Les Invalides, Berlioz and his Requiem and a Pinch of Snuff

Église du Dôme

Here in Paris, we live on a small but busy street near the Seine, nestled into a bunch of other small streets. As we go out the door each morning, the Eiffel Tower (Tour Eiffel) is a dozen or so blocks to the left, and three blocks to the right is the massive complex known as Les Invalides. Built in the 17th century as a home for wounded soldiers, it covers a very large block. In the center are two churches. A larger church, now referred to as a cathedral, is called Église Saint-Louis des Invalides. Not huge, but big enough, it has a beautiful organ in the rear balcony and balconies on both sides of the sanctuary. It was intended for worship by the residents of the soldier’s home. The other church, immediately behind it, was commissioned by Louis XIV to be a private worship space by the royal family and their royal friends. It’s called Église du Dôme, a domed church that inside seems hardly shaped like a church, though elements were modeled after St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. In the center of this church is a very large opening in the floor to a lower level where – in the middle – rests the sarcophagus of Napolean Buonaparte! Around Napolean in four separate, smaller chambers are the remains of four other famous Frenchmen, including Marshal Foch, a WWI hero. Elsewhere throughout the church are the mortal remains of some dozens of other great French people.

Hector Berlioz

Beautiful as that church is, I was fascinated with Les Invalides as a child because of the other church for the soldiers, where, in 1837, the Requiem of Hector Berlioz received its first performance. It was a state occasion to honor the dead from a recent military campaign. Berlioz was not particularly well-liked, and still quite early in his career (though he had already written his Sinfonie Fantastique, which turned more than a few heads.

If you know Catholic Liturgy or if you know the great requiem masses from the 19th century, you know that the most dramatic text in all the parts of the liturgy is the harrowing Dies Irae, a description of the apocalypse and the end of time when God comes down to judge the quick and the dead, where bodies emerge from their graves to be counted at this most auspicious occasion. As a text, it was fertile ground for composers like Mozart, Verdi and our friend Berlioz.

Berlioz’s Dies Irae is quite a knockout. In the text beginning with the words Tuba Mirum we have the last trumpet of the prophecies being sounded. So, to underscore the cataclysmic moment, Berlioz employed no fewer than sixteen (!) kettle drums, two bass drums, ten pairs of cymbals and two gongs! For his ‘last trumpet’, the score calls for FOUR brass choirs, one in each corner of the church, way up in the balconies. The fanfares and flourishes that accompany God’s descent to judge the quick and the dead is nothing short of drama on the highest musical plane.

As some of you know, I used to be a conductor, and any conductor knows how tricky it can be to manage a section like this. You’re probably dealing with a couple hundred singers and players, all that percussion and then four brass choirs ranged out as far as seventy feet away. It requires clear movements and a good knowledge of who to cue and when. And that’s the purpose of all this leadup. The first performance nearly became a disaster!

Interior of the Chapel at Les Invalides
Interior of the Chapel at Les Invalides

Berlioz was at the performance, but the French government required someone else, one François Antoine Habeneck as the conductor for the day. He was known not to like the young Berlioz or his music. History doesn’t tell us whether it was a deliberate act of sabotage or just his inattention that led him to stop conducting right at the crucial Dies Irae, and instead start inserting a pinch of snuff into his nose! Berlioz, at any rate, saw what was about to happen, and since he was in front, leapt to his feet, pushed Habeneck off the podium and conducted the rest of the movement (and the work) himself.

So here, in 2015, approaching nearly two hundred years after the premiere, and maybe sixty years since I learned all this, I was bound and determined to see this great space and imagine the whole scene unfolding! And while it is a beautiful church, my own reactions came in closing my eyes and trying to imagine the sounds of Berlioz filling the room.

The rest of Les Invalides is mostly no longer a soldier’s home, though about 100 or so remain in a private wing. Much of the rest of the complex is given over to several museums of French military history, with displays of armaments, shining armour, etc. It was more than we wanted to take in, except for the section that covered the years from 1871 through World War II. To see the two world wars in a display that presents a French perspective told the same story in a very personal way, since France lost many soldiers and citizens to the war. France had their own heros, among them Charles de Gaulle, who you see a lot of in this exhibit. The whole section took up (I think) three floors and left a deep impression. I’ve never known war firsthand, and even black and white pictures and thousands of artifacts (guns, uniforms, etc.) can’t begin to evoke the real horror and danger and hell that war rains down on people. So while this whole exhibit left me feeling on the safe outside looking in on a terrible chapter in world history, I felt closer than I ever had before.

The rest of the grounds of Les Invalides are quite pretty, with ornamental gardens and sculpted trees, etc. Dozens of old cannons, monumental sculptures at the main entrance outside the grounds, and a huge black and gold dome above Napolean’s tomb all create a striking image.

And we are living just three blocks from it and this important moment in music history!

Today, a day later, I think we’re going to take in the Monet museum and – if the weather (and our feet) holds, that boat tour we’ve been meaning to take since we got here!


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