Length: 1 hour, 35 minutes
Orchestration: 2 flutes (2nd = piccolo), 2 oboes (2nd = English horn), 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 cornets, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, harp, organ, strings, solo mezzo-soprano, 2 solo tenors, solo baritone, 2 solo basses, and chorus
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: December 21, 1977, with soloists Claudine Carlson, Seth McCoy, Michael Devlin, and Richard Stilwell, the Los Angeles Master Chorale, Andrew Davis conducting
Today, we love him for his witches, pagans, devils, pirates, ghosts, and choruses of the damned. But during his lifetime, Hector Berlioz had his biggest successes with sacred music. His Messe solennelle (1825) was "splendidly performed" at its first performance and won "favorable" reviews according to the composer, and the 1837 premiere of his Grande messe des morts (the Requiem) was perhaps the greatest triumph of Berlioz' career. The composer declared, with laconic satisfaction, "The success of the Requiem was complete…" in his Memoirs, which otherwise read like a catalog of disappointments written by a man for whom the balm of success in Germany, England, and Russia could not soothe the sting of his failures in Paris, the city he wanted to conquer more than any other.
His rejection by the Paris public was almost unavoidable; Berlioz was a man dogged by controversy and conflict throughout his life. His father wanted him to be a doctor; he rebelled and became a composer. His intolerance for lax artistic standards and his repeated bouts of what he called "spleen" - a combination of rage and melancholy - won him a reputation as difficult to work with at a time when most composers in Paris either wrote music that didn't make too many demands of performers, sat back and let their music be mangled, or spent their personal fortunes to guarantee that performances were a success (an option not open to Berlioz, who eked out a living as a journalist and conductor to support his composing). The public expected him to write polite music in the vein of his French forebears; he turned instead to the inspiration of Beethoven's volcanic genius and wrote sprawling works that we relish today but were an abomination to 19th-century Parisians. Then, just when Paris was ready to wash their hands of the man and his music, Berlioz shocked them all with his "sacred trilogy" L'enfance du Christ (The Childhood of Christ). Gone were the fantastic subjects and the lavish orchestral intensity of his earlier works. In their place, Berlioz wrote "a naive and gentle kind of music," as he described it in a letter published as a postscript to his Memoirs, completed in 1865.
The composition of The Childhood of Christ was haphazard, almost unintentional. It started at a card game in 1850, when Berlioz scribbled some music as a diversion. "I take a scrap of paper and draw a few staves on which in a little while an Andantino in four parts for organ makes its appearance," Berlioz remembered in an open letter he published before the London premiere of The Childhood of Christ. "I find a certain character of naive, rustic devotion in it and promptly decide to add some words in the same vein. The organ piece disappears and becomes the chorus of the shepherds of Bethlehem saying goodbye to the child Jesus at the moment when the Holy Family are setting out on their journey to Egypt."
Soon after the card game, he included the chorus on the program of one of his Paris concerts (November 12, 1850), attributing it to an imaginary 17th-century church musician, "Pierre Ducré, Music-Master of Ste. Chapelle," named in honor of one of Berlioz' friends, the architect Joseph-Louis Duc. A woman who heard the chorus offered her verdict to Duc, declaring that "Berlioz would never be able to write a tune as simple and charming as this little piece by old Ducré," a quip that illustrates just how low an opinion Paris had of Berlioz the composer.
The story of the emergence of this gentle chorus, which eventually became the centerpiece of The Childhood of Christ, the "Shepherds' Farewell to the Holy Family," takes on added significance when viewed in the context of Berlioz' career at the time. The composer was just coming off his biggest professional disappointment so far, the 1846 premiere of his ambitious "dramatic legend" The Damnation of Faust in a concert performance at the Opéra-Comique in Paris.
"For all the number of people that came to those two performances, it might have been the most footling opera in the company's repertory," Berlioz recalled in his Memoirs (recently published in an outstanding new translation by Berlioz scholar David Cairns). "Nothing in my career as an artist wounded me more deeply than this unexpected indifference."
Perhaps this is why Berlioz, almost unconsciously, returned to sacred music, where he had enjoyed success before. He completed his Te Deum for choruses, tenor, and orchestra in 1849, and then he began unintentionally to piece together The Childhood of Christ. To the Shepherds' Farewell he added an overture and a tenor aria describing the holy family resting on their journey. He called the resulting concert work The Flight into Egypt, published it in 1852, and decided to include the work on his programs in Germany in 1853. The audience at the Leipzig premiere of the three numbers - at this point, Berlioz was calling them a "fragment of a mystery play in antique style" - was bowled over by the work, giving it a rapturous reception. Peter Cornelius (a student of Liszt and the composer of the opera The Barber of Baghdad) waxed ecstatic to his sister, "Each of the three pieces is beautiful, but the third, a tenor solo with a final Alleluia of angels, the most beautiful. It is a composition that will live forever." Johannes Brahms, who serendipitously happened to be in town, was also deeply impressed.
Heartened by the success of his modest little work, Berlioz set about composing a sequel, The Arrival at Saïs. The composer dedicated The Arrival to the Singing Academy and the University Choral Society in Leipzig, the forces that had helped make The Flight a triumph. In 1854, he completed the work with a "prequel," Herod's Dream, which explains why the Holy Family had to leave Judea.
The Childhood of Christ was first performed in Paris on December 10, 1854. The Salle Herz, where the premiere took place, was filled to the rafters with people sitting and standing anywhere they could. The number of people turned away meant that two repeat performances had to be added. Berlioz took 20 curtain calls at the end of the performance, which was interrupted by riotous applause several times. During the second performance on December 24, calls of "encore" drowned out the Alleluias at the end of "The Repose of the Holy Family," prompting the composer to turn to the audience and shout, "We're going to play the piece again, but this time please allow it to finish." The letters of congratulation poured in from all sides, and Berlioz even made a tidy profit of 1,100 francs.
What was it about The Childhood of Christ that left musical Paris so enraptured? Charles Gounod (whom we remember today for his opera Faust) cited the work's "angelic purity"; Berlioz' friend Joseph-Louis d'Ortigue wrote after the premiere that he was "still in tears, yesterday I wept like a child"; and the writer Humbert Ferrand told Berlioz it was "a celestial work, above everything else you have done." The work represented the resurrection of a tradition of oratorios that had culminated in the mid-18th century with Handel (whose works included Messiah, with its famous "Hallelujah" chorus, Solomon, Samson, and dozens more) and Bach (of St. John and St. Matthew Passion fame, but also responsible for the Ascension, Easter, and Christmas oratorios). Berlioz had heard Bach's Matthew Passion during a visit to Berlin in 1840, and, while he quibbled with details of the performance (the use of a "wretched" harpsichord especially annoyed him), he recognized the work as a masterpiece.
Like Bach's Passions, The Childhood of Christ relies on a tenor narrator to move the story along. (Berlioz had a tradition of giving tenors prominent parts in his sacred works, assigning them the only solos in both the Requiem and the Te Deum.) The work begins with the narrator, who addresses the audience in the opening accompanied recitative. Part I's six scenes introduce Herod, King of Judea, and the Holy Family. A nocturnal march sets the scene as the night watch patrols the streets of Jerusalem. Berlioz treats the march theme contrapuntally, in the manner of a fugue, a musical form more evocative of the age of Bach and Handel than the 19th century. Herod's song, in which he sings of his misery and of his torment from a series of nightmares, also hearkens back to an archaic musical form, the three-part aria (an opening A section is followed by a contrasting B section before the material of the A section returns), a staple of any mid-18th-century vocal work. The Shepherds' Farewell in Part II recalls Bach's stirring use of chorale hymn tunes in his cantatas and oratorios, with the chorus and orchestra united in presenting a melody of devotional simplicity. Berlioz' inclusion of a trio for two flutes and harp "performed by the young Ishmaelites" during Part III owes something to the tradition of divertissements in 17th- and 18th-century opera and oratorio (for example, the concerto grosso Handel wrote for Alexander's Feast or the lavish orchestral ballet music in operas by Lully and Rameau).
Berlioz also composed some of his most evocative music for The Childhood of Christ. The brief orchestral interlude in Part I, Scene 4 meant to evoke the dervish-like "cabalistic processions and exorcisms of the soothsayers," finds the composer at his most inventive. Clarinets and bassoons hammer out an insistent figure over whirling strings as accompaniment to the melodic utterances of the oboe and the English horn, all in an uneasy 7/4 rhythm, giving the scene an eerie, otherworldly quality. Part I closes with an off-stage chorus of angels advising the holy family to leave Judea. Berlioz gives specific instructions in the score about how to place the chorus off-stage, but with a door open, and when to close the door to produce the desired effect of the angels receding back into the heavens at the end of the chorus.
The composer saves his trump card for the end. In the final scene, the chorus and tenor soloist join to sing, unaccompanied, a finale of stirring innocence, "Ô mon âme" ("Oh, my spirit"). Berlioz recalled the effect the finale had on the audience at the 1863 Strasbourg Festival in his Memoirs: "I must not forget to mention the Strasbourg Festival, to which I was invited eighteen months ago to conduct a performance of The Childhood of Christ. An enormous hall had been built, seating six thousand, and there were five hundred performers. It did not seem possible that this oratorio, written almost throughout in a quiet and delicate vein, could carry in so vast an auditorium. To my great surprise, people were profoundly moved, and tears were shed at the mystic chorus, 'Ô mon âme,' which is sung unaccompanied at the end of the work. How happy I feel when I see my audience weep!"
-- John Mangum holds a Ph.D. in history from UCLA. He is the Philharmonic's Program Designer/Annotator.