Telling the (Vocal) Story

Written by Lawrence Schenbeck

In TMT #75 we talked about narrative in instrumental music. Today, let’s consider narrative in vocal works. But really, what’s to consider? Reminds me of that exchange in the 1988 film Big Business when affable hayseed Roone Dimmick (Fred Ward), visiting New York, hears music on the stereo and asks effete snob Graham Sherbourne (Edward Herrmann) about it: “That’s some classical music you got there, right?” Graham: “Uh, yes.” Roone: “I could tell. No lyrics.”

Most vocal music does have lyrics, so what else can be said about its storytelling? Quite a bit, actually.

In December 1837 Hector Berlioz (1803–1869) became famous—and more important, respected—by getting his Requiem performed after months of political infighting that pitted him against the entire Parisian musical establishment. A radical upstart, he loved getting this big break, but what he really loved was the text of the Requiem Mass, which set his dramatic/literary imagination on fire. What a story!

Except it was not a story, at least not yet. It was a set of texts used for a liturgical rite, the Mass for the Dead. Commonly linked with funerals, Requiems could also be offered for a group of the dead or for a community in mourning. In fact, Berlioz’s music had been commissioned for a public ceremony in memory of 18 people killed in a terrorist attack. Although that ceremony was cancelled, the composer wangled a performance out of another worthy tragedy, this one for a General Damrémont and the soldiers who perished with him in October 1837 while invading North Africa.

Quite a pair of stories right there, but Berlioz had a grander narrative in mind. He hacked away at the Requiem texts, cutting some while rearranging, trimming, or repeating others until he came up with a dynamic storyline. Still, he chose a long arc: it takes Berlioz around 80 minutes to spin his tale. The story begins in grief so profound that orchestra and singers can barely utter their initial statements.

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Perhaps you noticed that each of the first three full phrases, after making quiet, effortful chromatic ascents from the depths, ends in a muted fanfare of sorts. That gesture toward the dotted rhythms of French military musique funèbre is no accident (cf. the Funeral March from Beethoven’s “Eroica”). It reminds us that this music speaks on behalf of a nation. Heroes are being celebrated. An even stronger message issues from those hushed ascending phrases: the battle is over. These heroes are now met on another field. None will emerge victorious. The nation offers prayers for them. (A common misconception about Requiems is that their purpose is to console survivors. Not so: of well-known Requiems, only those by Fauré, who omitted the lurid, fearful “Dies irae,” and Brahms, who discarded the entire Latin text, suggest consolation as a central value.)

If this first movement were a screenplay, the author would direct the camera to move from a wide-angle establishing shot—perhaps an eerily quiet, deserted battlefield—to a group of people, scattered families and individuals slowly moving toward a common destination, the interior of a massive cathedral. There they gather to remember, reflect, and pray. The camera descends from a great height until it arrives in their midst and begins a 360° tracking shot. A few people begin to sing; others join them.

From a balcony a new voice enters, with new text: “Te decet hymnus, Deus, in Sion.” (“You are prized, O God, in Zion.”) Another voice responds: “et tibi reddetur votum in Jerusalem” (“and homage will be paid you in Jerusalem”). The chorus directs its praise heavenward, but we also hear the orchestra:

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That restless 8th-note accompaniment in the cellos, with its tense, worrying alteration of half-steps and upward leaps, complements a more lyrical structuring of the same material (half-step, upward 6th) in the voices. Less prominent is Berlioz’s first use of a timbral motive that will assume increasing importance as the work continues: high woodwinds, low brass, nothing much between. It’s a cold, empty sound that emphasizes the distance between heaven and earth. The choir’s fortissimo shouts of “Requiem aeternam dona!” return. When Berlioz brings back that chilly high/low effect, in No. 8, “Hostias” (“Sacrifices and prayers we offer you. . . .”), he foregrounds it with stunning results:

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We’ll hear it again, in No. 10, “Agnus Dei.” But first let’s explore the overall story arc. We’ll use a screenwriting model popularized by Syd Field, three-act structure. (His ubiquitous textbook Screenplay is among the props shown on a recent New Yorker cover, itself chock-full of narrative.) Field’s basics—Setup, Confrontation, Resolution—are transparently evident in Berlioz’s restructured Requiem text and its music.

Setup occupies movements 1 and 2, “Introitus” and “Dies irae.” The battered emotional state of the protagonists is immediately apparent, as is their anxiety in calling upon God, the antagonist. “Dies irae” now presents what Field would call the inciting incident or catalyst, in this case The Last Judgment. Berlioz builds carefully up to it, then delivers it as a truly cinematic explosion, introducing the “Tuba mirum spargens sonum” (“The trumpet will send its wondrous sound”) with four brass bands, each placed in a different corner of the hall.

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Following this moment—echoed in musical aftershocks at “Liber scriptus” and “Judex ergo”—Berlioz effects a long Confrontation by dividing the “Dies irae” text into separate movements (Nos. 3–6), transposing parts of the text in order to contrast cosmic events (think of Marvel’s Thor) with the cries of individuals. Crowd scenes are intercut with more intimate portraits, revealing singular human responses in the struggle. (Quick aside: Sergei Eisenstein invented the modern camera techniques associated with epic battle in his film Alexander Nevsky. He discovered that many short takes, intercut for maximum effect, produced an energy that could never be replicated with long takes in which the camera remained fixed in position. Berlioz was using a similar principle, although each of his “takes” is necessarily much more extended.)

So: in No. 3, “Quid sum miser,” the cataclysms of No. 2 are met with quiet, thinly scored pleas using the same thematic material. No. 5, “Quaerens me,” scored for unaccompanied chorus, is even more intimate. But Nos. 4, “Rex tremendae,” and 6, “Lacrymosa” continue the succession of large-scale scenes from the End of Days. After the very long “Lacrymosa,” Berlioz offers a hint of Resolution with No. 7, “Offertorium,” (originally titled “Chorus of Souls in Purgatory”). In this subdued interlude, the chorus repeats a single, two-note plea as if reduced to exhaustion.

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Further relief comes with No. 8, “Hostias,” a sequence of static declamations punctuated by the high/low wind motif. Finally, in No. 9, “Sanctus,” we are transported tonally and thematically to another world:

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It’s capped by a “Hosanna” in stile antico. (Ah, nothing more comforting than the cozy embrace of 18th-century counterpoint). With No. 10, “Agnus Dei,” we return to the sound of the “Hostias” but with one more flute, which removes the (harmonic) chill. The music recaps “Te decet hymnus,” then “Requiem aeternam,” moving finally to an “Amen” on cadences borrowed from “Rex Tremendae.” And so Berlioz leads us home, using subtly transformed materials from earlier moments in the work.

I wish I could play the whole thing for you. But wait, here’s an idea: get a recording. You’ve been listening to the Bergen PO and friends, conducted by Edward Gardner (Chandos; SACD and download). It’s good; I spot-checked it against my personal reference, Robert Shaw’s 1985 Telarc reading. Perfect tempos, a very nice sense of the hall (extremely important with this piece), extremely sensitive musicianship, excellent engineering. Of course Munch and Davis, among others, are lurking back there from the Golden Age. But I think you’d do fine with Ed and his crew.

I’ve got another new recording, also a strong contender, from Ludovic Morlot and the Seattle SO. Once I get to know it better, I’ll report back, along with much, much more.

Happy New Year, everyone.

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