To thee all angels cry aloud

I was six or seven the first time my heart thrilled to music. I was in the back of our yellow 1977 Toyota Corolla hatchback, lying on my back (and probably drawing in the fog on the back window, allegedly damaging the defroster wires), listening to ABBA’s “Waterloo”—and the lead-in to the final chorus, with its swinging four-note descending scale, made me feel trembly in a way I hadn’t felt before. I didn’t know music could do that.

Of course, I’ve since had countless breathless musical moments, and a number of full-on tearful ones as well. (The tearful ones are quite inconvenient if I’m, like, singing.) One piece that never fails to move me is the “Tibi omnes” movement of the Hector Berlioz Te Deum. I sang it with the Cascadian Chorale and the Seattle Choral Company in 2000 or 2001. To be honest, I didn’t love it, or even like it, the first few times I listened to or sang it—the dynamic contrasts felt too dramatic, and the grand “pleni sunt coeli” choruses after each quiet “sanctus” seemed abrupt. But gradually that changed, and now it’s a hymn that I prefer to listen to with eyes closed, muscles tense because I want to hold on to every moment.

There’s so much to love here:

So much tension and release with each verse; so much emotion in the heart-breaking quiet moments and the heart-pounding triumphant, brass-undergirded climaxes (especially the massive one that starts at 7:50—swooooon).

Here’s an abbreviated version, with commentary that made me hear things I hadn’t realized before (and wonder how Berlioz thought of all of the subtle, and non-subtle, touches that make this so riveting):

Someday I hope to sing this again. Last year the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Tanglewood Festival Chorus performed it the day after my birthday, and I got to go to the working rehearsal two days before the performance. The chance to hear this colossal work live not once but twice, first in rehearsal and then in performance, by a fantastically talented group of musicians, and in Boston’s gorgeous Symphony Hall, was an extraordinary 40th birthday present. I’m pretty agnostic these days, but if there’s a God, I’m grateful to that deity for orchestrating (heh) such a wonderful experience.

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