Color and Drama in Two Choral Requiems from Post-Napoleonic France

(Brahms’s Ein deutsches Requiem is a special case: beloved,
and meditating on death and consolation, but using texts directly from various
books of the Bible. Other special cases include Britten’s War
and Stravinsky’s Requiem Canticles.) Luigi
Cherubini’s two Requiem settings (1816 and 1836) are likewise among his
most-performed works, in part because of their acute responses to the Latin
text. Unlike all of the aforementioned, though, they are solely for chorus and
orchestra, without vocal soloists.

I was sent two CDs of Cherubini’s Requiem No. 1 in C Minor to review,
and was immediately struck by how powerful and varied the work is—I
hadn’t heard it in years—but also by how attitudes toward musical
performance have changed in the 60-plus years that separate the two

One CD consists of the re-release of a 1952 recording, featuring the
orchestra and chorus of the Santa Cecilia Society (Rome), conducted by a
youngish Carlo Maria Giulini. The other is a new recording of the same work by
a prominent early-music group, Le Concert Spirituel, under its longtime music
director Hervé Niquet. The differences in approach are so extreme that
one might be forgiven for wondering occasionally if one was hearing a different
composition altogether, even though the notes are the same.

My interest in the assignment increased even further when I saw that the
Niquet CD included a second setting of the Requiem text, by Charles-Henri
Plantade, a composer who was contemporary with Cherubini and who, it turns out,
clearly knew Cherubini’s setting.

Cherubini (1760-1842) was trained in his native Italy but spent most of his
long career in Paris, writing major operas and ending up as longtime director
of the Conservatoire. This C-Minor Requiem for mixed chorus and orchestra was
first performed in early 1817 in the Saint-Denis basilica—soon after the
beginning of the Bourbon Restoration—at a mass in memory of Louis XVI,
the king who had been executed by guillotine in 1793. (The remains of the king
and of his wife Marie Antoinette had been moved there the year before.)
Cherubini’s C-Minor Requiem was widely performed thereafter throughout
the nineteenth century. It was played at Beethoven’s funeral, Schumann
and Bruckner admired and studied it, and Berlioz considered it
Cherubini’s masterpiece. In his late years Cherubini wrote a second
Requiem (in D minor); on that occasion he used men’s chorus and
orchestra, as a response to an edict from church authorities forbidding
women’s voices at funerals.

The C-Minor Requiem has had several fine recordings, e.g., by Toscanini,
Muti, and Boston Baroque. Its strengths—including some subtleties of
orchestration, and the marvels of the “Quam olim Abrahae”
triple-fugue—have been well described by
Michael Steinberg in his Choral Masterworks
and by
Mark Seto in the book Nineteenth-Century Choral Music (a rich
compendium edited by Donna Di Grazia)
. Unlike some other Requiem settings,
the work includes the Graduale (which begins by stating again the words of the
opening, “Requiem aeternam,” but then continues differently) and
also—like the Fauré Requiem decades later—the “Pie
Jesu.” In 1820 Cherubini added a funeral march to open the work and an
“In Paradisum” to close it. Christophe Spering included both of
these wonderful pieces when he recorded the C-Minor Requiem for the Opus 111
label, and Diego Fasolis included the march but not the motet in his Naxos
recording. Giulini and Niquet omit both pieces, as do most other


Cherubini has a remarkable ability to create continuity across phrases, and
this comes across in nearly any decent recording, including these two.
Particularly evocative are the final pages, in which (as Steinberg put it)
“the chorus repeats ‘luceat eis,’ dominated by deep and
solemn tolling C’s in the voices and the orchestra’s lowest and
darkest instruments.”

Giulini was thirty-eight when he recorded the C-Minor Requiem. It was his
first studio recording of any work. To today’s ears, the choral singing
may sound a little provincial: vibrato is prominent and the frequent
portamentos can border on swoops. But the contrasts of tempo and dynamics that
Giulini imposes always feel motivated by the expressive point of the music and
text at that moment. The CD contains only this one work and so gives short
measure, ending after 51 minutes. That the Requiem lasts as long as it does
derives from the very slow tempi that Giulini often adopts. Some of the tracks
are nearly fifty percent longer than the equivalent track in the Niquet
recording. I admit to finding Giulini’s performance quite convincing, at
least when I listen to it by itself (less so in comparison). The spacious
tempos certainly add seriousness and solemnity and bring out the similarities
to major choral works of later composers (e.g., Gounod, Verdi, and

Giulini was accustomed to conducting large-scale choral works in large
halls, for which large performing forces and slowish tempos were arguably
appropriate or even necessary. The brisk tempos that Hervé Niquet and
his period-instrument group choose would be appropriate to smaller spaces.
Niquet’s recording of both works was made in the royal chapel of the
chateau at Versailles. Though the chapel—with all its hard
surfaces—is no doubt prone to echo, textures on the recording are very

Under Niquet’s hands, the Cherubini lasts only 35 minutes. The quicker
speed for the opening “Requiem” movement certainly drains the music
of much of the sorrow that one hears in performances such as Giulini’s or
Muti’s. Niquet also does not shape phrases in the standard
(traditional/Romantic) manner, e.g., through measures-long crescendos and
decrescendos. But there are wonderful compensations. The active accompanimental
lines for strings (sometimes with bassoons) register more forcefully here than
they do in the Giulini performance, reminding me of the similarly active
presence of various sections of the orchestra throughout Cherubini’s
opera Médée (or, as it is known in the inauthentic
Italian version, Medea). The “Dies Irae” movement
maintains great thrust and, despite the quick tempo, never sounds either
routine or jaunty. Hearing Cherubini performed this way, the parallels that one
draws tend to go back in time, e.g., to Haydn’s masses and oratorios,
rather than ahead. Niquet adds a bit of chant before two of the movements, but
the text booklet—otherwise very carefully put together—neglects to
provide the words for them (nor, even more oddly, does it include the six words
of the Benedictus, beautifully set by Cherubini).

Niquet completes his recording with a Requiem setting that is directly
parallel to the Cherubini. Charles-Henri Plantade (1764-1839) was best admired
in his lifetime as a song composer, but he also was a prominent keyboard
accompanist to singers and, for some years, directed the choir at the Chapelle
Royale in Paris. This Requiem setting, in D minor, was performed at a
commemorative mass in 1823 in the chapel of the Tuileries palace (in Paris),
the honoree being Marie Antoinette, who, like Louis XVI, was guillotined in
1793. Alexandre Dratwicki, the “scientific director” (i.e., leading
scholarly authority) at the Palazzetto Bru Zane’s Center for French
Romantic Music (located in Venice), brought the work to the attention of
Niquet, and the Center prepared the performing parts that enabled public
performances and this recording. Dratwicki’s booklet essay indicates that
Plantade may have composed his D-minor Requiem earlier than 1823 but spruced it
up for the occasion. The work received a lavish publication during
Plantade’s day, though this apparently did not lead to many further

One wonders why not, since this Requiem, like the Cherubini, requires no
vocal soloists and is full of imaginative responses to the text. Plantade seems
likely to have studied the Cherubini work: in both of them the tamtam is used
sparingly but to well-gauged dramatic effect, and Plantade, like his
predecessor, adds the Graduale movement and a Pie Jesu. In both works the
lengthy Dies Irae text—all fifty-seven lines of it—is treated as a
single movement, with the changing images reflected in alert shifts of mode,
phrase length, orchestral figuration, and choral texture. Thus, many vivid
phrases that are given extended treatment in other requiem settings (e.g., in
Mozart’s and Berlioz’s “Tuba Mirum” settings or
Verdi’s “Ingemisco” tenor aria) pass by rather quickly.

Dratwicki’s essay draws attention to a remarkable moaning horn solo
(in Plantade’s “Pie Jesu” movement, in G minor) on the notes
D-Db-D. The score specifies that the three notes be performed
“open” (i.e., not stopped with the fist in the bell) and that they
be slurred together. The hornist here interprets the slur, I think rightly, as
indicating as eerie portamento between the notes. This short, keening
solo—heard four times—suggests the soul of a dead person yearning
for rest. If Berlioz knew the Plantade Requiem (perhaps from its score), he
would surely have been fascinated by this moment. As is well known, in the
1830s and ’40s Berlioz would write notable wind solos that sound like
offstage personae or perhaps “calls from afar”: the oboe
representing an offstage shepherd in Symphonie fantastique, mvt. 3;
the clarinet’s truncated statement of the idée fixe in
Symphonie fantastique, mvt. 4; the flute glissando in Symphonie
, mvt. 5; the shreds of tune from a clarinet in
Lélio (the “Aeolian Harp” movement); and the
desperate oboe phrases in the “Ride into the Abyss” in La
damnation de Faust

Other notable features of the Plantade include a choral layout that was
clearly influenced by eighteenth-century French traditions: women all singing
together, high tenors (hautes-contre), tenors, and basses. (Cherubini
uses the standard Italianate SATB layout.) The men have a vividly stern
passage—sung with grim, intentionally wiry tone—on the words
“Libera animas omnium . . . de profundo lacu” (Deliver their souls
. . . from the bottomless pit). At one point in the “Dies irae”
movement, Plantade quotes, in full, the opening three phrases of the well-known
“Dies irae” chant, harmonizing and accompanying them in his own
style. The effect is as startling, in its way, as Berlioz’s and
Liszt’s uses of the same tune in, respectively, the Symphonie
(mvt. 5: “Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath
Night”) and Totentanz (“Dance of Death”).

In both Requiem settings on this CD, I noticed a few moments where the music
seems mismatched to the text. Why did Cherubini use the major mode to set the
words “Mors stupebit” (i.e., even Death will be struck dumb in
astonishment)? Why did Plantade create a fierce minor-mode outburst on the
words “Hosanna in excelsis” (i.e., all praise to God in the highest
realms) that end the Sanctus? Overall, though, these are two remarkably
satisfying settings of the Requiem text, and are well worth getting to
know—and, I bet, to sing!

Niquet’s chorus is small: twenty-six singers are named in the booklet.
In both works, the chorus shows focused tone and excellent pitch. The
performance follows many of the accepted practices of what is often nowadays
called Historically Informed Performance (“HIP”). For example, the
chorus gives nice biting accents to certain words and phrases. The strings play
nearly without vibrato, sometimes doing a quick, “squeezed”
crescendo or decrescendo on one note after another, a practice that, in many
HIP recordings, can seem a mannerism but here works just fine. The tuning is
lower than A=440.

One oddity: the Latin pronunciation follows the best scholarly evidence
about how the language was pronounced in France during the eighteenth and early
nineteenth centuries. (Crucial guidelines are provided in Sébastien de
Brossard’s music dictionary of 1703.) “Jesu” is not
Yeh-zoo—as in Italianate usage—but, more or less, Zhay-zyoo, and
“ejus” is eh-zhyoos. Vowels followed by an “m” or
“n” become nasalized, so the “m” or “n”
vanishes. In this latter regard, words that sound something like cadohtt,
tremodae, profodo, and sapiternam may at first—at least to the ear of
someone who is not a native French-speaker—be difficult to recognize as
indicating cadant, tremendae, profundo, and
sempiternam. But we can learn new listening habits, right?

All in all, Niquet’s recording exudes an air of careful authenticity
and highly communicative specificity, and I have grown to like it a lot, not
least the determined Frenchness of the pronunciations. All too many
performances nowadays—instrumental, especially, but also vocal—are
devoid of regional, personalized, or closely observed period flavor. I’m
delighted when a recording comes along that insists on having its own
particular character, is performed at a very high level, and brings us a major
work that has never been recorded before. Plus, the Cherubini—a work of
high artistry—here sounds as good as it ever has, and perhaps in some
ways better.

If you’re curious, you can hear excerpts from Niquet’s recording of both
works here
the Kyrie from the Plantade here

Ralph P. Locke

Ralph P. Locke is emeritus professor of musicology at the University of
Rochester’s Eastman School of Music. He has written extensively on music
and musical life in France and the United States, including the religious works
of Hector Berlioz (in the
Cambridge Companion to Berlioz, ed. Peter Bloom
) and French symphonies
The Nineteenth-Century Symphony, ed. D. Kern Holoman
). The above
review is a lightly revised version of one that first appeared in American Record
, and appears here by kind permission.

image_description=Luigi Cherubini: Requiem c-moll (Profil)
product_title=Color and Drama in Two Choral Requiems from Post-Napoleonic France
product_by=A review by Ralph P. Locke
product_id=Profil PH16056 [CD]