What makes Hector Berlioz such a great composer? In one word, originality. There is no one like him in the history of music. He broke all existing traditions of orchestration, structure, harmonic language and storytelling. Even today, 150 years after his death, his music is fresh, surprising us at every turn with inexpressible beauty.

John Nelson © Marco Borggreve
John Nelson
© Marco Borggreve

I was smitten by Berlioz soon after I graduated from the Juilliard School. I was struggling to make a living in New York City as a conductor, and a friend (Matthew Epstein) suggested I go to the library and listen to the five-hour Les Troyens recording that had just come out with Colin Davis conducting. It blew my mind and I had the audacity to think I could do it too. Several months later I met Sir Colin and told him I was planning to do the American premiere at Carnegie Hall. He laid me low, castigating me for my foolishness. Undeterred I ploughed ahead. Matthew said he would find a top-notch cast if I would find the chorus and orchestra. Long story short, we performed it to a sold-out Carnegie Hall audience garnering stunning reviews. What followed were invitations to conduct Les Troyens at the Grand Théâtre de Genève, and many of his works at the Berlioz Festival in Lyon including the Requiem. My career was launched!

Fast forward half a century to this year’s 150th anniversary, we have chosen to perform the Requiem in St Paul’s Cathedral to commemorate the anniversary of his death on the actual date – 8th March. Berlioz, at the end of his life, said “If I were threatened with the destruction of the whole of my works save one, I should crave mercy for the Grande Messe des Morts [Requiem].” Quite surprising as he had just finished his five-hour magnum opus, Les Troyens, which I personally feel is his greatest. But why quibble?

John Nelson © Marco Borggreve
John Nelson
© Marco Borggreve

The Requiem’s origins are complicated. It was originally commissioned by the French Minister of the Interior who intended to “restore sacred music to the prestige which it had long ago lost in France”. The performance was derailed by copying costs unpaid by the government. It finally saw the light of day with a performance at Les Invalides in Paris, dedicated to those killed in a French assault on Constantine in Algeria. It was a major success and judged favourably by the press.

Berlioz was not a religious person, but one would never know it from his Requiem or, for that matter, his other religious works like the Te Deum or L’Enfance du Christ. They are all shot through with the fervour of his childhood’s Catholic upbringing. For a believer as myself, every measure resonates deeply with me and I feel there is sincerity even in the great moments of bombast.

The structure of the Requiem is quite traditional but it is the orchestration that is original. Punctuating the most dramatic moments are four brass bands that function outside the main orchestra and represent the four corners of the earth – North, South, East and West. They will be placed in the four corners of the rotunda at St Paul’s Cathedral making for an overwhelming sonic experience especially for those privileged to be upfront. It is in the Dies irae and the Lacrimosa movements that these four bands will shock the audience. But there are other moments where their presence will be more subtle, for instance in the Hostias where eight trombones are at their lowest range representing the earth while three flutes in their highest range are representing the heavens. The chasm is huge.

The acoustics of St Paul’s Cathedral will bring huge challenges as the sound will reverberate back and forth in such a cavernous space. But the sound engineers will solve this problem with many microphones placed strategically to reduce the reverberation for the live world-wide telecast and the DVD for posterity. It certainly will be a challenge for me to hold it all together. But we will have rehearsed most carefully with this in mind. The forces of the Philharmonia Orchestra and the combined choirs (208 in all) of the Philharmonia and the London Symphony Choruses are absolutely superb and I expect their performance will be for the ages.

This will be the fifth time I have conducted the work. The first time was at the Berlioz Festival in Lyon in 1985 and it is worth recounting that here, as much for the humour as for the sheer volume of performers. John Eliot Gardiner had just created a new orchestra for the Lyon Opera stalked with the finest young French players. No love was lost between the existing Lyon National Orchestra and this new hot shot group. In fact, one day the contrabass instruments of the opera orchestra were suddenly missing and later found to have been thrown into a distant field, long suspected to be the act of the National Orchestra players, but never substantiated. In an attempt to ameliorate the tense relationship between the two orchestras, the Berlioz Festival planned a grand outdoor performance of the Requiem bringing both orchestras together along with 1000 choristers. Miraculously the rehearsals and performance went beautifully without a hitch. My euphoria made me bring both concert masters and both principals of all sections to shake hands, causing me to completely forget to acknowledge the great Nicolai Gedda as the tenor soloist. Nonplussed, he tapped me on the shoulder signalling “What about me?” I apologised, he understood and the concert went into the history books.


John Nelson conducts the Requiem in St Paul's Cathedral on Friday 8 March.