Regrettably, Hector Berlioz’s L’Enfance du Christ is little known today, aside from “The Shepherds’ Farewell to the Holy Family,” which is often programmed independently of the oratorio on classical Christmas albums. This chorus’ gentle character may give the false impression that the 90-minute, tripartite oratorio is entirely a contemplative piece. Yet, as with all Berlioz’s orchestral works, L’Enfance du Christ is also a highly dramatic composition. Just listen, for example, to the first section, “The Song of Herod”; sample, especially Herod’s music from 25:30-31:30 in the performance below, with its ominous trombone fanfares as Herod issues the command to slaughter the innocents. The music is reminiscent of something out of John Williams’ score for the Death Star in the Star Wars films. “And we cut, like a film,” says Berlioz champion, conductor Sir Colin Davis, “after seven bars of complete silence to the stable where Mary and Jesus and Joseph are luxuriating in the parenthood of this baby.” Berlioz has the unfortunate reputation of being a one-hit wonder, as he is so closely identified with his remarkable and revolutionary Symphonie Fantastique, yet composers Claude Debussy and Johannes Brahms considered L’Enfance du Christ to be Berlioz’s masterpiece.
The story of the composition of the oratorio is fascinating: Berlioz at first passed off the piece as the work of a fictional seventeenth-century composer of his own invention: one “Pierre Ducré.” This little practical joke on Berlioz’s part stemmed from his frustration with the public’s reception of his work theretofore, and it also suggests that he was reluctant to admit to his contemporaries that he, an atheist, had composed an oratorio on so quaint a theme as the infancy narrative of Jesus. Known for his large-scale, grandiloquent orchestral and choral works, the more contemplative nature of L’Enfance du Christ—particularly its second and third sections—was so seemingly out of character for the composer that his ruse succeeded. “Monsieur Berlioz could never write anything as charming as that,’ one lady exclaimed after hearing Berlioz conduct “The Shepherds’ Farewell.” Berlioz himself admitted that his creation was “innocent and sweet,” being fashioned “in the manner of the old illuminated missals.”
More of the story of the composition of L’Enfance du Christ, and its libretto in the original French, with English translation, can be found online in the booklet for conductor Robin Ticciati’s excellent recording of the work.
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The featured image is “Rest on the Flight into Egypt (1879), by Luc-Olivier Merson, and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. It has been brightened for clarity.