17 Oct 2011

Berlioz – L’enfance du Christ (The Childhood of Christ)

Written by Jeff Counts

Instrumentation: 2 flutes (2nd doubles piccolo), 2 oboes (2nd doubles English horn), 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, harp, harmonium, strings, chorus, soloists.

Duration: 95 minutes in three parts.

THE COMPOSER – HECTOR BERLIOZ (1803-1869) – By 1850, Berlioz had grown weary of the trend in which any new piece with his name on it incurred the immediate and obligatory wrath of his critics. So, at a concert that year, he passed off his own Flight into Egypt as the work of one “Pierre Ducre” and the hoax worked exactly as he thought it would. The bait was not just taken, but swallowed whole.

THE MUSIC – That the Flight into Egypt was to become the central section of Berlioz’ (let alone Ducre’s) highly successful sacred trilogy L’enfance du Christ could not have been known by anyone at the time but the critics did see much in the piece to admire. Some even took the opportunity to mention that Mr. Berlioz could learn much from Mr. Ducre on the writing of beautiful, devotional music. It wasn’t merely the leaving off of Berlioz’ name that fooled his regular detractors but also the use of what even the composer himself admitted was a “gentle and simple” style of writing. Even though Berlioz bristled at the notion that his compositional voice had undergone a “radical change” toward moderation, L’enfance du Christ definitely benefitted from that perception and, in reality, did represent a more conservative version of his musical ideals. The story told by the music begins with King Herod and his premonition that a child would soon be born that could end his reign. When the dream is confirmed, Herod’s brutal actions necessitate the aforementioned flight by the holy family. The third section details their arrival in Egypt and the initial rejection they find there. Soon enough, however, the three are taken in by the Ishmaelites and there they reside safely for the next ten years. The premiere on December 10, 1854 was so positively received that the piece was immediately scheduled again for Christmas Eve.     

THE WORLD – Thoreau’s Walden was published in 1854, as was Hard Times by Charles Dickens. Also in 1854, composer Robert Schumann attempted suicide by throwing himself into the Rhine and the Republican Party was officially formed in America.