The work derives its text from the traditional Latin Requiem Mass. It has a duration of approximately ninety minutes, although there are faster recordings of under seventy-five minutes.
In 1837, Adrien de Gasparin, the Minister of the Interior of France, asked Berlioz to compose a Requiem Mass to remember soldiers who died in the Revolution of July 1830. Berlioz accepted the request, having already wanted to compose a large orchestral work. Meanwhile, the orchestra was growing in size and quality, and the use of woodwinds and brass was expanding due to the increasing ease of intonation afforded by modern instruments. Berlioz later wrote, "if I were threatened with the destruction of the whole of my works save one, I should crave mercy for the Messe des morts."
The premiere was conducted by François Antoine Habeneck on December 5, 1837 in commemoration of General Damrémont and the soldiers killed in the Siege of Constantine. According to Berlioz himself, Habeneck put down his baton during the dramatic Tuba mirum (part of the Dies irae movement), and took a pinch of snuff. Berlioz rushed to the podium to conduct himself, saving the performance from disaster. The premiere was a complete success.
Berlioz revised the work twice in his life, first in 1852, making the final revisions in 1867, only two years before his death.
More pieces by Berlioz
- Les Troyens: Royal Hunt and Storm
- Symphonie fantastique