The Hector Berlioz Website

Berlioz Music Scores

L’Enfance du Christ: Orchestral and instrumental excerpts (H 130)

This page is also available in French

I. Nocturnal March (from Part I)
II. Dance of the Sooth-Sayers (from Part I)
III. Overture to La Fuite en Egypte (from Part II)
IV. Orchestral introduction to Le Repos de la Sainte Famille (from Part II)
V. Trio for 2 flutes and harp (from Part III)

    See also Berlioz Libretti

    Unlike Berlioz’s other major works, L’Enfance du Christ was not conceived from the start as one work, but was begun almost by accident and grew piecemeal over a period of time. Part II, La Fuite en Égypte (see H 128), was the first to be written in 1850, in circumstances related by Berlioz in Les Grotesques de la musique (in the section entitled Correspondance philosophique. Lettre adressée à M. Ella, directeur de l’Union musicale de Londres, au sujet de La fuite en Égypte, fragments d’un mystère en style ancien [Philosophical Correspondence. Letter addressed to M. Ella, director of the Musical Union of London, concerning La fuite en Égypte, fragments of a mystery in antique style]). Part III, L’Arrivée à Saïs, was added in late 1853 and early 1854, with Part I, Le Songe d’Hérode being added last in 1854. It was the success of one of the movements from Part II, The Holy Family at rest, in performances in 1853, which prompted Berlioz to enlarge and complete the original design, as he writes in a letter to his sister Adèle from Leipzig on 30 November 1853 (Correspondance Générale no. 1657):

[…] I heard for the first time this morning a complete performance of my Mystery on the Flight to Egypt, from which the piece The Holy Family at rest scored such a success in London and in every city in Germany that I have just visited. It is really good, it is innocent and touching (do not laugh), in the style of the illuminations of old missals. Everyone says that I have caught to perfection the right colour for this Biblical Legend, and I am being urged to continue this work by doing now The Holy Family in Egypt. I would be happy to do this, because the subject enchants me, when I have found the documents I lack on Jesus’ stay in Egypt; I am writing the words as well as the music. If I can bring this off, here is a score that is ideal for dedication to my nieces; this reason alone would move me to write it, since they are pleased to see their name on one of my works. […]

    Part I of the work was indeed dedicated eventually to the composer’s nieces Joséphine and Nanci.

    The work was first performed complete in December 1854 in Paris (Salle Herz) and had an immediate success. This Berlioz received with mixed feelings – the success of L’Enfance du Christ was, he felt, an insult to his previous works (notably La Damnation de Faust, the failure of which in Paris in 1846 hurt Berlioz deeply). ‘Many thought they could detect in this work [l’Enfance du Christ] a complete change in my style and manner of writing. But this view is completely without foundation. The subject naturally called for music of a naïve and gentle kind … I would have written l’Enfance du Christ in exactly the same way twenty years ago’ (Memoirs, Post-Scriptum of 1856). Berlioz performed the work a number of times in the following years, in France and abroad – one notable performance was in Strasbourg in June 1863, with unusually large forces and before an audience of some 8000.

    In composing L’Enfance du Christ Berlioz was to some extent drawing on past memories – notably what he describes in his Memoirs (chapter 1) as his ‘first musical impression’ when he took his first communion as a boy at La Côte Saint André, and his experiences as a young admirer of his teacher Lesueur when he was introduced by him to his numerous oratorios on biblical subjects. He praises in the Memoirs (chapter 6) their ‘antique colouring’, while criticising ‘the poverty of [Lesueur’s] musical fabric, his obstinate imitation of the old Italian dramatic style [...], and the childish weakness of his instrumental writing’.

    I. Nocturnal March. Berlioz’ works include numerous marches, but among them the Nocturnal March which forms Scene I of the work is among the most original. Delicately scored for a small orchestra, it starts and ends ppp, and like the rest of l’Enfance du Christ works by suggestion and understatement. The setting is a street in Jerusalem at night; the march depicts the approach and departure of a patrol of Roman soldiers, whose brief conversation anticipates the duet of the two soldiers in Act V of Les Troyens. The music somehow conveys many different levels of meaning simultaneously: a march, a night scene in the Mediterranean, a setting in time many centuries ago, and the suggestion of a great but undefined event about to happen, which evokes both hope and apprehension. It thus forms a perfect setting for the scenes which follow, Herod’s aria, his meeting with the sooth-sayers, and his decision to carry out the massacre of all newly born children.
    Note: the parts of Polydorus and the centurion have been deliberately silenced, since the words cannot be reproduced in playback. Normal playback of the piece resumes when the orchestra enters again at the close of the passage of recitative.

    II. Dance of the Sooth-Sayers. This short piece, which does not have a title in Berlioz’s score, is taken from the scene between Herod and the Jewish sooth-sayers in Part I of the work (Herod’s Dream). In answer to Herod’s enquiry about a dream that has been troubling him, the sooth-sayers ‘execute cabalistic movements and carry out the exorcism’.  Among Berlioz’s compositions of a ‘satanic’ character this is one of his most original. The tonality fluctuates constantly with disquieting effect, and the metre alternates between triple and quadruple time without ever being able to make up its mind. This piece may conceivably carry echoes of the first Dance of Hate in Gluck’s Armide, as well as reminiscences from the scene in the Wolf’s Glen at the end of Act II of Weber’s Der Freischütz.

    III. Overture to La Fuite en Égypte. The short overture to Part II is scored for a very modest orchestra, like most of the rest of the work, and is very subdued in tone. It will be noted that the main theme of this overture is derived from the Nocturnal March in Part I (compare bars 3-4, 12, 22 etc. of the March), as are other passages in the work.

    IV. Orchestral introduction to Le Repos de la Sainte Famille. This short orchestral passage introduces the narrator’s account of the Holy Family’s resting on their flight from Palestine to Egypt (tenor solo), which forms the 3rd movement of the central part of L’Enfance du Christ.

    V. Trio for 2 flutes and harp. This piece comes from Part III Scene II of the work. The Ishmaelite father has welcomed Joseph and Mary into his house and asks his children to perform the piece to soothe his guests. It is one of the very few pieces of instrumental music written by Berlioz. It will be noted that Berlioz wrote the piece for two flutes – he had a marked aversion for flowery flute solos which were in great vogue at the time.

    I. Nocturnal March (duration 7'50")
    — Score in large format
    (file created on 24.11.2000)

    II. Dance of the Sooth-Sayers (duration 1'22")
    — Score in large format
    (file created on 3.05.2000; revised 29.11.2001)

    III. Overture to La Fuite en Egypte (duration 5'14")
    — Score in large format
    (file created on 31.01.2000; revised 29.11.2001)

    IV. Orchestral introduction to Le Repos de la Sainte Famille (duration 2'32")
    — Score in large format
    (file created on 31.01.2000; revised 29.11.2001)

    V. Trio for 2 flutes and harp (duration 6'18")
    — Score in large format
    (file created on 1.01.2000; revised 4.09.2001)

© Michel Austin for all scores and text on this page.

Back to Berlioz Music Scores