14 JUNE 1969, Page 21

Echo answers


As chance would have it last week saw the first performance of Messiaen's 'enormous and spectacular' La Transfiguration in Lisbon (which I missed) while London audiences had a probably hardly inferior experience of three of what Berlioz himself called his 'architectural works'—the Synt- phonie Funebre et Triomphale, the Te Hewn and the Grande Messe des Moils— in the Berliozian setting of St. Paul's.

The similarities between Messiaen and Berlioz are inescapable: both use massive orchestras and choirs (Messiaen eighteen woodwinds, eighteen brass, ten percussion- eas, large body of strings, instrumental "oloists and a hundred-voice choir; Berlioz a minimum of twenty woodwind, twelve horns, one hundred strings, plus four brass bands and timpani, and chorus) not only to create works of colossal power and pro- portions (slightly mad, agreed. but in Wag- nerian terms with an equally colossal detachment): but also to set in motion musical vibrations in enormous areas, so that space affects the music and music the 'pace. Messiaen's Et Expecto, you will remember, was written for performance in huge cathedrals or on the top of a moun- tain, while Berlioz considered, as David Cairns has pointed out, that music was habitually played in buildings too big for it. Berlioz was consciously aware of what he was doing: the 'Tuba Mirum' of the Requiem employs 'an exceptional combina- tion of forces in a manner at the time un- precedented and not attempted since'.

Until Messiaen that is. Both composers are, of course, French and, if their cultiva- tion of the grandiose seems at odds with the Couperin-Debussy-Boulez `sensitivise ob- verse of the national musical coinage (both tendencies meet in Varese), it is no difficult to see that all French composers of any im- portance have the habit of side-stepping. or perhaps hedge-hopping, the musical tradi- tion which sets up the accepted musical truths of the day. By part rejection. part synthesis, part temperamental disaflinity, part inability to come to terms with a pre- dominantly Germanic tradition, French composers—Berlioz amongst the most striking—have achieved a synthesis of tech- nique on a kind of one-off basis (as distinct from the habit of Austro-German com- posers of feeding on their predecessors, which formed a continuous line from the early classics to Webern).

Listening again to the Te Delon after a lo-g break made me realise the 'unrepeat- ar'ty' of Berlioz. His music sounds like no of or composer of the time—the nobility, lortiness. and austerity recall Gluck (Ber- lio,'s idol) but the idiom and the archi- tectural feeling seem to reach back to a pagan music which has never existed before nor ever will again. Bryan Robertson wrote a few weeks ago that Leonardo's drawings `are extremely easy to look at and im- mensely difficult to see.' So it is with Ber- lioz—the gestures may be grandiloquent and melodramatic, but the music never is. One hears simple plainsong-like lines, and frighteningly clear textures, which give the lie to the theatrical exterior—it is no wonder that it has taken a hundred years for us to 'become accustomed' to this composer. He was, of course, a child of his times but he never sounds localised'—one need hardly mention, in contrast, the emotionalism of a Gounod. or the 'passion' of a Massenet.

Curiously it was only in the one place that Colin Davis lapsed into sentimentality—in the Te Deum—that one realised how authoritative his reading was. There was a short passage at the end of the 'Te Ergo' where he chose to float a soprano line above the softer lower voices instead of giving each voice equal weight. But perhaps this was due to the acoustic of St Paul's—whose nine second echo at times was a perform- ance in itself; the Symphonic* Futzehre sounded to me, sitting a few yards from the orchestra, to be coming from the distance of a hundred years ago.

At other times the echo gave the works a unique new perspective—vocal lines, when simple, were surrounded by a halo, the effectiveness of the infamous flute and trombone chords completely vindicated Berlioz's visionary ear; raving timpani and eery scraped cymbals looked forward to Varese. Davis played the echo superbly, with relish even, though in the 'Lachrymosa' his tempo was too fast and, from where I was sitting, the detail was lost in a fuzzy haze. It's not difficult to see that in about ten years' time Davis, with his remarkable commitment to and sympathy with the music of Berlioz, will have qualified for the official Berlioz Conducting Prize: 'they [conductors) require a combination of irre- sistible verve, utmost precision, a con-

trolled vehemence, a dreamlike sensitivity and an almost morbid melancholy, without which the essential character of my phrases is falsified or ex en obliterated.' This is also a fine self-description of Berlioz's music— Davis is still a bit deficient in the latter two attributes.

In one case—the fugal 'Hosanna'—the booming reverberation of the cathedral illu- minated a revolutionary aspect of Berlioz's music. At the time I soon realised that there was no point in trying to hear all the notes. as one would strive to do in Bach or Beet- hoven, only to read afterwards that this was Berlioz's intention: the 'Hosanna' was to be sung 'smoothly, not vehemently, without emphasising individual notes'. This striving for the overall effect, even at the expense of individual notes was, and still is, a pretty modern concept. and symptomatic of the very individual way in which Berlioz built his architectural forms and which makes his music difficult to hear: 'it is above all the scale of the movements, the breadth of style and the formidably slow and deliberate pace of certain progressions. whose final goal cannot he guessed that give these works their entirely "gigantic" character and "colossal" aspect.'

Thus Berlioz in his Memoirs, and my italics point out a perhaps far-fetched but not ironic similarity with Boulez's concept of the work of art as labyrinth. But more important this approach- and the evidence of one's ears show that so soon after Beethoven's death Berlioz had been able to free himself from the grip of a functional harmony in which the key schemes and tonal relations circumscribe the form, so that one knows by feeling and experience where the music is going. The extraordinary conception of building a movement---the Offertorium in the Requiem around a vocal ostinato of two alternating notes not only shows the extent to which Berlioz had escaped from Beethovenian rhetoric, but demonstrates formal principles which are only being realised—indirectly of course-- by composers today.