Cherubini: Requiem – Missa pro defunctis… in C minor…

Edited by Hans Schellevis.
Score. Bärenreiter (BA 8961), xii + 188pp, £43.50.
[Also available Vsc BA 8961-90, £8.00; wind set £27.50, strings each £5.00.]

Though primarily an operatic composer, Cherubini was fortunate enough to be commissioned for a particularly important event: On 20 January 1817, the remains of the royal Bourbons were moved from previous tombs. On the following day, crowds assembled at the Basilica of St. Denis. The solemn three hours in the morning included Cherubini’s Requiem  ( till then after an hour, a Mass ran on from 3.00 to 6.00. Composers like Schumann and Brahms continued the enthusiasm of the work, whileBerlioz stated “that the Requiem is on the whole, to my mind, the greatest work of its author; no other production of this grand master can bear any comparison with it for the abundance of ideas, fullness of form and sustained sublimity of style”.

The singers of the Royal Chapel from 1816 generally had soloists, while the choir comprised 7 first, 6 second sopranos, 12 tenors and 10 basses. The violins were tacent for the first two movements; Fauré also included sections without violins. There were no altos, whether ladies or falsettists. The orchestra is 0222 2230, timps, tamtam and strings.

Cherubini was a specialist in ending with slow diminuendi. The introit has only pp, apart from a few hairpins, which end back to pp – and that lasts 141 largo-sostenuto bars, with low instruments. Following from the quote above, Berlioz wrote “No one before or after Cherubini has possessed this kind of skill in chiaroscuro, the shades and the progressive deteriorisation of sound”. In fact, the only dynamics used are pp, p, f and ff, the last rare. I found a recording online which made no serious attempt to follow the dynamics! The opening, for instance, was definitely NOT pp. The soft indications should be clear, but f covers a much wider range of dynamics. I assume that the durations at the end of each movement are editorial.

This isn’t a work that will receive many performances, but it is well worth hearing. It needs a big church but not necessarily a large choir! I wonder if it has been played at St Denis since 1821?

For the long history of St Denis, it’s worth checking