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Robin Ticciati and the SRSO 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, who was unanimously awarded first prize in 1996 from the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique de Paris, and Alistair Miles, who has been called ‘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.
Hector Berlioz (1803-1869) - L'enfance du Christ, op. 25
One evening in 1850 Berlioz found himself at a party where everyone was playing cards. As this was something he particularly disliked, his friend Pierre Duc asked him to inscribe his album: 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 which 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' (‘L'Adieu des bergers' with its 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, which took Berlioz by surprise, 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 familiaritywith 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, just 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 Père de Famille 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, ‘Ô 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, ‘Ô 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 unique in Berlioz in being chamber music, 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 Iopas 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, 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. Hugh Macdonald