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Music as extreme sport: Berlioz's epic Te Deum

January 23, 2013

Hector Berlioz treated life and music as extreme sports. As the 1830 Revolution broke out in Paris, the composer celebrated the completion of an orchestral score by roaming the city streets dodging stray bullets. He stalked actress Harriet Smithson with a terrifying avalanche of love letters, and hatched a revenge plot against a former girlfriend that involved a pair of stolen double-barreled pistols, two vials of poison and an elaborate disguise. (He didn’t follow through with the plan.)

Many of his musical works are so epic in scale, calling for massive forces and so sonically ahead of their time, that the composer held little hope of hearing some of them performed during his lifetime. “Berlioz had a vision for the future,” said Charles Dutoit, who leads the San Francisco Symphony and Chorus, soprano Erin Wall, tenor Paul Groves, and the Pacific Boychoir in Berlioz’s Te Deum, a grand, ceremonial work for chorus and orchestra, at Davies Symphony Hall February 6, 7, 9 and 10.

The Te Deum perfectly captures Berlioz’s swashbuckling artistic spirit. The work calls for three choruses (two adult ensembles and a children’s group), tenor and organ soloists, and swollen woodwind, brass, percussion and string sections. Throughout the 50-minute piece, the choruses roar at each other and the heroic organ holds its own against the orchestra instead of playing with it. The overall effect is like that of proud armies facing off on the battlefield.

Rehearsing and mounting a musical event with the scale and complexity of the Te Deum is a major challenge for any musical organization. Few are up to the task. But the success of recent performances of similar works that require the coordination and balancing of massive musical forces, such as Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 (Symphony of a Thousand) and Debussy’s Le martyre de Saint Sébastien, demonstrate the San Francisco Symphony’s particular affinity for bringing off such large-scale endeavors.

SF Symphony Chorus Director Ragnar Bohlin is preparing nearly 120 vocalists for the six-movement work. “The San Francisco Symphony Chorus is one heck of a vocal ensemble,” says author and music scholar James Keller, the SFS program annotator. “And then there’s the (Ruffatti) organ. It’s one of North America’s largest concert-hall organs, which is really going to turn this into a thriller of a concert.”

Berlioz called the Te Deum the “brother” of his Requiem, the composer’s choral masterwork written twelve years earlier. However, unlike that staple of the symphonic repertoire, the Te Deum is far less frequently performed. The last time San Francisco Symphony audiences heard the piece was in 1973. 

Yet the Te Deum is hardly an “also ran.” The tension inherent in the opposing orchestral and vocal forces, the spine-tingling tonal shifts and the emotional punch of Berlioz’s setting of the traditional Latin liturgical text–tweaked by the composer to heighten the work’s dramatic impact–all serve to make the Te Deum as spectacular in scope as its more famous sibling.

The San Francisco Symphony’s February performances of the Te Deum may yet help fulfill Berlioz’s futuristic vision, and help this music find equal footing with the Requiem in the hearts and minds of audiences.

If you’re going: 

Who: Charles Dutoit, conductor San Francisco Symphony and Chorus Erin Wall, soprano Paul Groves, tenor Pacific Boychoir, Kevin Fox, director 

What: Berlioz’s Te Deum and Poulenc’s Stabat Mater 

When: Feb. 6, 7, 9 and 10 Where: Davies Symphony Hall, 201 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco Tickets:, 415-864-6000



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