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Mystical chorus

DAVID ARDITTI at a different performance of
'L'Enfance du Christ'


L'Enfance du Christ, or, in English, The Childhood of Christ, is not Beriloz's best-known work. Neither is it one of his his best. Apart from the chorus known as 'The Shepherd's Farewell', the music is not very often heard. However, it is the two hundredth anniversary of Berlioz's birth this month, and his work has been prominent in concerts and on the radio. Berlioz's popularity just now is high: his Requiem was recently given in St Paul's Cathedral in London in a concert which could have been sold twice over. The Elysian Singers and the Kensington Chamber Orchestra, small, enterprising groups based in West London, commendably decided to present this other large-scale work to a disappointingly not over-full St Peter's Church in Notting Hill, London, UK, on Saturday 13 December 2003. For this we must be grateful to their enthusiastic conductor, Sam Laughton, who was the driving and main organisational force behind this substantial endeavour.

It is understandable that The Childhood should not be a favourite with choral societies, as it actually does not give the chorus much to do: most of the interest lies in the solo and orchestral parts, and the choruses are mostly simple and short. Berlioz called it a 'Sacred Trilogy', and the work is in a style between that of opera and the type of orchestral-vocal scena Berlioz experimented with in works such as Cleopatra. It lacks both the grandeur of the Requiem and the dramatic tension of The Trojans, its style being narrative (to the extent of having a narrator, to whom much material is assigned) and intimate, or even homely.

The composer himself thought very highly of this work, which was in his lifetime performed several times to great acclaim. On one occasion, in Germany in 1863, it was given by the amazing number of five hundred singers, contradicting the widely-stated myth that Berlioz and his works fell into sad obscurity during the last years of his life. Indeed, the popularity of The Childhood in its day seems slightly surprising now. Perhaps it tapped into a vein of religious fervour that is rare today. We hear only the notes Berlioz composed.

In fact Berlioz also wrote the words for this work. On this occasion they were given in English translation, which added to the immediacy of the experience (for an English audience). The ambience of St Peter's Church, a beautiful neo-classical structure, suited the work well. The church boasts, at the back of the chancel, a fine mosaic based on Leonardo's Last Supper -- a religiously appropriate backdrop for the drama of the infancy of Christ, with mention, in the narrator's final music, of His final sacrifice.

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Copyright © 18 December 2003 David Arditti, London UK


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