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ClassicsOnline Home » BERLIOZ: Enfance du Christ (L')
Hector Berlioz (1803–1869)
L’Enfance du Christ (The Childhood of Christ), Op. 25
Hector Berlioz was born in 1803 at La Cote-St-Andre in the departement of Isere, the eldest son of a doctor of some local distinction. After the closing of the nearby Imperial Seminary in 1811, he was educated by his father, who taught him Latin, giving him an early taste for Virgil, and passed on to him a love of literature. He also instructed him in the rudiments of music, through the flageolet and then the flute, the only instruments, along with the guitar that Berlioz was to play. His father, with his double passion for literature and for music, remained always a model for him; at his father’s death in 1848, he wrote: It seems that my life no longer has an aim, instinctively there had always been, in my efforts, a tendency towards my father, a desire for his approval, a hope that he would be proud of them and now.
In 1821 Berlioz left his native region, the Dauphine, and went to Paris to embark on medical studies that he abandoned after 1824, entering the Conservatoire finally in 1826, where he became a pupil of Lesueur, Reich. and Cherubini. He won the Grand Prix de Rome on his filth attempt and spent several years in Italy. On his return to France his Symphonie fantastique and Retour a la vie (Return to Life) won enormous success after a concert at the Conservatoire. He then met the Irish actress Harriet Srnithson, with whom he had fallen in love some years before, when she was winning acclaim for her performances in Shakespeare. They married in 1833 and Louis, their only son, was born the following year. The marriage soon began to fail, Berlioz’s idealised love giving way to Harriet’s bitterness, as her career declined. After the failure of his fIrst opera, Benvenuto Cellini, Berlioz began to travel, in order to make his music known outside Paris, where he received little recognition. In fact he made his living principally from activities marginal to composition. A talented writer, he contributed to different publications from 1833 onwards. He also became librarian at the Conservatoire and, in 1856, a member of the Institut. Harriet, from whom he had long been separated, died in March 1854 and Berlioz took as his second wife his long-term companion Marie Recio. His life ended in sadness: apart from the success of L’Enfance du Christ in 1854 and the Te Deum in 1855, he met with incomprehension from Paris audiences. He wrote nothing after the failure of his opera Les Troyens (The Trojans) in 1863. The death of Marie in 1862, but above all that of his son in 1867 threw a shadow over his life that the triumph of his final journey to St Petersburg was unable to lighten. He died on his return, in 1869.
Berlioz dominates French musical romanticism, in perfect harmony with his period: 1830 was the year of the fIrst performance of the Symphony fantastique, but also that of Victor Hugo’s Hernani and of the painting by Delacroix, Liberty Guiding the People. These have a number of things in common: exaltation of feelings, the desire to undertake work of vast dimensions, an acute sense of colour.
From his childhood Berlioz had preserved his taste for both music and literature: one never went without the other. His entire work has an underlying text, not only in opera, of course, but also his orchestral work, always tied to a programme, a literary sub-text. He was, nevertheless, a wonderful symphonist, constantly exploring the expressive possibilities of different instrumental timbres and writing the first treatise on orchestration.
Berlioz wrote little in the traditional forms in use in the nineteenth century—a literary argument every time determining the structure— something that makes it difficult to classify works such as the dramatic symphony Romeo et Juliette, with chorus, soloist and a prologue in choral recitative, or the dramatic legend La Damnation de Faust (The Damnation of Faust), something between symphony and cantata, an opera for an imaginary theatre.
If the work of Berlioz is divided according to the usual criteria, besides the four symphonies and seven overtures, there are principally vocal compositions: the three operas, Benvenuto Cellini, Beatrice et Benedict and Les Troyens; church music, the famous Requiem, the Te Deum and the recently rediscovered Mass, Passing over in silence the three cantatas written for the Prix de Rome, attention must be drawn to his virtual invention of French song, with the two cycles of Melodies irlandaises (Irish Songs) and Nuits d’ ete (Summer Nights). Berlioz also distinguished himself in the field of oratorio with L’Enfance du Christ.
The chorus of shepherds in the second part of L’ Enfance du Christ was the origin of the work. Composed casually, on the corner of a table during a party, it was attributed to Pierre Ducre, director of music at the Sainte Chapelle in 1679. Warmly welcomed at its first performance (a cruel success for the composer), the chorus was augmented by the addition of two other pieces, to make up the Fuite en Egypte (The Flight into Egypt). In 1854 Berlioz added the Songe d’ Herode (Herod’s Dream) and the Arrivee a Sais (The Arrival at Sais), giving the work its definitive form.
References to older composers are numerous, but, paradoxically, few are to French composers. The Shepherds’ Chorus itself owes more to Bach than to Lully or Charpentier. The use of the ancient modes ought to bring about the melancholy and relatively simple sound of old popular ballads at the beginning of the second and third parts. Berlioz also envisaged an archaic orchestra for the Flight into Egypt, with no brass, no percussion and no bassoons. The final unaccompanied chorus (Andante mistico) conjures up the liturgical sonorities of the Renaissance.
In the rest of the work the influence of Gluck seems preponderant. The end of the fourth scene of the first tableau, where Herod joins the chorus of soothsayets in an impassioned call for the massacre of the innocents is a perfect example of this: Gluck would not have disowned the dramatic homophony of the chorus nor the use of small rhythmic cells, unifying the orchestral texture, Berlioz repeats the process in the following scene, in particular at the words of Mary: Mon cher enfant, donne cette herbe tendre (My dear child, give this tender grass), with the agitated little motif of the violins, In fact the general contour of the vocal parts owes much to Gluck, whether in this duet or in the various accompanied recitatives.
Nevertheless, beyond this inspiration from the past, the work remains profoundly original and typical of Berlioz, with orchestration of a subtle flavour remote from his usual use of massive effects. The opening wind chords, the harmonium in dialogue with the violins in the sixth scene, where the distant off-stage chorus of angels offers an other-worldly sound, the dance for two flutes and harp, a chamber-music interlude, and many other details could only have come from his pen.
In fact Berlioz reacted like the best of his contemporaries when drawing inspiration from the music of the past, not looking for any historical truth but borrowing the language and procedures of his predecessors to add them to his own personal aesthetic. What Berlioz does is comparable to Liszt’s use of Gregorian modes: recourse to the past, like the use of literary sources, feeds an inspiration that is always made new. This is what justifies, for Berlioz, an interest in composers of the past: I love the old composers because they are not like the modern, because they are new.
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BERLIOZ: Enfance du Christ (L')