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Robin Ticciati and the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra are joined by a sterling cast of soloists including Stephan Loges (winner of the Wigmore Hall International Song Competition), Veronique Gens (whose recording of Berlioz' Les nuits d'été was named Gramophone ‘Editor's Choice'), Yann Beuron (unanimously awarded first prize in 1996 from the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique de Paris), and Alistair Miles (‘the finest British bass of his generation'—The Guardian).
Berlioz's mighty oratorio was an immediate success and was praised by all but two critics in the Paris newspapers; over 150 years later it is still as popular.
Named one of the top ten young ‘conductors on the verge of greatness' by Gramophone, Robin delivers fresh insights and vivid colours into this luminous work. Since his recording debut Robin's profile has continued to build; in 2011 Gramophone voted him one of 'Tomorrow's Icons' and he was announced as the next music director of Glyndebourne, taking over from Vladimir Jurowski in 2014.
A 24-bit 192 kHz studio master for this album is available from the Linn Records website.
I take a piece of paper and scribble a few staves on which a four-part andantino for organ appears. It seems to have a rustic character and to suggest a naïve mystical feeling. So I at once think of writing appropriate words for it. The organ piece disappears and becomes a chorus of shepherds in Bethlehem bidding farewell to the child Jesus as the Holy Family leaves for Egypt.
Such was the origin of the sacred trilogy L’enfance du Christ; from the germ of a few bars of organ music sprang the full completed work in three parts. Like ripples, the composition of the whole spread outwards from its central point of origin, for the album leaf became ‘L’adieu des bergers’, the central movement in the central panel of the triptych:
A few days later I wrote ‘Le repos de la Sainte Famille’ which follows, this time beginning with the words, and a little fugal overture in F-sharp minor with a flattened leading note. Not exactly modal, more like plainchant, which academics will tell you is derived from the Phrygian or Dorian or Lydian modes of ancient Greece. This is nothing to do with it; all that matters is that it has a melancholy and slightly simple character, as in ancient popular laments.
In November 1850 Berlioz needed a choral piece to fill up a concert programme and the idea came to him to pun on his friend’s name and insert ‘L’adieu des bergers’ as the work of Pierre Ducré, an imaginary French composer of the seventeenth century. Not being very familiar with that corner of the French heritage, the audience fell for the hoax, sensing the simple melody and antique charm of the work. They did not trouble to check whether such a composer ever existed. Was not Berlioz the librarian of the Paris conservatoire and therefore well placed to unearth such a gem from the archives?
He was not that kind of librarian. He would no more go hunting for lost masterpieces than torment himself with Italian opera. He played the trick simply because he had lost faith in the judgment of his fellow citizens and was convinced that they had no capacity to appreciate his music and no desire to listen to it. He was of course right. ‘Monsieur Berlioz could never write anything as charming as that,’ one lady was heard to say. Far from spurring him on to compose more, the public’s amiable reaction to ‘L’adieu des bergers’ caused him to give up composition altogether, and within a year he had decided not to give any more concerts in Paris either. He had been feeling discouraged since 1846 when La Damnation de Faust won only tepid response in Paris and since the political upheavals in the streets of Paris in 1848 convinced him that the new republic, unlike all those independent music-loving kingdoms in Germany, had no interest in art.
For the next three years he was known at home only as an entertaining and sharp-tongued critic with his monthly articles in the Journal des débats, and as a distinguished and sought-after conductor abroad; these were the only professional métiers that provided him with a living. He announced to anyone who asked that he had no intention of writing music again:
I feel I should devote what energy I have to making those scores that already exist better known than to leave them to the whim of the musical world and give them sisters whose first steps I cannot guarantee.
The tale of how he resumed composition against such firm convictions is full of irony. The first time he ever played the complete ‘La fuite en Égypte’ (consisting of ‘L’adieu des bergers’ with two flanking movements) was in Leipzig in December 1853, when a group of young German admirers urged him to extend the work into something more substantial and dramatic. Without a moment’s hesitation he agreed to do so. On his return to Paris he composed a sequel, ‘L’arrivée à Saïs’, recounting the Holy Family’s stay in Egypt, and this in turn suggested to Berlioz that it needed a preliminary scene to balance it. ‘Le songe d’Hérode’, with its account of the Massacre of the Innocents was written and the full trilogy L’enfance du Christ was complete. Its real success in the Salle Herz, Paris, in December 1854 took Berlioz by surprise and encouraged him to go ahead with the enormous project that had been gathering substance in the back of his mind for several years and which he had been constantly repressing. This was to be the opera Les Troyens.
The good people of Paris say I have changed my style and mended my ways. I need hardly explain that I have simply changed my subject. My other works never had such good fortune in Paris, and they deserve it more than this.
As Jacques Barzun pointed out, the success of L’enfance du Christ was probably due to the audience’s familiarity with the bible story and to their innate suspicion of the large orchestral forces which they associated with his name and which were conspicuously absent from this work. The trumpets and cornets heard behind Herod’s murderous outburst were only added later to prop up a weak orchestra in Brussels in 1855.
In many ways L’enfance du Christ is the opposite of the ever-popular Symphonie Fantastique which launched his career in 1830. The work is devout, not defiantly irreligious; most of its characters are ordinary folk, not opium-crazed artists; the orchestration is temperate and archaic, not blazingly modern; the trombones do not spit and crackle, they are charged with dignity and menace in their support of King Herod; Berlioz himself is not a participant in the drama, nor even an onlooker. Whereas it might be argued that he identified with some of his heroes (Harold, Romeo, Faust, even Aeneas), he had no special fondness for biblical stories and he painted his vignettes of the stable at Bethlehem and the Ishmaelites’ humble dwelling with extraordinary detachment — what romantic artists were never supposed to allow themselves.
As in all his later works, his command of the expressive qualities of music enabled him to match the text in a dramatic or meditative manner according to its nature. While some held (in particular his friend Joseph d’Ortigue) that expression should be banished from sacred music, Berlioz was hardly likely to deny himself the use of ‘passionate expression’, which he defined in his Memoirs as:
… expression designed to reproduce the inner meaning of its subject, even when that subject is the contrary of passion, or when the feeling to be expressed is gentle or tender, or even profoundly calm.
The modal feeling in many parts of the work is thus derived more from the expressive nature of altered notes than from conscious archaism. The recurrent A-flat in Herod’s great aria ‘O misère des rois!’ (in G minor) creates what Berlioz described to Hans von Bülow as:
… sombre harmonies and cadences of a particular nature that seemed to me suited to the dramatic text.
In this first part Herod is the protagonist, drawn with deep sympathy, a man tortured by the fear of some power stronger than himself, and driven to villainy by his faith in the soothsayers’ prognostications. Berlioz’s was definitely indebted to his idol Shakespeare in this portrayal. In the vivid ‘Marche nocturne’, with roman soldiers on patrol and in later sections also, there is a predominance of free counterpoint in the texture that looks forward to similar things in Mahler.
Berlioz was looking back too. The form of the work resembles that of the ‘ode-symphonie’ which became popular in Paris after Félicien David produced his Le Désert, with a Middle Eastern setting in 1844. Ernest Reyer’s Le Sélam of 1850 also contributed to this repertoire of semi-dramatic concert works in an exotic setting. In the third part, ‘L’arrivée à Saïs’, there are echoes of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte, a work which Berlioz admired not for its humour or its magic but for the solemnity of the scenes with the high priest Sarastro. The Father of the Family who welcomes the Holy Family into his house has the same untarnished goodness that impels Sarastro, especially since Joseph and Mary, like Tamino, have to knock three times at strangers’ doors before they can be admitted. The final unaccompanied chorus, ‘O mon âme’, might be thought of as Berlioz’s Ave verum corpus, another Mozart work he greatly admired.
Many details of the score are felicitous and apt; the frolics of the lambs in the stable at Bethlehem, the jostling crowds of Saïs (tremolo cellos and basses, with high wailing violas) when Joseph and Mary are looking for shelter and the busy fugato when the Ishmaelite family attend to their welcome. Mary’s music is infinitely tender throughout, especially her first phrase, ‘O mon cher fils’. The story is held together by the narrator, and a happy symmetry is obtained when each of the three parts closes with the sound of angels’ voices offstage.
The ‘Trio for two flutes and harp’ with which the Ishmaelites entertain their guests is a unique example of chamber music by Berlioz, a genre to which he contributed nothing except for some lost works from his childhood. He had read about the discovery of paintings of Theban harps in the tomb of Ramses III and adopted it as the instrument to represent the ancient world, especially Egypt. In Les Troyens, the poet Lopas is accompanied on stage by a Theban harpist in Egyptian religious costume, even though the setting is Carthage. As for combining the harp with flutes, Berlioz seems to have picked up the idea as a perfect suggestion of antiquity from Gounod’s opera Sapho, which he had seen and liked in 1851. This was a sound that later became a trademark of French music, from Bizet to Ravel.
A performance of L’enfance du Christ in 1855 deeply affected the twelve-year old Massenet. Its echoes are often heard in his music, especially the oratorio Marie-Madeleine, and also in the music of Bizet and Saint-Saëns who knew Berlioz in his later years. These were part of a small group of French musicians who truly respected the composer Berlioz, swimming against the tide that dismissed his music as impossibly wild and impractical. Another such admirer, who was a student around 1860, wrote:
Although Berlioz’s music was more or less banned and his finest works made no impression on the general public, his influence as musician and poet on the young of that time was none the weaker. He presented the figure of a persecuted artist, a heroic warrior, a martyr even.
The only Berlioz work to penetrate the Wagnermania that seized Parisians at the end of the century was La Damnation de Faust, performed over and over again, despite its formidable choral demands, by the city’s leading conductors. Yet Debussy, who was largely indifferent to Berlioz’s music, regarded L’enfance du Christ as his masterpiece. So too did Brahms, who told Clara Schumann: ‘This work has always enchanted me. I really like it the best of all Berlioz’s works.’
This modest telling of the biblical story in oratorio form is thus the one work by Berlioz that moves not only his committed admirers but also many who might otherwise find his music little to their taste. Berlioz may have been reluctant to compose it, but the world is glad that he did. Without it, furthermore, there would have been no Les Troyens and no Béatrice et Bénédict, two operas that display, together with L’enfance du Christ, the full range of his mature genius.
A theological perspective on L’enfance du christ
Berlioz’s L’enfance du Christ is a triptych. The analogy with a painted work in three parts is helpful, for painted triptychs do not have a straightforwardly linear structure and run from left to right. The centre of a triptych makes sense of the outer panels; the outer panels amplify the meaning and relevance of the central scene.
If music, like narrative, can never wholly escape linearity, it can nonetheless complicate and play with the flow of time, stitching moments together to give a sense of the presence of a beginning in an ending, the relationship of a later fulfilment to an earlier portent, and maybe even the call of a past event to present conscience.
L’enfance du Christ is both linear and non-linear. Its meaning is discerned not only in the sequence of the events that it narrates, but in complex structures that make the centre of this tale the interpretative key to its outer ends, and that fold past and present, time and eternity, into one another. Like a painted triptych, it is made for contemplative engagement, inviting our attention to move back and forth across its musical and textual surface, to linger on some details and — having lingered — to revisit others. And, with Berlioz’s music as its scenery, it is as aesthetically and spiritually captivating as any altarpiece. It invites us to kneel before it. However agnostic Berlioz’s personal relationship with the Christian faith may have become during the course of his life, the invitation is powerful.
Berlioz wrote the middle ‘panel’ first. The flight of Mary, Joseph and the Christ child into Egypt is very sparingly told in the new testament, and there is no reference to any rest by an oasis, but the imagined scene had become popular in Western art from the 15th century, and remained so in the romantic period. By framing the narrator’s description of the Holy Family at rest with the voices of singing shepherds on one side and singing angels on the other, Berlioz creates, in Part II of his work, what is to all intents and purposes a repristinated crib scene (there is even an ass!) — but he has set it up in the desert rather than in Bethlehem. It cannot be said, therefore, that Christmas is not present in the oratorio, even though in strict narrative terms L’enfance begins after the familiar events of the Christmas story are over, with Herod’s decision to massacre the innocents. Rather, the atmosphere of Christmas is captured, but we come upon it unexpectedly, and it gains a new freshness as a consequence. The meaning of Christmas is shown not to be bound by time, place or even liturgical season — it travels and can flower anywhere.
However, as the familiar figures of the nativity reconvene in Part II around this desert tableau, there is one group notable by its absence. Here are animals, baby, parents, shepherds, angels — but no kings. This directs our attention to what is one of the other great preoccupations of Berlioz’s work: the tortuous difficulty of knowing how to kneel when you are a person of power, wealth and status.
The figure of Herod, who is the central focus of Part I (the ‘left-hand’ panel of the triptych) is fascinatingly drawn for us by Berlioz. He is no mere monster; he is someone with whom Berlioz’s words and music give us room to sympathize even as we are appalled.
Berlioz’s love of Shakespeare may well have had an influence on the Hamlet-like way in which a conversation between two guards on night duty is allowed to set the scene. We learn of a corrupt state and of the uneasy monarch within the palace walls. There is an overpowering sense that something is out of joint here; a quality of nervous expectation asserts itself alongside the dreary plodding of the tired soldiers. The fugato effects of the ‘Marche nocturne’ enhance the tension, as over the steady pizzicato in the bass the other lines mount up. The counterpoint generates a disturbing chromaticism and defers resolution. The accented fourth beats, and quick crescendos and decrescendos create a sense of impending danger.
By contrast with Shakespeare’s Hamlet, however, the ‘ghost’ who appears in this city is no dead usurpee; he is an infant usurper — one who comes to enact the promise of Mary’s Magnificat, which (through the Narrator) Berlioz echoes in the piece’s prologue: ‘the mighty trembled … the weak had hope’. This child will put down rulers from their thrones not by force of arms, but by a new set of values: the shattering of pride and the advance of the claims of love. Herod is haunted by the visitations of this child and teeters as a consequence on the brink of madness. We see him torn between radically different alternatives: an aching longing for the simplicity of the life of the woodland goatherd and a fiercely possessive concern with his own ‘glory’ (the rhyme in French poignantly juxtaposes ‘gloire’ with ‘croire’; selfish glory with the self-giving of faith). To believe or not to believe? To cling to glory or not to cling? Herod’s decision for glory ensures that his destiny is, in his words: ‘to reign, yet not to live’.
And yet Berlioz gives him a beating heart (rendered once again by the strings’ pizzicato), a longing strain in his voice almost like a lover’s yearning (in phrases that rise, peak on the subdominant, and fall again). He seeks an answering voice, and the strings seem at times to promise a dialogue with him, and yet still he finds himself alone. Berlioz gives us a sense of Herod’s suffering that is capable of stirring our compassion. And although he prays not to God, but to the night itself, he prays for peace. ‘Donne la paix’. We have noted already the liturgically-resonant language of the prologue. Here, in addition to echoes of the Magnificat, we hear traces of an Agnus Dei. Admittedly, it is an Agnus Dei in almost-parodic form: the peace of an hour’s sleep on the part of a half-mad king is a pale substitute for the peace sung into life by the angels at the oasis, and hymned in the liturgy of the Mass as the gift of the Lamb of God. But we cannot doubt the sincerity and intensity of Herod’s desire for it.
What we then witness is Herod’s ‘fall’ — which could be any of ours, and perhaps is all of ours in some measure. Willing to do anything to make the child go away, he turns away from the claims of his own conscience, and surrenders all responsibility, giving over his own agency to the malign soothsayers. Berlioz’s music enacts what is effectively Herod’s possession by the soothsayers; their voices seem almost to get inside his own voice, and speak and act through him. Suddenly, Herod’s desire to ‘shut the door’ on the child and its disturbing, demanding message is given a maniacal outlet in his (or their?) authorization of mass infanticide. Their voices come near to merging at points.
A different chorus, meanwhile, sings to Mary and Joseph, and here there is no possession, no surrender of responsibility. The voices of the angels, unlike those of the soothsayers, do not so much co-opt the elicit voices of their hearers. They do not seize and manipulate the agency of those to whom they address their song; they enhance that agency. Mary and Joseph ask for wisdom and strength (la prudence, la force) and are given it. These two qualities, so essential in a ruler, are precisely what Herod discards in subjecting himself to the soothsayers. Where Herod was disabled, Mary and Joseph are enabled.
What about the other panel in this triptych — the ‘right-hand’ one? Like the bad and the good thief crucified on either side of Christ at Golgotha, Herod’s character is contrasted in Berlioz’s final arrangement with that of the Ishmaelite householder, in whom compassion and the ethic of hospitality run strong. The force of the contrast is heightened by the fact that the part is also, like Herod’s, sung by a bass voice — in this present recording, indeed, by the same soloist. All that Herod could not do and be, the householder does and is. He does not shut the door on the child whose parents plead entrance for him and for themselves; he is instantly wide open to them. He does not crave a peace he does not have, he knows peace abundantly already, and is ready to share it. It takes the very domestic form of simple charity: food, drink, music and sleep. He does not have ‘gloire’, but he possesses the answer to Joseph’s own Agnus Dei; Joseph’s own urgent plea for rest (‘laissez nous reposer !’). He offers repose, and so Christ makes his home with him, with the implicit promise of an answering peace that passes all understanding. As the feet of the collapsing travellers audibly cross the householder’s threshold, the feet of the members of the household scurry to their aid, their footsteps evoked by the strings and answered by the woodwind. They are the feet of people who are already disciples in the way of love.
It is hard to deny the quality of devotional intensity that pervades this crystalline, jewel-like work. It gathers itself around a single, still point — the sleeping Christ child who is the very embodiment of peace — and yet it delineates in powerful but simple strokes the spiritual drama that shapes the whole human condition: pride or humility?; violence or hospitality?; the possession that destroys self or the obedience that consecrates it? Berlioz has departed from the biblical story in inventing a Herod who seems never to have met the Magi, and an infidel household in Saïs to which no scripture ever attests, but in doing so he does not seem to have acted merely in service of spicing up the entertainment value of his creation: adding some extra human interest for its own sake. Arguably, the ways that he transgresses the letter of the inherited story actually make it more poignant and challenging in religious terms.
And from the opening chords of the oratorio, with their antique, vertical, organ-like quality, to the hymn of the faithful shepherds, to the echoes of liturgical prayer and praise woven into its texture, Berlioz has channelled into this late piece his early love of the church’s stories and forms of worship. Some of his musical first loves also show themselves to be enduring objects of his affection in the work: the special place given in the trio in Part III to the flute (one of the very first instruments he learnt in childhood) is a case in point. Perhaps we may borrow T. S. Eliot’s words in the Four Quartets to capture what Berlioz communicates of himself in L’enfance: ‘in my end is my beginning’. As Berlioz said himself, he could have written the piece years earlier. It is not the momentary expression of one passing episode in his life’s journey; it captures something of the whole.
So to recall the point with which we began, this is a piece that complicates linearity. Here, time does not flow in quite the way we are used to. Berlioz’s own past and present are bound together in L’enfance du Christ, and even as this binding is going on the music of time is found interacting with the music of eternity. With a liturgical sense of shape, each of the three sections ends with a choral summation: Hosanna, Alleluia, and Amen. The first two are angelic songs — the sounds of heaven made audible on earth. The third is envoiced by humans just as well as angels: by earth and heaven singing together.
And, finally, there is a third complication of time, which delivers a challenge right to our own doorstep (as it came first to Herod’s doorstep, and then to the householder’s, each in their turn). The axis that runs in narrative terms from ‘left’ to ‘right’, and the axis that runs in cosmic terms from ‘above’ to ‘below’, are not the only axes along which we see a two-way flow. There is the axis that runs from the distant horizon, the ancient world out of which Berlioz calls this story into life, to the foreground in which we stand now. The narrator plays a paradigmatic role here. He begins — in rather Shakespearean fashion once again — as a prologue; a describer; a scene-setter. He knows this old story. ‘En ce temps’ (‘once upon a time’) he begins. But in the extraordinary final stages of the work, the story suddenly ceases to be old. It becomes immediate. And the narrator becomes a supplicant. In his transformation of the narrator, Berlioz opens the door to the possibility that we, his listeners, may be transformed too.
Hugh Macdonald and Ben Quash © 2013