The review of the first performance of Hector Berlioz’s Requiem, formally titled Grande Messe des morts, Op. 5, published in Le Charivari December 6, 1837, includes this assessment of the new work: “The ‘Introit’ … recalls the compositions of old masters. Dreaded brass and timpani were reserved almost exclusively for the ‘Dies irae,’ but this time Berlioz used them with such energy and effect, not to produce an empty sound, but a sublime projection of terror throughout his audience. We must conscientiously give him full justice; this piece is the finest ever written by Berlioz and we look in vain for something higher in the great works of the masters.” (Free translation by K.H.)

The Requiem has been called gargantuan, enormous, monumental, colossal and a stack of other descriptive superlatives. The score calls for a huge orchestra (25 each of first and second violins, 10 pairs of cymbals, and 8 bassoons, to give just a few examples), plus brass choirs in the four corners of the performance area, a chorus of at least 290 voices and a tenor soloist. To be sure, Berlioz was fond of grand, big sounds and dramatic effects. In his correspondence with Liszt he makes clear how much he relished jolting and shocking his audiences. It was the big audacious sounds he created that got attention in the press and shaped his reputation. But note as well that passages of the Requiem were also compared to the likes of Palestrina and Josquin des Prez.

The first performance took place in the spacious Church of the Invalides in Paris and involved over 400 performing artists. This performance in Duke Chapel involved the Choral Society of Durham, Duke Chapel Choir,and Duke University Chorale, all together close to Berlioz’s desired number of choristers, along with an orchestra of around 80 including the four brass ensembles – not quite up to the wish-list of the composer on the instrumental side but still a significantly augmented orchestra capable of filling the reverberant Duke Chapel from transept to beams with terror, glory and serenity.

It truly was an awesome force and it produced an awesome aural experience. During the “Lacrymosa,” the mid-point of the Mass, I had a vision of conductor Rodney Wynkoop as Poseidon, standing in his chariot, riding across a stormy sea, the reins of three dolphins in his left hand, his right hand pointing out the course of the journey.

The imposing “Dies irae” lived up to all it was advertised to be: the day when trumpets call even the dead from their graves for final judgment. This section began with the various voice parts of the choir singing in polyphonic weaving, establishing a mood of dread, awful confusion and lostness. And when the “Tuba mirum” kicked in, the brass burst onto the scene from the four corners of the chapel – the four corners of the world. The choir reached incredible intensity, the orchestra flooded the space with dissonant sounds of judgment and retribution. And if there were any doubt, the boom of the bass drum made even the pews shudder. Terror reigned. A lesser conductor could lose control here but Wynkoop, with his usual musical integrity, kept the reins tight and the terror was almost overwhelming – but musically refined as well.

“Rex tremendae” provided another opportunity for the brass to sound out and the chorus to give it all they had. Soaring praise contrasted with beseeching pleas for help.

“Quaerens me” was another remarkable section. A prayer for deliverance in which Jesus is called upon to remember all His mercy, it is sung by the unaccompanied choir in some of Berlioz’s renaissance-inspired polyphony. The music was gentle, mystical in quality and ethereal in effect. An unexpected percussion effect was provided by the rumble of thunder outside the Chapel.

The Offertory, “Domine Jesu Christe” is based on a repeated motif of a, b-flat, a in the choir with the orchestra weaving various melodies into the mix. It was a very interesting effect. The concluding part of the Offertory, the “Hostias,” is scored for male voices, eight trombones, three flutes and strings. I don’t recall when I have heard a more gorgeous sound – earthy, warm and comforting. It ended with a brief duet between tuba and flute.

The “Sanctus” is usually sung by a tenor soloist, but in the original version, Berlioz request ten tenors. In this performance the tenor section of the massed chorus sang it in unison. This soaring music, sung over sustained flute notes and answered by women’s voices, surely makes the nerves on the back of the neck tingle with sublime pleasure. The tenors, by the way, were sensational. This movement ends with a substantial fugue on the phrase “Hosanna in excelsis.”

The final movement, “Agnus Dei” (Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world), provides comfort and hope as it recapitulates some of the themes from earlier in the Mass. The closing measures are music of sublime beauty and celestial serenity with sweet arpeggios in the violins hovering over gentle choral singing.

Listening to this performance by these dedicated and committed artists was an experience not soon to be forgotten. There are no superlatives adequate to describe it. Let’s just call it a colossal experience.

The Requiem will be repeated at 4:00 p.m. on Sunday, March 25, in Duke Chapel. For details, see the sidebar.