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Saturday, 10 December 2011

An appreciation of L'enfance du Christ

More views of - or after - Cambridge Film Festival 2011
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)


11 December

I don’t think that Schubert would have had his ‘year of song’ if he’d set himself the task of writing the rhyming lyrics as well, rather than setting the poetry of such as Heine and Goethe. Sir Michael Tippett was thought not to have done himself any favours with writing the libretto to The Midsummer Marriage

But Hector Berlioz, having written L’adieu des bergers under an assumed name and so proved that hostility from critics attached to knowing whose music it was (rather than to the music itself), continued to write a rhyming text for what became L’enfance du Christ, which I heard played from end to end two nights ago. What attracts me, though, is not reviewing the performance, but thinking about the work, to which I have been brought much closer.

Sir Mark Elder, to-night’s conductor, is reported as liking the fact that the first part of this three-part work was written last. What it does have, although largely in the vivid brutality of its words, is more feeling of action than in the second part’s parting from the shepherds and finding a God-given oasis. The third part has the serious crisis of the bloody footed and weary travellers on the road and then being rejected when they reach their destination, before being hospitably received, but it is still a relatively static situation in dramatic terms.

What aptly characterizes the work as a whole is quoted in the programme, David Cairns’ description cinematic tableaux, because, especially with the second half of the third part, they are objects for contemplation.

My contemplation, in broad terms, of the trajectory of the whole work is this. Musically, and in words, we hear about Herod and his regime before we meet him:

Il rêve, il tremble,
Il voit partout des traîtres, il assemble
Son conseil chaque jour



Next, we hear what is on his mind, because in his dreams, which is the fear of being dethroned, and also the fear in operation, the fear of someone who is actually his own guard. The guard brings in the soothsayers, who not only confirm the basis of what his dreams tell him, but say what the solution is: satisfying Les noirs Esprits, and ordering the massacre of the innocents. Herod has no doubt about following their advice, because his only want is not to lose his power and his throne, and he chillingly merges with them in repeating his ruthlessness:

Malgré les cris, malgré les pleurs
De tant de mères éperdues,
Des rivières de sang vont être répandues.
Je serai sourd à ces douleurs.



The choice to take it is Herod’s, but the specification of the course of action is clearly that of the soothsayers. Does it give the suggestion that wickedness and dark forces underpinned the Jewish regime that the occupying Roman powers permitted to continue? (Is it, thus, part of the anti-Semitic stance with which we are familiar, which wants to characterize the Jews as killers of Christ? Meanwhile, the ancient philosophers who prefigured the Christian faith, and the holy family, are good, God-fearing French…)

Whatever it does, the pitiless refusal to be other than deaf to the suffering of others, and to inflict that suffering in the first place out of sheer self-interest, is a stark contrast with the idyll of the holy family, Mary encouraging Jesus to feed the lambs (one of the Christ’s own symbols), and to look to their needs. She says to him:

Ils sont si doux! laisse, laisse-les prendre!


Just as Herod has counsel from the soothsayers, angels appear and quietly, but with suitable urging, tell Mary and Joseph the danger that Jesus and they are in. (I am familiar from the gospels with this warning coming in a dream, but Berlioz very much made his own thing of this text, and angels appearing is not only more dramatic and also consistent with their presence at the nativity, but also like a dream in how the voices of the unseen choir come to them and us.) There is thus a balance between the unholy advice from the Jewish religious community and the angelic direction to flee to Egypt (with all its connotations for the history of the people of Israel).

Part 2, as we have heard, has the well-known music and chorus with which the genesis of the whole work began, a spirit of leave-taking and of blessing, including the rather hopeful wish (if taken in literal terms):

Et qu’il soit bon père à son tour!


Some of the words of blessing that Berlioz has written are very apt to what will happen when they do get to Saïs, and are turned away in harsh rejection:

Dieu vous bénisse, heureux époux!
Que jamais de l’injustice
Vous ne puissiez sentir les coups!



The part closes quite soon after, with a score of lines for the narrator, describing, in well-chosen language, the pilgrims (as Berlioz calls them) arriving at a heavenly paradise. The choice to stop there and enjoy it, ascribed to Joseph, turns out later to have been wise, and Mary sees the work of God in it for her son:

Voyez ce beau tapis d’herbe
Douce et fleurie, le Seigneur
Pour mon fils au désert l’étendit.



The scene thus has a theology of showing God’s provision, and of Mary’s grateful recognition of it, as someone who has come, at least from the annunciation, to see God’s hand in all things. But there is a time of testing still to come.

Part 3 opens with all the imagined hardships of a long journey against a powerful wind, which appears to have taken its toll on the donkey (another symbol associated with the Christ) already. For now, though, Mary is secure and is an example of fortitude:

Seule Sainte Marie
Marchait calme et sereine, et de son doux enfant
La blonde chevelure et la tête bénie
Semblaient la ranimer, sur son coeur reposant.



For the moment, the infant Jesus seems to be the wellspring of her hope and strength, a symbiosis that, in encouraging her, helps her protect him. But she comes to falter, and both Joseph and she keep stopping, and, when they arrive at Saïs, there is very little life in them, and the city frightens Mary.

They face repeated insult and rejection, but we, of course, know what blessing there would be in receiving this couple and their child. They must, as we are, be reminded of the difficulty of finding shelter in Bethlehem, but the situation seems even worse, as two short and highly poignant utterances of Mary’s make clear. First:

Mes pieds de sang teignent la terre.


Then:

Jésus va mourir ... c'en est fait:
Mon sein tari n’a plus de lait.



When Joseph rebukes those who reject them for the second time, he asks Mary to join him in calling out for shelter. She does so, but she first reminds us of the words that the shepherds said to them:

Hélas! nous aurons à souffrir
Partout l’insulte et l’avanie.



When, however, she feels that she will collapse, their voices are received by welcome, their needs are met by the head of the Ishmaelite household, and he and Joseph even turn to talking business plans to work together in the carpentry business before a trio played on a harp and two flutes soothes them. They have found blessing and a home with people who recognize a kinship.

And so the trio leads into a blessing for them for the night, to which Mary and Joseph are able to respond with grateful thanks and an expression of feeling more calm and less tortured:

Déjà ma peine amère
Semble s’enfuir, s’évanouir.
Plus d’alarmes.



And so the piece is nearly over, except that there is another period of angelic singing, which ends in asking for our response, after the narrator has told how they stay ten years, during which Jesus flourishes and becomes strong in the qualities with which we associate him, wisdom, tenderness and a sweet nature.

The narrator very briefly talks of Jesus then returning to his place of birth, and to the work of mission and sacrifice that he begins there, and then, with the chorus (in this performance, with the voices ending with a most affecting pianissimo), puts this quiet challenge, through himself, to us:

Ô mon âme, pour toi que reste-t-il à faire,
Qu’à briser ton orgueil devant un tel mystère!
Ô mon coeur, emplis-toi du grave et pur amour
Qu'il seul peut nous ouvrir le céleste séjour.



All in all, a piece that, as I have hope that I have shown, balances the elements of the flight into Egypt and provides a perfect piece for Christmas.


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