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Hector Berlioz and the Orchestral Train Wreck

The great composer Hector Berlioz was known for his ornate dreams of grandeur, which many thought bordered on insanity. He invented giant orchestra instruments when the normal ones weren't big enough. For example, Berlioz often assembled orchestras that numbered into the hundreds of players. For one such ensemble he needed more bass, and, after all, who doesn't need more bass? But the great Hector Berlioz decided to invent the "octobass," a giant string bass that played a full octave below the normal string bass. It had a bow so large that it had to be outfitted with a device resembling an rowboat's oarlock. It was eight feet tall. Berlioz doubled and tripled the usual requirement for wind and brass instruments. Sometimes Berlioz used twelve French Horns instead of the standard four.

A Huge Orchestral Sound

This made for a "wall of sound" a full hundred years before Hollywood spawned record producer Phil Spector. In his Requiem, a giant work requiring four orchestras, four brass choirs and four choruses, there comes a moment called the "Tuba Mirum." At this moment all of the forces spread throughout the immense hall or church must enter at once. At exactly the same millisecond, out of a tangled mass of sound that is still reverberating in the musician's ears, 700 musicians had to enter as one. The only way to coordinate such a moment is visually, through precise synchronization between the central conductor and the leaders of the other musical groups arrayed about the room.

The Train Wreck

It is one of those moments that musicians dread, and it has a name, feared by all pros: the "train wreck." The problem in the Requiem is a transition between two sections of music, and it is imperative that the central conductor alerts the various groups with four beats in the new tempo. If the orchestras do not see this signal of four beats, the whole Requiem will fall apart and screech to a halt. It is that moment in any performance so fraught with difficulty and apprehension that musicians who are normally devil-may-care become terrified, attentive soldiers.

A Giant Orchestral Problem

Such a moment is the "Tuba Mirum," which Berlioz made fiendishly more difficult by the presence of not one but twelve huge groups of musicians. Each group was led by their own conductor, all following the central conductor. The horrible moment approaches and the music builds toward a tremendous climax. Berlioz is there in the front row, sweating it out, waiting for the possible train wreck. The central conductor, Habeneck, was, by the way, currently involved in a professional feud with Berlioz. They hadn't spoken for years.

The Disastrous Moment Approaches

The moment almost arrives, and the central conductor Habeneck, instead of preparing to beat out the crucial four beats in a new tempo, suddenly puts down his baton and casually pulls out his snuffbox. He calmly takes a pinch of snuff. This, mind you, is in front of hundreds of musicians and thousands of spectators. All the while the music is hurtling relentlessly toward the unavoidable train wreck. Berlioz looks on with horror and instantly leaps to his feet from his place in the front row. He stands tall on the conductor's podium as he beats out the crucial four beats in the new tempo.

Habeneck's Lame Excuse

The train wreck passes and all is well. Berlioz scowls at Habeneck, who resumes conducting. Berlioz never knew why Habeneck betrayed him in this way. He went to his demise certain that various claques had conspired to ruin the premiere of the Requiem.

 

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