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