Build­ing a Li­brary

Ge­orge Hall lis­tens in ap­pro­pri­ately hushed rev­er­ence as he makes his se­lec­tion of the finest record­ings of Ber­lioz’s fes­tive-themed ora­to­rio

BBC Music Magazine - - Contents - Hec­tor Ber­lioz

The best record­ings of Ber­lioz’s L’en­fance du Christ

The work

At a Parisian card party in the au­tumn of 1850, Hec­tor Ber­lioz was plainly bored. His host, the ar­chi­tect Louis-joseph Duc, sug­gested he while away the time by writ­ing a short piece. As an al­bum leaf the com­poser pro­duced a four-part An­dantino for or­gan, then de­cided that it needed a text. ‘It be­came’, he later wrote, ‘the cho­rus of shep­herds in Beth­le­hem say­ing their farewells to the in­fant Je­sus as the Holy Fam­ily pre­pared to leave for Egypt’.

Orig­i­nally he in­tended to sign the piece with the name ‘Duc’, in hon­our of his host, but in­stead be in­vented a 17th-cen­tury choir­mas­ter at the Ste-chap­pelle called Pierre Du­cré and at­trib­uted the cho­rus to him. At a So­ci­eté Phil­har­monique con­cert which he con­ducted on Novem­ber 12 1850, the Shep­herds’ Farewell went down well, and equally at a re­peat per­for­mance. It was Duc who gave away the se­cret of the piece’s true au­thor­ship.

Mean­while Ber­lioz de­cided to add move­ments on ei­ther side of it – a fu­gal over­ture in modal style and a sec­tion called ‘Le Re­pos de la Sainte Famille’ (The Holy Fam­ily at Rest). To­gether these now formed a small can­tata or – as Ber­lioz termed it – a ‘mys­tère’; en­ti­tled La fuite en Égypte (The Flight into Egypt), it re­ceived its first per­for­mance in Leipzig on De­cem­ber 10 1853.

But Ber­lioz had not fin­ished with the work: hav­ing ex­panded it once, he did so again. In Jan­uary 1854 he com­posed the bulk of the se­quel to La fuite en Égypte, which was even­tu­ally called ‘L’ar­rivée à Saïs’ (Ar­rival at Sais). Then he de­cided that to­gether these needed a pre­ced­ing sec­tion, ‘which will have as its sub­ject the mas­sacre of the in­no­cents’, as he ex­plained in a let­ter to his friend Franz Liszt. By July 1854 he had com­pleted this new in­tro­duc­tion – ‘Le songe d’hérode’ (Herod’s Dream) – and the score was fi­nally com­plete.

It had taken nearly four years, but the wait proved worth it. De­spite hav­ing been put off the idea of pro­mot­ing his own works in Paris through in­cur­ring fi­nan­cial losses in the past, Ber­lioz re­solved once again to take the risk. L’en­fance du Christ (The child­hood of Christ) was pre­miered un­der his ba­ton at Paris’s Salle Herz on 10 De­cem­ber 1854. It was a ma­jor suc­cess, with many peo­ple un­able to buy tick­ets and the au­di­ence giv­ing the com­poser-con­duc­tor a warm­hearted ova­tion.

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