By Richard H. Trame, S.J., Ph.D.
Loyola Marymount University
Hector Berlioz' (1803-1869) L'Enfance du Christ (The Childhood of Christ) emerged from his pen in three distinct segments between 1850 and 1854. Its immediate predecessor among his large choral works was the grandiose Te Deum of 1849. It was followed shortly after (between 1856 and 1859) by the gigantic and magnificent grand opera, Les Troyens. The last sizeable composition Berlioz was yet to write was the opera Beatrice and Benedict in 1863. The Childhood, therefore, is a late product of Berlioz's fertile and rather erratic genius. It is illustrative of his ability to create exquisitely delicate and religiously sensitive melody coupled with his tendency sometimes toward prolix and banal developments. The three segments of this "Sacred Trilogy" are entitled "The Song of Herod" (1854), "The Flight into Egypt"(1850-52), and "The Arrival in Sais" (1853).
Shortly after the completion of the Te Deum, Berlioz attended what proved to be a dull party at which most of the guests played cards. A friend, Louis Due, urged the bored Berlioz to compose for him a parlor piece for his album. Then and there Berlioz sketched the words and music for the "Shepherds' Farewell to the Holy Family" later expanded into "The Flight into Egypt." When Louis Due refused to permit Berlioz to append his name to the work as its composer, Berlioz decided to perpetrate a mild hoax on the Parisian music critics and audiences, both of whom he frequently and justifiably condemned for their non-recognition of his real genius. He attributed the composition to a fictitious music master of the Sainte-Chapelle in the 17th Century, Pierre Ducre. "My manuscript thus acquires enormous antiquarian value!" he gibed. When the "Flight into Egypt" was given its first performance in 1850, all but one of the critics were fooled in spite of the characteristic Berliozian modulation in the "farewell." Afterwards he published it under his own name with the added caption, "attributed to Pierre Ducre, imaginary chapel master," thereby prolonging his fun.
The international success which Berlioz enjoyed almost unilaterally, whether in England or on the Continent, with performances of The Childhood core segment motivated him to expand it until it reached in 1854 the form we now possess. As with so many other of his compositions, Berlioz found that The Childhood brought him considerable acclaim as a competent and distinguished composer everywhere but in antipathetic Paris.
The Childhood of Christ was not intended to be staged as an opera. Nevertheless the score contains precise scenic placements and stage directions intended to assist the listener's imagination during its various episodes. In contrast to the huge forces Berlioz employed in the Requiem and the Te Deum, The Childhood requires soloists, chorus and a small orchestra which, in its initial scoring, was even smaller. The work contrasts singularly in its sincere devotion with that volcanic and superficial religiosity of the large occasional compositions mentioned. Its poetic form and musical structure manifest a rather curious archaic throwback to old models and chant modes.
"The Song of Herod" depicts the terror engendered in Herod the Great upon hearing the news that a Newborn King has come, even as an infant, to supplant him. His soothsayers urge him in chorus to save himself by having all the male infants in and around Jerusalem and Bethlehem slaughtered. The music becomes grotesque as the chorus of advisors presses Herod to harden himself to the piteous cries of his victims. The scene then changes in striking contrast to the manger where Mary and Joseph contemplate the Infant in pastoral simplicity. Their reverie is interrupted as the chorus of angels commands them to flee secretly from Herod's wrath into Egypt.
"The Flight into Egypt" commences with the famed "farewell of the Shepherds to the Holy Family" followed by the scene where the Holy Family rests by the wayside (omitted in tonight's performance).
"The Arrival at Sais" finds Mary and the Child quite exhausted from the wearisome journey. Joseph is turned away with insults from the house of a Roman and then of an Egyptian, only to find warm and open hospitality from the father of a family of lsmaelites, who notes their common descent from Abraham. This section is both the most dramatic and the one most chorally oriented of the three as the lsmaelities welcome the Holy Family into their home and the father mobilizes the entire household to look after the weary strangers.
The Epilogue supplies the appropriate meditation entitled "O My Spirit" in which the Soul and the Heart are invited to put aside their pride before the great mystery is unfolded in the presence of Pure love.
In the interest of time, this evening's performance of The Childhood has been judiciously trimmed of some unessential portions from the complete score.
The French noŽl reaches back to 9th Century tropes. The term, since the 15th Century, designates a non-liturgical strophic composition of a popular nature in the vernacular. Collections of noŽls proliferated greatly in the 16th Century, often comprised of original compositions by many of France's leading composers. Some collections included occasionally vernacular polyphonic noels such as Costeley's five-voice Or est venu noŽl.
Guillaume Costeley (1530-1606) was the chief composer of the Parisian chanson in the 16th Century. The two noŽls presented this evening, Sus, debout, gentilz pasteurs, and Allons gay, gay bergeres have been singled out as outstanding examples of Costeley's work, quite distinct from his more conventional chansons. In both, the shepherds are bidden to awaken to the angels' song of peace on earth and to hasten with joy to the manger.
Louis-Claude Daquin (1694-1772) achieved distinction as the greatest French organist of his generation. In his Nouveau livre de noels pour l'argue et le clavecin he achieved great popularity with Parisian church-goers. Daquin later licensed adaptations of these keyboard noŽls for instrumental performance with small orchestra. His twelve noŽls alternate a considerable variety of brilliant declamation with moments of relaxed pastoral simplicity. Number Ten is featured in this concert.
Dr. Roger Wagner's arrangements of carols in the Christmas Story are connected with appropriate excerpts from the gospel of Luke. We Three Kings is a long-accepted and successful American carol composed in 1857 by Dr. J .H. Hopkins, Rector of Christ Church, Williamsport, Pennsylvania. What Child is This was set prior to 1642 to the Greensleeves melody, the refrain being authored by William Chatterton Dix in about 1865, O Little Town of Bethlehem utilizes an old melody entitled The Ploughboy's Dream, its words being by Bishop Phillip Brooks. Gesu Bambino was composed by Pietro Yon (1886-1943), longtime organist at New York's St. Patrick's Cathedral. Angels We Have Heard on High is a French noŽl coming from Languedoc or South France. The words are by James Chadwick. Joy to the World boasts the immortal music of Handel who wrote it as the setting for a poem by Isaac Watts (1674-1748). Franz Gruber's setting of Father Joseph Mohr's poem Silent Night has made it the most loved Christmas carol of the western world.