THE GRANDEST SOUND EVER HEARD
“Is fourteen thousand francs enough?”
So began the composition of Hector Berlioz’s Grande Messe des Morts, otherwise known as his Requiem Mass. It was 1837. The first performance would take place at the Chapel of Les Invalides in Paris, where Napoleon had been entombed, to commemorate the seventh anniversary of the 1830 July Revolution. At this time, many composers were competing for commissions, so Berlioz felt honored, though pressured to pull this off. The chapel was large, so Berlioz thought it important to consider “architectural” constructions and mass effects.
“Music is at once a science and a sentiment,” writes Berlioz during the construction of his Requiem. “It must not solely satisfy the ear by correct and artistic combinations of sounds, but must also speak to the heart and the imagination.”
Berlioz attacked the project with a fervor, sometimes writing in a self-devised music shorthand to capture all his ideas before he forgot them. He envisioned a huge orchestra and chorus, with an extensive percussion section and four antiphonal brass choirs that would be situated in the corners of the cathedral. The project’s scope would exceed any piece of music that had ever been written.
In April, 1977, I was honored to perform this piece at Avery Fischer hall in New York City, along with 450 singers and 150 instruments. I played second trumpet in “antiphonal choir number one,” off to the right of the theater as one faces the orchestra. Efforts of five colleges were combined to produce this project, sponsored by the National Council on Crime and Delinquency. Admission tickets were fifty dollars and one hundred dollars. It involved what Robert Sherman describes as a “mass migration” of students, mostly from the Pioneer Valley in Massachusetts, to New York for the one-time performance of the Requiem, “on the scale envisioned by the composer himself.” Even the four performances of the Requiem in Paris during Berlioz’s lifetime were lesser by comparison; for instance, Berlioz was only able to recruit eight brass players for the antiphonal choirs, whereas we had fifteen.
Berlioz writes, “I flung myself into its composition with a kind of fury…my head was ready to burst with the pressure of my seething thoughts.” And so we tackled the Requiem, the excitement building with each rehearsal. The antiphonal brass choirs were extracted from the University of Massachusetts (Amherst) brass choir led by Walter Chesnut. You had to understand Professor Chesnut to realize just how vivacious we were about the assignment. Each of us practiced at least three hours a day, seven days a week, in addition to long hours of rehearsals, and, if we had the time, sessions of duets and other musical forms of goofing off.
Among the brass at UMass, “chops,” or “embouchure”–lip positioning–was everything. The majority of brass players were male, and they would joke about playing “mit kech,” or, “with balls.” (The responses of the ladies varied.) We encouraged each other to play as powerfully as possible without the loss of clear tone and sensibility of style. We learned proper breathing to get the most power into our playing with the least amount of strain.
All this led to a kind of “inbreeding,” or, perhaps better put, the formation of “cliques.” We “class of ‘79” trumpeters were a tight group from freshman year on, with the exclusion of Jamie S., because he didn’t fit in; he studied with a different teacher and earned special privileges because of his extensive background as a conductor. He was also fat (until he went on a massive diet one summer) and that led to much teasing behind his back. I didn’t like it, nobody did, but it was there and no one had the power to stop it. But for the most part, things were rather chummy between us all.
The consequences must have been amusing to an outsider. When Steve Salbu contracted pneumonia, we all stood outside his dorm room, and, making general fools of ourselves, serenaded him to the tune of “We wish you a merry Christmas.” Gary R., a trumpeter a year ahead of us, dated Sanaye, a flutist. Sanaye and David Ertel, who we called Ertle, were close friends, and they invented a cocktail popular in our circle: the “Sanertle Sling,” which created enough hangovers in its day to keep the entire department in bed with hot water bottles on their heads. Sanaye went on to date a pianist; Ertle dated a French horn player before he got hooked up with another trumpeter, the French horn player then dated Gary, and Ann Marie dated Jim, who was–heavens!–from outside of the department.
One can see that it was an environment where gossip exceeded what it should have been, and when Jamie was finally fully accepted into our little clique, I was pushed out. By the time of the Berlioz performances–one at UMass and one at Smith College before heading to New York–I knew the others were talking behind my back; I became reclusive and spent increasing amounts of time alone.
The night before the big performance at Avery Fischer Hall, the five sophomore trumpet players, including me and a few others, barreled into our New York hotel room and blasted our trumpets indiscriminately without regard to other hotel patrons, laughing and carrying on as if we had the whole next day to sleep it off. Curt B, the TA who played beside me in antiphonal brass number one, was busy toking reefer and would remain stoned for the rest of the year. But the day of the performance, the rest of us were a sober bunch, nerve-wracked about the massiveness of what was about to happen.
The hall was huge; its size exceeded the size of cathedrals in Berlioz’s day. Berlioz writes, “The consequence of such vastness of scale is that the listener either misses the point altogether or is overwhelmed by a tremendous emotion.” Berlioz even left sound breaks in the Requiem music for reverberations in the Chapel of Les Invalides; these spaces were certainly needed at Avery Fischer Hall. It is easy to see how the music represents the Last Judgment. Still, Berlioz writes, “As for the perceptions that the writer himself owed to the hearing of music, nothing can convey their exact character to one who has never experienced them.”
When music reaches such a grand scale, subtle errors, on stage and off, can mean disaster. For the debut performance in 1837, the singer Duprez was chosen to perform the tenor solo in the Sanctus. Unfortunately, he was a poor actor; he gesticulated while he sang, which was disturbing to some; he was considered an inferior musician to Adolphe Nourrit, who had been expected to be assigned the role. The crowd went wild over Duprez, leaving Nourrit miserable. Berlioz and an Irish friend both tried to calm Nourrit, but the poor fellow was never the same. He killed himself by jumping out of a window at age 37.
During this 1837 performance, the conductor put down his baton momentarily to take a pinch of snuff, as was his habit. Unfortunately, he missed cueing in the brass, but Berlioz, alert to the potential disaster, signaled the brass himself, and the rest of the piece went well. In our performance, conductor Bruce McInnes made an about-face during the brass fanfare sections of the piece, facing the audience and those of us in the far corners of the auditorium, which was so large that unless one was sitting in the center of the audience, there were rhythmic discrepancies due to the slow speed of sound.
There was no question in my mind that I would always play to the be
st of my ability; my efforts would be channeled one hundred percent toward the proper playing of my part. What amazes me now that given my rebellious nature, I never blew a performance deliberately; that is, it never occurred to me that I could easily blast “Lovely Rita, Meter Maid” while we were supposed to be performing Haydn, or, worse, chime in with Led Zeppelin during the Requiem. It never occurred to me to leap from the corner balcony onto the stuffy concert-goers below. Now I realize how easy it could have been.
My parents, aunt, and grandmother all attended the performance, and as usual, embarrassed me. My grandmother was mostly concerned with my physical appearance, and all four of them fussed over me excessively. At my age, nineteen, I wanted to shove my relatives out of view of my classmates, who by then were laughing at me among themselves, or so I believed.
During my next year at UMass, I felt so discouraged by the academic and social scene in the music department that I chose to attend part-time while working at a bagel deli restaurant, and when I got fired, I left UMass and took a job in Vermont as a live-in nanny. I had always aspirted to live in a rural area, a romantic teenage dream. The unpaved driveway leading to the family home was a half-mile long off a winding country road. When it rained, the cows would break out of a nearby dairy farm and graze on our lawn. Mostly, though, I was surrounded by the overwhelming quiet of the place; the only sounds anyone heard were occasional flocks of birds and nightly crickets; there was no traffic buzz or mayhem of city life or whispering classmates. I realized the reality of silence, that surely it was the grandest sound ever heard.