Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Mercoledi Musicale

My friends Cathy and Ben are taking part in the annual presentation of Handel's glorious The Messiah at the National Arts Centre - by all reports one of the best in many years at that venue. Our neighbour Stephen just sang in the chorus of a sing-along version. These are only two of five or six performances that are taking place around town and we're a small town.  When you look at cities like New York or London the "events" pages are filled with listings for this popular "Christmas" piece. (I won't even start on how false that seasonal misconception is.) 

Now as anyone who has read this blog knows I have absolutely nothing against this incredible work - the wedding of Charles Jennsens text with Handel's music is one of the glories of western culture. I have four recordings on my CD shelf - Sir Thomas Beecham's over the top big sound, The Gabrieli Consort's refined period performance, Charles Mackerras' conducting the Mozart realization and an old BBC recording.   But nestled beside them on the shelf is a single recording of a "real" seasonal piece that sadly often seems neglected:  L'enfance du Christ by Hector Berlioz.

Now I am as guilty as the next person of neglecting this little masterpiece.  It has sat on the shelf for almost a decade undisturbed but then, as so often happens, my dear David mentioned that he was reviewing a performance by the BBC Symphony for The Arts Desk.  I tuned in for the last part - isn't it incredible that we can hear these performances taking place 3000 kilometres away? - and was almost in tears at the end.   There is, perhaps, no finer tribute to a performance than total silence at the end.  On Sunday that silence seemed to go on for minutes, though it was probably only 30 seconds, before the audience erupted into applause.  A testimony to a fine performance and the simple beauty of this music and its power to move.

This led to me listen to the entire piece as recorded back in 1976 by Sir Colin Davis (the second of his three recordings of the work) with my beloved Janet Baker, Eric Tappy and Thomas Allen.  it is strange how the Berlioz champions in my lifetime have all been English - for some reason the French don't seem to be able to get a handle on Berlioz (sorry no pun intended).   I searched on YouTube for a version in the original language of Adieux des Bergers à la Sainte Famille but was only able to find English settings of this lovely melody that was the kernel from which the work sprang:  The Shepherds  farewell to the Holy Family.

I've offered two translations below: the one on the left a literal translation of Berlioz's libretto; the other, on the right, is a variant on the version being sung on the clip.
He is going far from the land
where in a stable he was born.
May his father and his mother
always love him steadfastly;
may he grown and prosper
and be a good father in his turn.

If ever among the idolaters
he should find misfortune,
let him flee the unkind land
and come back to live happily among us
May the shepherd's lowely life
be ever dear in his heart.

Dear child, may God bless thee,
and God bless you, happy pair!
May you never feel
the cruel hand of injustice.
May a good angel warn you
of all dangers that hang over you.
You must leave your lowly dwelling,
The humble crib, the stable bare.
Babe, all mortal babes excelling,
Content our earthly lot to share.
Loving father, Loving mother,
Shelter you with tender care!

Blessed Jesus, we implore you
With humble love and holy fear.
In the land that lies before you,
Forget not us who linger here!
May the shepherd’s lowly calling,
Ever to you heart be dear!

Blest are you beyond all measure,
Your happy father, mother mild!
Guard you well you heavenly treasure,
The Prince of Peace, The Holy Child!
God go with you, God protect you,
Guide you safely through the wild!
Berlioz composed the piece in 1850 on a whim during an evening's entertainment at the home of his friend Joseph-Louis Duc.  While their friends were playing whist the architect asked him to write something for his album and Berlioz in his own words took:
...  a scrap of paper and drew a few staves, on which in a little while an Andantino in four parts for organ makes its appearance.  I find a certain character of naïve, rustic devoutness in it and promptly decide to add some words in the same vein.  The organ piece disappears and becomes the chorus of the shepherds of Bethlehem saying goodbye to the child Jesus at the moment when the Holy Family are setting out on their journey to Egypt
Berlioz introduced the little piece at one of his concerts on November 12, 1850 and as a joke accredited it to a M Ducré, an obscure 17th century Master of Saint Chapelle.  It was an instant success with one lady express the feelings that if only M Berlioz could learn to compose as simply and nobly as M Ducré he would become as popular.  He then added an overture and a tenor solo describing the Holy Family resting at an oasis during their journey.   La fuite en Egypte (The Flight into Egypt) was performed in Leipzig in December of 1853.  Its popularity moved Berlioz, who was quite surprised by how such a simple piece had captured the audience's fancy, to composed L'arrivée à Sais (The Arrival in Sais)  in early 1854.  It was followed later the same year by Le songe d'Hérode (Herod's Dream).  It has taken him four years to complete what had started at that card party in 1850.

The first performance of the complete three part L'Enfance du Christ was given on December 10, 1854 and it became an immediate success.  It was praised by the previous hostile critics and taken to a once reluctant public's heart.  Berlioz was elated by its success but also upset that this "trifle" had outshone his more serious works.

Berlioz once referred to the piece being "in the manner of the old illuminated missals"; so I thought I'd use a few photos I have from our Spanish trip along with the last movement of the piece. 

Mary, Joseph and the Baby have come to the end of their journey and arrived at the town of Sais weary, hungry, thirsty and bruised.  The hustle and bustle of the place frightens Mary and they are turned away by Romans and Egyptians alike as "vil Hébreux!"  But at the lowly dwelling of an Ishmaelite home they are welcomed in by the "Le Père de famille" - a carpenter.   Their wounds are tended to, their hunger fed and their offered a place to live. 

In the epilogue the narrator tells us:
Thus it came to pass that the Saviour was saved by an infidel.
For ten years Mary and Joseph with her,
watched sublime humility flower in him,
infinite love joined to wisdom.
Then at length he returned to the country of his birth,
that he might accomplish the divine sacrifice
which ransomed mankind from eternal torment
and marked out the way of salvation.
The story ended, the narrator and chorus quietly meditate on what we have just heard:

Oh my soul, what remains for you to do
but shatter your pride before so great a mystery?
Oh my heart, be filled with the pure, deep love
which alone can open to us the kingdom of heaven.
For anyone who would care to hear this wonderful performance it is available until December 21 on the BBC website here.

December 18 -1655: The Whitehall Conference ends with the determination that there was no law preventing Jews from re-entering England after the Edict of Expulsion of 1290.
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Ur-spo said...

Now this is proper christmas music !
I wish this is what the malls and hallways would play rather than the wretched modern rubbish,

yvette said...

Bien cher Willym voici le lien pour le programme de cette soirée mémorable à Pleyel avec orchestre chef français et baryton français aussi, Laurent Naouri
J espère que cela marche j'ai la musique qui va avec aussi quelque part... je croyais bien qu'il y aurait eu une suite enregistrée , car ce fut superbe mais, hélas....
Quel post magnifique... bacci!

Anonymous said...

The NACO Messiah this year was indeed a fantastic experience. But I've sung L'enfance du Christ there as well. The Shepherds' farewell is so lovely.