at once a letter arrived from the offices of the ministry informing me that the funeral ceremony in honour of the July dead would take place without music, and instructed me to suspend all my preparations. The new Minister of the Interior owed all the same a considerable sum of money for the copyist and the two hundred members of the choir who had spent their time rehearsing with me, in accordance with the decree. I spent five months asking in vain for these debts to be paid. As far as the debts owed to me personally were concerned, I did not dare even to mention them, as they seemed so far from the thoughts of the ministry. I was beginning to lose patience when one day, as I emerged from the office of M. XX… after a very heated argument on the subject, the cannon at the Invalides announced the capture of Constantine. Two hours later I was asked to hurry back to the ministry. M. XX… had just found a way of getting rid of me, or at least that is what he believed. General Damrémont had died under the walls of Constantine, and a solemn service in honour of him and of the French soldiers killed during the siege was going to take place in the church of the Invalides. This ceremony was the province of the War Ministry, and General Bernard, who at that time was in charge of this ministry, was willing to have my Requiem performed for the occasion. Such was the unhoped-for news that I heard on coming to see M. XX…

    At this point the plot thickens and the gravest events come in quick succession. My advice to those unfortunate artists who read me is at least to learn from my experience and to reflect on what happened to me. They will gain the unfortunate advantage of distrusting everything and everybody when they find themselves in a similar position. They should not place any more trust in the written than the spoken word, and should be on their guard against heaven and hell.

    The news of the forthcoming performance of my Requiem in such a grand and official ceremony had hardly reached the ears of Cherubini that it made him ill. It had long been the practice for one of his funeral masses to be performed in such circumstances (he has written two). Such a blow to what he considered to be his rights, his dignity, his deserved fame and unquestioned worth, all in favour of a young man who was barely at the beginning of his career and who was believed to have introduced heresy into the school, caused him deep irritation. All his friends and students, and Halévy at their head, shared his dismay and rushed to forestall the storm and deflect it towards me, or in other words to dispossess the young man in favour of the old one. One evening I even happened to be at the office of the Journal des Débats, whose editorial team I had recently joined and whose director, M. Bertin, showed me the most active goodwill. Halévy turned up. I guessed at once the purpose of his visit: he was coming to enlist the powerful influence of M. Bertin to assist in the realisation of Cherubini’s aims. But he was somewhat taken aback to find me there, and even more by the cold manner in which M. Bertin and his son Armand received him, and instantly changed tack. Halévy followed M. Bertin père into the adjoining room, the door of which stayed open. I heard him say that "Cherubini was terribly upset by what was happening, to the point of being ill in bed; he himself, Halévy, had come to urge M. Bertin to use his influence to obtain as a consolation the cross of Commander of the Legion of Honour for the celebrated master." The stern voice of M. Bertin interrupted him with these words: "Yes, my dear Halévy, we will do what you wish to have granted to Cherubini a well-deserved distinction. But if this is about the Requiem, if any deal is offered to Berlioz about his own, and if he is weak enough to give even an inch of ground, I will never speak to him again in my life." Halévy had to withdraw in a state of some confusion after this reply.

    And so the good Cherubini, who had already tried to make me swallow so many bitter pills, had to resign himself to receive from me a boa constrictor which he never managed to digest.

    And now another plot, more cleverly hatched – I dare not fathom the depth of its darkness. I am not blaming anyone, I am just telling the story with brutal straightness, without the slightest comment, but with the most scrupulous accuracy.

    General Bernard had told me himself that my Requiem was going to be performed – I will say later under what conditions. I was about to start rehearsals when M. XX… summoned me. "You are aware, he said, that Habeneck has always been asked to conduct large-scale musical performances of an official character. (Here we go again, I thought, another blow!) Admittedly it is now your practice to conduct yourself performances of your works, but Habeneck is an old man (another one), and I know that he will be very hurt if he does not preside over the performance of your Requiem. On what terms are you with him? – On what terms? We have quarrelled but I don’t know why. He has not spoken to me for three years; I do not know his reasons, and I admit I have not condescended to ask him. He started by refusing abruptly to conduct one of my concerts. His behaviour towards me is at once inexplicable and discourteous. All the same, since I can see that he wishes on this occasion to be at the ceremony for Marshall Damrémont and that the idea seems to appeal to you, I am willing to yield the baton to him, though I want to reserve the right to conduct myself one of the rehearsals. – No problem, M. XX. answered, I will inform him."

    Our sectional and general rehearsals were indeed conducted with great care. Habeneck talked to me as though our relations had never been interrupted, and the work seemed to be set for a good performance.

    The day of the performance, in the Invalides church, before an audience of princes, ministers, peers, deputies, the entire French press, the correspondents of foreign newspapers and a huge crowd, I had to score a great success. A moderate one would have been fatal, and a failure would have been the end of me.

    Now listen very carefully.

    My performers were divided in a number of groups at some distance from each other. This is necessary for the four orchestras of brass instruments which I have used in the Tuba mirum, and which must each be placed at one corner of the large mass of singers and players. At the point where they make their entry, at the start of the Tuba mirum which follows the Dies irae without a break, the tempo broadens to half its previous speed. All the brass instruments enter in the new tempo, first all together, then in dialogue with each other in successive entries each a third higher than the previous one. It is therefore of the utmost importance to indicate clearly the four beats of the bar at the moment when they come in. Without that, this awesome musical cataclysm, so carefully prepared, where exceptional and tremendous means are used in proportions and combinations never attempted before or since, this picture of the Last Judgement, which will, I hope, live on as a great landmark in our art – all this is in danger of resulting in an enormous and dreadful cacophony.

    Because of my habitual suspicion, I had posted myself behind Habeneck. With my back to his, I was watching the group of timpani players, which he could not see, as the moment approached when they were to take part in the general mêlée. There are perhaps a thousand bars in my Requiem. At precisely the point I have been speaking of, when the tempo broadens and the brass instruments launch their awesome fanfare, in the one bar where the role of the conductor is absolutely indispensable, Habeneck lowered his baton, quietly pulled out his snuff box and started to take a pinch of snuff. I was still looking in his direction. Immediately I pivoted on my heels, rushed in front of him, stretched out my arms and indicated the four main beats of the new tempo. The orchestras followed me, everything went off as planned, I continued to conduct to the end of the piece, and the effect I had dreamed of was achieved. When at the last words of the chorus Habeneck saw that the Tuba mirum was saved: "What a cold sweat I had, he said, without you we were lost! – Yes, I know very well," I replied, looking straight at him. I did not add a word … Did he do it on purpose?… Is it possible that this man, in concert with M. XX. who hated me, and the friends of Cherubini, could have dared to plan and attempt such a despicable deed?… I do not want to think about it… But I have no doubt. May God forgive me if I am doing him an injustice.

    The success of the Requiem was complete, in spite of all the conspiracies, cowardly or criminal, official and unofficial, which had tried to prevent it.

    I referred earlier to the conditions which the Minister of War had agreed for the performance of the work. Here they are: "I will give you ten thousand francs for the performance of your work, the honourable General Bernard had said to me. But this sum will only be handed to you on presentation of a letter from my colleague the Minister of the Interior, in which he will undertake to pay you first what is owed to you for the composition of the Requiem in accordance with the decree of M. de Gasparin, and then what is owed to the choristers for the rehearsals they did last July, and to the copyist."

    The Minister of the Interior had made a verbal promise to General Bernard to honour this triple debt. His letter was already written, and only needed a signature. To obtain it, I stayed in his ante-room with one of his secretaries, who was equipped with the letter and a pen, from ten in the morning till four in the afternoon. It was only at four that the Minister came out; the secretary seized him on his way and made him add his precious signature to the letter. Without wasting a minute I rushed to see General Bernard, who read carefully his colleague’s autograph and then had the ten thousand francs handed to me.

    I used the whole of this sum to pay my performers. I gave three hundred francs to Duprez, who sang the solo in the Sanctus, and another three hundred to the incomparable snuff-taker Habeneck, who had timed the use of his snuff-box to perfection. Absolutely nothing was left to me. I imagined that at long last I would be paid by the Minister of the Interior, who was under a double obligation to pay this debt, through the decree of his predecessor, and through the personal undertaking he had made to the Minister of War. Sancta simplicitas! as Mephistopheles says. One, two, three, four, eight months elapsed without my being able to receive a single penny. By dint of petitions, recommendations from friends of the minister, errands, written and verbal complaints, the rehearsals of the choristers and the expenses for the copying were finally paid. I was at last freed from the intolerable persecution I had endured for so long at the hands of people tired of waiting for what was owed to them, and who may have entertained towards me suspicions that still make me blush with indignation when I think of them.

    To imagine that I, the author of the Requiem, attached any importance to base metal! What a calumny! As a result good care was taken not to pay me. Nevertheless I took the great liberty of asking that the ministerial promises should be honoured in their entirety. I had an urgent need for money. I had to resign myself to laying siege yet again to the office of the director of the Beaux-Arts. Several weeks elapsed in vain demands. My anger was rising, I was losing weight and sleep. One morning I arrived at the ministry, blue in the face and livid with rage, determined to make a scene and prepared for anything. On entering the office of M. XX… "So it seems, I said, that you are not going to pay me! – My dear Berlioz, the director replied, you know it is not my fault. I have made every possible enquiry and conducted the most stringent investigation. The sums allocated to you have disappeared and have been assigned to another purpose. I do not know in what department this has happened. If things like that happened in mine!… – What? the sums allocated to the Beaux-Arts can thus be used outside your department without your knowledge?… your funds are available to any newcomer?… But no matter – it is not for me to deal with such questions. A Requiem was commissioned from me by the Minister of the Interior for the agreed sum of three thousand francs, and I want my three thousand francs. – Good heavens, show a little more patience. We shall see. Incidentally, you are being considered for the cross. – To Hell with your cross! Give me my money. – But… – It is not a question of but, I shouted, knocking over a chair, I am giving you till tomorrow at noon, and if on the stroke of noon I have not received the sum, I will stir up a scandal against you and the minister such as not been seen before! And you know that I have the means of causing such a scandal." M. XX. was so alarmed at this that he forgot to take his hat and dashed to the stairs leading to the minister, with me in hot pursuit shouting: "Don’t forget to tell him that I would be ashamed to treat my shoemaker as he is treating me, and that his behaviour towards me will soon achieve a rare notoriety." [Footnote: And yet he was an excellent man full of good intentions]

    This time I had discovered the chink in his armour. Ten minutes later, M. XX. came back with a draft for ten thousand francs from the funds of the Beaux-Arts. Money had been found… That is how artists sometimes need to win justice for themselves in Paris. There are also some more violent methods which I urge them not to overlook…

    At a later date the excellent M. de Gasparin took over once more the portfolio of the Interior, and seemed to want to make amends for the intolerable denials of justice I had endured about the Requiem. He obtained for me that famous cross of the Legion of Honour which they had as it were tried to sell me for three thousand francs, and for which I would not have given thirty sous when offered in that way. This banal distinction was conferred on me at the same time as the great Duponchel, at the time director of the Opéra, and to Bordogni, the greatest singing-master of that period.

    When the Requiem was subsequently printed, I dedicated it to M. de Gasparin, which was all the more natural as he was no longer in power.

    What adds particular spice to the Minister of the Interior’s behaviour towards me in this matter is that after the performance of the Requiem, when I had paid the musicians, the choristers, the joiners who had built the platform for the orchestra, Habeneck, Duprez, and everyone else, and I was only at the start of my petitions for obtaining my three thousand francs, some of the opposition newspapers singled me out as one of those in favour with the government, like a silkworm living on the account-sheets of the revenue, and printed in all seriousness reports that I had just been given thirty thousand francs for the Requiem.

    They were only adding one zero to the sum I had not received. That is how history is written.

Memoirs, chapter 47

    A few years after the eventful ceremony I have described in detail, the city of Lille organised its first festival, and Habeneck was engaged to direct the musical part of it [25 June 1838]. He was prone, in spite of it all, to generous impulses, and he may have wanted to try to get me to forget, if possible, his famous pinch of snuff. He had the idea of suggesting to the committee of the festival, among other pieces for the concert, the Lacrymosa of my Requiem. A Credo from a solemn mass by Cherubini was also included in the programme. Habeneck rehearsed my piece with extraordinary care, and it appears that the performance left nothing to be desired. It also made reportedly a great impression, and in spite of its colossal scale the Lacrymosa was vociferously encored by the public. Some members of the audience were moved to tears. As the Lille committee had not done me the honour of inviting me, I had stayed in Paris. But after the concert, Habeneck, overjoyed at achieving such a success with a work of this difficulty, wrote me a short letter in the following terms:

    My dear Berlioz,

    I cannot resist the pleasure of telling you that your Lacrymosa was performed flawlessly and had a huge impact.

     Yours ever,



    The letter was published in Paris in the Gazette musicale. On his return Habeneck went to see Cherubini to assure him that his Credo had been very well done. "Yes, replied Cherubini dryly, but you did not write to me!" [Footnote: I had warned him that one day my name would be known to him]


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© Michel Austin for the English translation. All rights of reproduction reserved.