|Le songe d'Hérode|
|La Fuite en Égypte|
Part 2 No 1: Ouverture [6'06]
|L'Arrivée à Saïs|
Berlioz held traditional religion in contempt, but something of the biblical story of Herod’s massacre of the innocents and the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt seems to have struck a chord and resulted in one of his most beautiful works. Indeed, Berlioz compared his ‘trilogie sacrée’ to the illuminations in medieval missals: he saw it as an aid to contemplative devotion. L’Enfance du Christ is one of Berlioz’s most popular and enduring works. The renowned Corydon Singers and Corydon Orchestra, under their conductor and founder Matthew Best, are joined by a first-class team of soloists.
'I hear on all sides that you have plucked a nosegay of the most exquisite blooms of melody, and that all in all your oratorio is a masterpiece of simplicity.’
So wrote the German poet Heinrich Heine to Berlioz about L’Enfance du Christ. Heine had previously criticized Berlioz’s music, calling the composer a ‘colossal nightingale, a lark the size of an eagle. Indeed, for me there is something primitive if not prehistoric about Berlioz’s music. It makes me see visions of mammoths and other beasts long extinct, fabulous empires of prenatural depravity, and many a cloud-capped, impossible wonder.’ Regardless of the merits of Heine’s hyperbole, he recognized that L’Enfance du Christ is something very distinct in Berlioz’s oeuvre: tenderness and simplicity pervade almost the entire work. Berlioz, we know, held traditional religion in contempt, but something of the biblical story of Herod’s massacre of the innocents and the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt seems to have struck a chord and resulted in one of his most beautiful works. Indeed, Berlioz compared his Trilogie sacrée to the illuminations in medieval missals: he saw it as an aid to contemplative and devotional meditation.
By any standards, L’Enfance du Christ had a strange and rather singular genesis. The work was not planned as a whole and came about almost as an accident. The first music to be composed, and undoubtedly the most well-known due to its ubiquitous use at carol services, was ‘L’Adieu des Bergers à la Sainte Famille’, but even this has a peculiar history. Written in 1850, it was originally an organ piece written in a friend’s album at a party. Attracted by its ‘pastoral, naïve mysticism’ he decided to rewrite it and ‘put appropriate words to it’. It was performed at a concert in November 1850 but not with Berlioz’s name attached to it. Instead, he claimed it had been written by one Pierre Ducré, ‘master of music at the Sainte-Chapelle, 1679’. The audience was apparently taken in by the ruse, which only goes to show that their knowledge of seventeenth-century music must have been even worse than Berlioz’s, if we are to believe he had even imagined that the sophisticated harmonic progression at the climax of each strophe of this little gem could have been seen as in any way authentic of that period of French composition. Nevertheless, Berlioz kept his counsel for two years before relishing the reaction to his announcement of the true authorship. Soon after this concert Berlioz added a movement for tenor, ‘Le Repos de la Sainte Famille’ and an overture, all three pieces being lightly scored. He named this small work La Fuite en Egypte and it was published in 1852.
Berlioz wrote no music in the next three years, being exceptionally busy conducting, travelling and writing prose. He also seems increasingly to have feared the commitment of composition. Thus the work might have remained in this state had it not been for a trip to Leipzig in December 1853 where the full version of La Fuite en Egypte was performed for the first time. His friends there were so captured by the short work that they urged him to extend it and so Berlioz composed L’Arrivée à Saïs, the eventual third part of the trilogy which he dedicated to them. In order to balance the work, the newly composed section being much longer and weightier than La Fuite en Egypte, Berlioz immediately planned the opening part, Le Songe d’Hérode, relating the events that forced the Holy Family to flee Bethlehem.
Such a compostional history could have resulted in a disparate work. Whilst it is true that each section of the trilogy has its own particular atmosphere and character, to some extent brought about by the differing orchestral forces, Berlioz was remarkably successful in unifying the various strands to create a convincing and dramatic whole. Crucial to this was his use of a tenor narrator (‘Le Récitant’) who, especially in the second and third parts of the trilogy, binds the action together, thus avoiding a potential series of set pieces. Musically, Berlioz achieved unity by creating a motivic interplay both within and between the various parts of the trilogy. If not quite on the same scale as the use of idées fixes seen in such works as the Symphonie fantastique and Les Troyens, Berlioz’s thematic transformation in L’Enfance du Christ has a clear structural and dramatic purpose. Thus, for example, the opening theme of ‘Le Repos de la Sainte Famille’ in La Fuite en Egypte derives from a figure in the preceding ‘L’Adieu des Bergers’ and the figure which opens L’Arrivée à Saïs is a reworking in alla breve time of the fugal subject of the Overture to the second part. Moreover, the work has a consistent compositional style, in particular in its use of fugal techniques and modality (most notably heard in a tendency to flatten leading-notes) that Berlioz undoubtedly employed to lend a certain authentic feel to the oriental setting of the trilogy.
The first part of the work, Le Songe d’Hérode, is the most explicitly dramatic with its stage directions and theatrical incidents as well as a larger orchestra than in the rest of the work. An introductory recitative leads into the first scene, the ‘Marche nocturne’, depicting soldiers patrolling the streets of Jerusalem. This is the first of many fugues in the work. At its climax, Polydorus, the commander of the patrol, bemoans his fate of being compelled to serve Herod in his state of delusion. The second scene takes us into Herod’s palace, the orchestral introduction capturing perfectly, in its use of a short string figure for ever shifting to a new tonic, Herod’s state of mind as he tries to banish his recurring nightmare. The opening recitative leads into an aria ‘Ô misère des rois’, one of the most moving moments of the entire work as it depicts Herod suffering from the torment of power. The main theme, consisting of short phrases in sequence lacking any sense of cadence, and hence of repose, is first heard in the violas and cellos but recurs to haunt the texture in a variety of instrumental guises, most notably on the clarinet in the next scene where Herod is describing his dream to the soothsayers. Herod’s vocal line is often accompanied by trombones, just as was Mephistopheles’ in La Damnation de Faust.
The fourth scene, ‘Hérode et les Devins’, is a typical example of Berlioz’s gift for portraying the exotic and sinister; a splendid, swirling 74 depiction of the cabalistic procession and exorcism shrieks into the soothsayers’ pronouncement and Herod’s edict to massacre the children. At the climax Berlioz introduces a distorted fanfare ending on a diminished-seventh chord from which the music subsides, again without a cadence or a release from the tension. The contrast between this and the next scene, ‘L’étable de Bethléem’, could not be greater. Here, for the first time, we encounter the lilting triple metre with which the Holy Family is associated as Mary and Joseph sing beguilingly to their child. The first part ends with a chorus of angels, accompanied by chamber organ, warning the parents and telling them to flee. Here Berlioz achieves a remarkable effect with the distant choir fading away as they chant their final ‘Hosannas’.
The second part of the trilogy, La Fuite en Egypte, entirely set in triple time, is much more thinly scored, using just strings and woodwind. It also makes more use of modality as can be seen in the Overture, a fugue that contains some beautiful antiphonal effects between the two sections of the orchestra. The famous ‘L’Adieu des Bergers’ leads into ‘Le Repos de la Sainte Famille’ which depicts the Holy Family at rest on their journey into Egypt; this contains one of Berlioz’s most wistful themes, first heard in the violins after the opening dialogue between strings and wind. The phrase is repeated by the narrator as he relates Mary’s joy at finding so delightful a place to rest. This remarkably affecting movement again ends with the angelic choir as they sing ‘Alleluia’ and watch over the Holy Family on their travels.
Part Three, L’arrivée à Saïs, maintains the light orchestration of La Fuite en Egypte but with the addition of bassoons and timpani. A fugal introduction sung by the narrator leads into a vivid portrayal of the anxiety and weariness of the Holy Family as they attempt to find shelter and food in Saïs. Again in triple time, their desperation is brought out by the plaintive, wailing viola figure set against a moto perpetuo accompaniment, and by the upward transposition of their entreaties each time their request is rebuffed. Help is found as they are ushered into the house of an Ishmaelite family and, after a welcome from the father (one of Berlioz’s few one-dimensional characters), the chorus launches into a fugue with ingenious cross-rhythms. The father calls for music and a delightful interlude for two flutes and a harp follows before the chorus wishes the Holy Family good rest. Here Berlioz comes closest to the cloying sentimentality which mars so much nineteenth-century religious music, but this is redeemed by the final scene. A series of long-held mysterious notes on the strings leads into a contemplation of the wider meaning of the whole drama by the narrator. His entreaty to adore the holy mystery—‘Ô mon âme’—is taken up by the choir in a rapt epilogue before the angels introduce the final ‘Amen’.
L’Enfance du Christ proved to be Berlioz’s most popular work. Certainly it has a unique character within his oeuvre, but, as the composer points out in his Memoirs, this is very much due to the subject-matter:
With the exception of the Revue des deux mondes (whose music criticism is in the hands of a monomaniac, and whose editor cordially detests me) the entire press was favourable to me on the occasion of my latest work, L’Enfance du Christ. Some people imagined they could detect in this work a complete change in my manner and style. Nothing could be more mistaken. The subject lent itself to a mild and simple kind of music. That was why they found it more accessible—that and the development of their own taste and powers of understanding. I should have written L’Enfance in the same way twenty years ago.
Thus Berlioz always maintained that L’Enfance du Christ was always true to his style. Again to quote one of the most revealing passages of the Memoirs:
The predominant features of my music are passionate expression, inward intensity, rhythmic impetus, and a quality of unexpectedness. When I say passionate expression, I mean an expression bent on reproducing the inner meaning of its subject, even when that subject is the opposite of passion and gentle, tender feelings are being expressed, or a profound calm—the sort of expression that people have claimed to find in L’Enfance du Christ.
‘Passionate expression’ is still present in L’Enfance du Christ; it is just that it is expressive of something different, something much more tender than we find in most of the rest of his oeuvre.
David Trendell © 1995