For a long time, Berlioz's Requiem was one of the most famous least-heard works in the literature. Few performances were given because the demands of the piece are huge and fiendish: four brass choirs and sixteen kettledrums, in addition to a large orchestra and chorus. Not many organizations could afford it, and it wasn't until the era of long-playing recordings that the music could be heard with any regularity.
Someone once asked the composer: "Are you not the man who composes for 1,000 musicians?"
"No, monsieur," Berlioz answered. "Sometimes I write for 500."
William Hall will lead the Master Chorale of Orange County and the Chapman University Choir in the Requiem on Saturday at the Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa, on a program that will also include the Stabat Mater from Verdi's "Pezzi Sacri" (Sacred Pieces).
And yes, Hall says, "I'll have four brass choirs, two at stage left and right, and two on Tier One and Tier Two. It would not be Berlioz's Requiem without them. And we will have at least 12 kettledrums."
The performance will have extra meaning for Hall, whose mother died Sept. 24 of congestive heart failure. "It was very unexpected, but it was quick," Hall said this week. "She was sitting in a chair. My sister, who works in a hospital, was living with her. My mother said, 'I'm dying,' and then she did. She was 84, going on 20 or 110, depending on what day it was. The chorale will probably dedicate the performance to her memory."
Berlioz wrote the Requiem in 1837 on a government commission and revised it in 1852 and 1867. The premiere was part of a memorial service in France for a General Damremont, who was killed in the battle of Constantine, Algeria.
The service was at the Chapel of St. Louis at the Invalides, a huge domed structure; the windows were blocked and the walls draped in black for the occasion. Six hundred candles and incense boats illuminated the general's coffin.
To fill this vast space with sound and to bolster the moods of ceremony and awe, Berlioz used a chorus of 210 and an orchestra of 190, and distributed the kettledrums and brass choirs at the four corners of the church. They are first heard in the "Tuba Mirum" section of the text, in which the Last Trumpet sounds to resurrect the dead for the Day of Judgment.
"Les Invalides had a 10-second reverberation time," Hall said. "Imagine the chaos from the noise."
Conductors have made adjustments, Hall said, "simply because he wrote it for a particular hall, and it doesn't work in others. The 'Agnus Dei,' he scores for four flutes and double trombone brass choirs in the balcony. It doesn't work in a modern concert hall. If it had longer time to ring, perhaps the noise in the trombones would be more awesome."
Though Berlioz has a reputation for having invented the modern orchestra, Hall says the composer "was not a master orchestrator. Tchaikovsky was. Rimsky-Korsakov wrote the book. (Berlioz) had really special concepts for the orchestra. Some worked brilliantly. Some didn't."
In any case, Hall will be using a chorus of about 260 and an orchestra "in the 90s"--all of which is a strain on his annual budget of about $400,000.
"Lord, is it!" Hall agreed. "It's a very difficult time. But subscriptions have held to two seasons ago (you can't compare them to last season's, with (Paul McCartney's) 'Liverpool Oratorio,' where people bought subscriptions just to hear that). We have about about 550 to 600 subscribers, and single tickets are selling well."
Hall said he decided to preface the Requiem with Verdi's Stabat Mater because "melodically, these were two giants of that century. It's all melody. It absolutely introduces the Requiem beautifully because the style was absolutely the same melodically. The Stabat Mater is very short, but one of the triumphs of Verdi."
* William Hall will lead the Master Chorale of Orange County and the Chapman University Choir in Berlioz's Requiem and Verdi's Stabat Mater on Saturday at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Curtain: 8 p.m. $15 to $40. (714) 556-6262.