Hector Berlioz ~ The Famous “K Snuff-Box Treachery”

Now for another intrigue, still more cleverly contrived, the black depths of which I hardly dare fathom. I incriminate no one; I simply give the naked facts, without the smallest commentary, but with scrupulous exactness. General Bernard having himself informed me that my Requiem was to be performed on certain conditions, … I was about to begin my rehearsals when I was sent for by the Director of the Beaux-Arts.

“You know,” said he, “that Habeneck has been commissioned to conduct all the great official musical festivals?” (“Come, good!” thought I: “here is another tile for my devoted head.”) “It is true that you are now in the habit of conducting the performance of your works yourself; but Habeneck is an old man” (another tile), “and I happen to know that he will be deeply hurt if he does not preside at your Requiem. What terms are you on with him?”

“What terms? We have quarreled. I hardly know why. For three years he has not spoken to me. I am not aware of his motives, and indeed have not cared to ask. He began by rudely refusing to conduct one of my concerts. His behavior towards me has been as inexplicable as it is uncivil. However, as I see plainly that he wishes on the present occasion to figure at Marshal Damrémont’s ceremony, and as it would evidently be agreeable to you, I consent to give up the baton to him, on condition that I have at least one full rehearsal.”

“Agreed,” replied the Director; “I will let him know about it.”

The rehearsals were accordingly conducted with great care. Habeneck spoke to me as if our relations with each other had never been interrupted, and all seemed likely to go well.

The day of the performance arrived, in the Church of the Invalides, before all the princes, peers, and deputies, the French press, the correspondents of foreign papers, and an immense crowd. It was absolutely essential for me to have a great success; a moderate one would have been fatal, and a failure would have annihilated me altogether.

Now listen attentively.

The various groups of instruments in the orchestra were tolerably widely separated, especially the four brass bands introduced in the ‘Tuba mirum,’ each of which occupied a corner of the entire orchestra. There is no pause between the ‘Dies Iræ’ and the ‘Tuba mirum,’ but the pace of the latter movement is reduced to half what it was before. At this point the whole of the brass enters, first all together, and then in passages, answering and interrupting, each a third higher than the last. It is obvious that it is of the greatest importance that the four beats of the new tempo should be distinctly marked, or else the terrible explosion, which I had so carefully prepared with combinations and proportions never attempted before or since, and which, rightly performed, gives such a picture of the Last Judgment as I believe is destined to live, would be a mere enormous and hideous confusion.

With my habitual mistrust, I had stationed myself behind Habeneck, and turning my back on him, overlooked the group of kettle-drums, which he could not see, when the moment approached for them to take part in the general melee. There are perhaps one thousand bars in my Requiem. Precisely in that of which I have just been speaking, when the movement is retarded, and the wind instruments burst in with their terrible flourish of trumpets; in fact, just in the one bar where the conductor’s motion is absolutely indispensable, Habeneck puts down his baton, quietly takes out his snuff box, and proceeds to take a pinch of snuff. I always had my eye in his direction, and instantly turned rapidly on one heel, and springing forward before him, I stretched out my arm and marked the four great beats of the new movement. The orchestras followed me, each in order. I conducted the piece to the end, and the effect which I had longed for was produced. When, at the last words of the chorus, Habeneck saw that the ‘Tuba mirum’ was saved, he said, “What a cold perspiration I have been in! Without you we should have been lost.” “Yes, I know,” I answered, looking fixedly at him. I did not add another word…. Had he done it on purpose? … Could it be possible that this man had dared to join my enemy, the Director, and Cherubini’s friends, in plotting and attempting such rascality? I don’t wish to believe it … but I cannot doubt it. God forgive me if I am doing the man injustice!

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