Sunday, April 08, 2012

Sunday Classics Easter Edition: Berlioz baits-and-switches us on the miracles of "The Childhood of Christ"


King Herod's Dream
KING HEROD: That dream again! Again the child
who is to cast me down.
And not to know what to believe
of this omen which threatens
my glory and my existence!

O the wretchedness of kings!
To reign, yet not to live!
To mete out laws to all,
yet long to follow
the goatherd into the heart of the woods!
Fathomless night
holding the world
deep sunk in sleep,
to my tormented breast
grant peace for one hour,
and let thy shadows touch
my gloom-pressed brow.

O the wretchedness of kings!, etc.

All effort’s useless!
Sleep shuns me;
and my vain complaining
no swifter makes thy course, O endless night.

Roger Soyer (bs-b), King Herod; Orchestre National de l'ORTF, Jean Martinon, cond. Tono/Nonesuch, recorded in the early 1960s

Ernest Blanc (b), King Herod; Paris Conservatory Orchestra, Andre Cluytens, cond. EMI, recorded 1965-66

by Ken

What a prince this King Herod is! Would rather not be a king at all, but just frolic with the goatherds. That is, until the second he learns from his soothsayers that there's a threat to his continued reign, at which point he instantly goes as murderously berserk as it's possible for a human person can get.

We're going to review that story, at least in Berlioz's recounting, in a moment, by listening to the whole of Part I of Berlioz's Childhood of Christ. Meaning that we'll relive the celestial intervention by which the baby Jesus is saved from Herod's Slaughter of the Innocents, as promised in the opening narration -- which by now longtime Sunday Classics readers have heard, oh, a zillion times. (What can I say? It's one of the most amazing two-minute spans of music I know.)

Nobody grasps the human dimension of the saving of an innocent child better than Berlioz, who wrote the text as well as the music of L'Enfance du Christ, but as I noted in Friday's preview ("It's a miracle -- no, TWO miracles! Berlioz imagines the saving of the baby Jesus"), it's only one of two miracles depicted in this amazing "sacred trilogy," and only this first one involves divine intervention -- and even in the case of this one I think it would be inadvisable to stress the divinity overly hard; after all, who created the murderously mad king who creates the need for the miracle?

The second miracle, the saving of the little family unit of Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus (and while Berlioz carefully refers to them as the holy family, and to the grownups as "Saint Mary" and "Saint Joseph," his treatment of them is otherwise strictly as the struggling family of a precious newborn) is entirely human, though again, it's made necessary by the substantial inhumanity of all the humans who turn a deaf ear to the desperate pleas of the near-death strangers.

I was wrong Friday to say that we had never heard this summing-up Epilogue (I found the post!). Nevertheless, for now we're going to jump straight to the end of L'Enfance.

BERLIOZ: L'Enfance du Christ (The Childhood of Christ):

The family of the baby Jesus, after wandering in the Sinai desert for three days, arrived in the Egyptian city of Saïs on the brink of death from thirst, hunger, and exposure. At the last possible moment they were taken in from the street without hesitation by an Ishmaelite family (whose father turned out to be, like Joseph, a carpenter), which dropped everything to tend first to the physical and then to the spiritual needs of their unexpected guests. In this Epilogue, the Narrator -- soon joined by a Mystical Chorus -- finishes the story.

NARRATOR: It was thus that by an infidel
the Savior was saved.
For ten years Mary, and Joseph with her,
saw flourish in him sublime gentleness,
infinite tenderness
united with wisdom.
Then at last, returned
to the place where he first saw the day,
he wished to accomplish the divine sacrifice
that redeemed the human race
from eternal punishment,
and made clear for it the way of salvation.
O my soul, what does it remain for you to do
but to break your pride before such a mystery?
MYSTICAL CHORUS: O my soul, what does it remain for you to do
but to break your pride before such a mystery?
NARRATOR and CHORUS: O my soul!
O my heart, fill yourself, fill yourself with that serious and pure love
that alone can open to us the celestial sojourn.
Amen! Amen!

Cesare Valletti (t), Narrator; New England Conservatory Chorus, Boston Symphony Orchestra, Charles Munch, cond. RCA/BMG, recorded 1956

Michel Sénéchal, tenor; French Radio-Television Chorus, Orchestre des Concerts Colonne, Pierre Dervaux, cond. Véga/Adès, recorded 1959

Anthony Rolfe Johnson (t), Narrator; chorus directed by John Alldis, English Chamber Orchestra, Philip Ledger, cond. ASV, recorded 1986



12/25/2008: For Christmas Day, our musical offering is Berlioz' always-unexpected "Childhood of Christ"
Includes a Munch/Boston Symphony video performance of the "Farewell of the Shepherds to the Holy Family" from Part II

12/24/2009: "Christmas Eve edition: A Christmas miracle, courtesy of Hector Berlioz"
Opening Narration sung by Jean-Luc Viala, Cesare Valletti, and Anthony Rolfe Johnson; Opening Narration plus Scene 1 (with Michel Sénéchal et al., conducted by Pierre Dervaux)
Part II: Overture and Farewell of the Shepherds; Repose of the Holy Family; Part III: Arrival in Saïs narration and Epilogue (all conducted by Jean-Claude Casadesus, Charles Munch, Philip Ledger, and Pierre Dervaux)

12/25/2010, "Christmas Eve edition: In Berlioz's telling, unto us a child is saved
Opening Narration (sung by Giraudeau and Nicolai Gedda
Part I: Scenes 1 and Scene 2 (Herod's aria) (Cluytens-EMI)
Opening Narration through Herod's aria (sung by Roger Soyer, conducted by Jean Martinon)
Scenes 5 and 6 (The Stable in Bethlehem) (Cluytens-EMI)
Plus Part II, Overture and Farewell of the Shepherds; Repose of the Holy Family. Part III: The Arrival in Saïs narration

3/2/12: from Flute and Harp Week
The trio for two flutes and harp played by the children of the Ishmaelite family in Part III (three performances)

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