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Exploring Music: Beautifully Recorded, Childhood of Christ

The MHS Review 379 Vol. 11, NO. 1 • 1987

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David M. Greene


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You are, of course, familiar with the "three Bs," who stand in music as something akin to the Holy Trinity? Bach­Beethoven-'n '-Brahms? WRONG!! Accor­ding to Jacques Barzun's monumental Berlioz and His Century, the original for­mula was "Bach, Beethoven, and Berlioz," and it was made by Peter Cornelius FT091824-1874), nephew and namesake of the great muralist, satellite of Franz Liszt, and himself a fine composer. Attached as he was to Liszt, Cornelius idolized Berlioz, though both his heroes were elsewhere ex­ecrated as the torchbearers of "modern" music.

Among the great composers there is perhaps no lonelier figure than Hector Berlioz. This is not to say that he lacked devoted friends and admirers, but with the French musical public (and one is tempted to say the musical public generally) he was truly a prophet without honor. Despite French claims as universal taste-setters, the fact is that their musical taste in the mid-19th century was a wretched affair, largely limited to trivial operas-comiques and formulaic ballet scores. It is sobering to recall that they found Gounod-old treacly Gounod!-"far out"!

To them Berlioz was not merely the anomaly that he was; he was a comedian, a freak, a madman. He adored the music of a rumpled stone-deaf Dutchman nam­ed Beethoven How droll! He wrote inter­minable symphonies and operas and behav­ed badly when his audiences relieved their understandable boredom with chatter. In fact he tried to make chatter impossible with music that featured trombones which attempted to rupture the eardrums and tim­pani that made one yearn for the invention of Excedrin. He had seen his best work laughed or hissed into oblivion --most painfully, perhaps, his opera Benvenuto Cellini in 1838, and most recently (1846) his "dramatic oratorio" (to avoid the more dangerous label) La damnation de Faust.

According to A.E.F. Dickinson (The Music of Berlioz), L 'enfance du Christ began to take shape with a "pastoral tune for organ." This work brought on a vision of shepherds singing farewell to the Holy Family as it sets out to escape the Herodian infantile holocaust. The resultant chorus, fleshed out with a little overture and an in­strumental follow-up as "The Flight into Egypt," was written in an "archaic" (perhaps "folksy" is more accurate) style. And then Berlioz saw a means for a son of revenge: when it was performed in 1850, it was listed as a 1679 work by one Pierre Ducre. Critics and public fell headlong in­to the trap and cooed "Comme c'est char­mante, cette musique ancienne,!" etc.

Having had his fun, Berlioz set about to turn this fragment into part of a major com position. First he added a second part in which a narrator (tenor) describes the flight into Egypt and shows the Family's acceptance into the bosom of an Ishmaelite family (whose members play it a lovely trio). This concludes with an epilogue that looks ahead to Christ's earthly mission and end, with an unaccompanied choral prayer, To balance this structure, Berlioz wrote a first part, quite dramatic, that shows uneasy Roman soldiers patroling Judaean streets, the wretched Herod brooding about his prophesied overthrow, and then the Family in the stable warned by angels. Berlioz described the work as a series of medieval illuminations, and called it a short oratorio. It was a great success and everyone said that dear Hector had at last learned to com­pose, though he himself said he could have written the same thing 20 years earlier.

The present recording comes from a dramatized Thames Television presenta­tion that apparently observed the "il­lumination" notion. It is beautifully record­ed, and if the British singers' French isn't entirely idiomatic that will not offend most listeners. Anthony Rolfe Johnson's Nar­rator, Richard Van Allan's Herod, and Ben Luxon's senior Ishmaelite are all splendid, and Fiona Kimm's Mary sounds as lovely as she looks in her photos.

Review of the Childhood of Christ Pg 53

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