Wednesday, November 18, 2009

L'enfance du Christ

The last section of Sodom and Gomorrah by Marcel Proust (In Search of Lost Time Part IV) has a passing reference to L'enfance du Christ (English: The Childhood of Christ). This is the Opus 25, an oratorio (choral work) by Hector Berlioz, based on the story of the Holy Family's flight into Egypt. Berlioz wrote his own words for the piece. Most of it was composed in 1853 and 1854, but it also incorporates an earlier work La fuite en Egypte (1850). It was first performed at the Salle Herz, Paris on 10 December 1855, with Berlioz conducting and soloists from the Opéra-Comique.

Berlioz described L'enfance as a sacred trilogy. The first of its three sections depicts King Herod ordering the massacre of all newborn children in Judaea; the second shows the Holy Family of Mary, Joseph and Jesus setting out for Egypt to avoid the slaughter, having been warned by angels; and the final section portrays their arrival in the Egyptian town of Sais where they are given refuge by a family of Ishmaelites. It's worth noting that Berlioz himself was by no means a religious believer, though he was a great admirer of Catholic church music.

The idea for L'enfance went back to 1850 when Berlioz composed an organ piece for his friend Joseph-Louis Duc, called L'adieu des bergers (The Shepherds' Farewell). He soon turned it into a choral movement for the shepherds saying goodbye to the baby Jesus as he leaves Bethlehem for Egypt. He then added a piece for tenor, Le repos de la sainte famille (The Repose of the Holy Family) and preceded both movements with an overture to form a work he called La fuite en Egypte. It was published in 1852 and first performed in Leipzig in December, 1853. The premiere was so successful, Berlioz's friends urged him to expand the piece and he added a new section, L'arrivée à Sais (The Arrival at Sais), which included parts for Mary and Joseph. Berlioz, perhaps feeling the result was still unbalanced, then composed a third section to precede the other two, Le songe d'Hérode (Herod's Dream).

Even though today we view Berlioz's music as the epitome of Romanticism, it was typically received with hostility by Parisian audiences and critics, usually accusing it of being bizarre and discordant. Yet L'enfance du Christ was an immediate success and was praised by all but two critics in the Paris newspapers. Some attributed its favourable reception to a new, gentler style, a claim Berlioz vigorously rejected:

In that work many people imagined they could detect a radical change in my style and manner. This opinion is entirely without foundation. The subject naturally lent itself to a gentle and simple style of music, and for that reason alone was more in accordance with their taste and intelligence. Time would probably have developed these qualities, but I should have written L'enfance du Christ in the same manner twenty years ago. (Hector Berlioz, Memoirs)

The work has maintained its popularity - it is often performed around Christmas.

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