Wednesday 16 October 2019

Berlioz's masterpiece the most enchanting Christmas tune

Hector Berlioz was one of the French stars of the Romantic movement, declared a "genius" by no less a judge than the great Italian virtuoso Paganini. For the Belgian composer Cesar Franck, everything by Berlioz was a masterpiece.

But the Frenchman's brilliance was not always so readily recognised. He suffered somewhat as a prophet in his own land. Maybe Paris in the 1800s wasn't ready for the innovation in his music, the experiments with tone and form.

Fed up, he decided he'd get his own back. He was putting together a programme for a Christmas concert when he remembered a little piece he'd doodled for a pal at a party. This had been a play on earlier music. He'd said at the time it was something from a Pierre Ducre, a 17th-Century composer that nobody had ever heard of -- because Berlioz had made him up!

He turned this tune by "Ducre" into 'The Shepherds' Farewell', and when the Paris Philharmonic Society, conducted by Berlioz himself, sang it in November 1850, the reception was wholly positive. The audience just loved the purity of the music, its simple lines, its delicious harmonies.

You can just imagine Berlioz's wry smile as he took the applause. They'd have hated it if my name had been on it, he must have thought.

He didn't own up for another couple of years. By now, this musical tale based on the Nativity had an overture and an epilogue. It was entitled 'The Flight into Egypt', and at its first performance, at the Leipzig Gewandhaus at Christmas 1853, it was subtitled "Fragments of a Mystery in the ancient style, attributed to Pierre Ducre, a fictitious choirmaster, and composed by Hector Berlioz".

A year later, the music had its Parisian premiere as the centrepiece of Berlioz's sacred trilogy, the three-part oratorio 'L'Enfance du Christ' ('The Childhood of Christ').

Just as the original 'Shepherds' Farewell' had gone down a treat, so, too, did its latest incarnation, rather to the annoyance of the by now 50-something composer.

The critics saw a change in the radical's style and manner, back to basics so to speak. Berlioz maintained it was simply a case of form -- "a gentle and simple style of music", as he put it -- fitting subject matter, and he'd have been better off if he'd written it while his musical personality was still evolving, 20 years before.

'L'Enfance du Christ' -- telling the story of the flight to Egypt of Mary and Joseph and their infant son -- is most certainly a masterpiece. And 'The Shepherds' Farewell' -- Il s'en va loin de la terre (He's going far from the country where in the stable he first saw the light) -- is among the most enchanting of Christmas tunes.

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ Lyric fm from 9.30 each Saturday morning

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