Hector Berlioz: L'adieu des bergers (The Shepherd's Farewell)

So for our first example this Christmas season we're exploring a piece by a French Romantic composer that doesn't necessarily center around the Christmastime canon, but certainly maintains a strong foothold in the Christmas story and the ensuing days of Christ's life following his birth in Bethlehem.  Hector Berlioz (1803-1869) was a composer that shaped and pushed the boundaries of western art music both within his lifetime and the years beyond.  He took a peculiar path toward musical stardom, one that ran afoul of his own parent's wishes for him to become a doctor.  He would travel to Paris to attend medical school, but by 1824 he would drop out and begin to pursue a musical career at the Paris Conservatory.

Berlioz did not fit the mold of the "child prodigy" musicians like Mozart and Beethoven who began composing shortly after birth. He never was classically trained in piano, instead learning guitar, flute and the "flageolet" which is kinda like those recorders you play in elementary school, but not nearly as obnoxious sounding.

It's getting a little meta in here.
Berlioz would sneak into the conservatory library prior to his enrollment to copy the scores of composers he admired, and was actually thrown out by the music director at the time, Italian composer, Luigi Cherubini, with which he would maintain a contentious, but musically fruitful relationship.

You see, Berlioz had a problem.  Music in France at this time was still pretty conservative with regard to the expansion of Romanticism and paradoxically Berlioz was a total Romantic, in terms of music and in terms of his personality.  He was a big reader of the Roman poet, Virgil, and Shakespeare and he had a deep appreciation for the "chase" of passion, as evidenced in his pursuit of the affectations of a certain actress, Harriet Smithson.  Following his attending one of her performances in a traveling English theatre company he began sending her love notes incessantly which basically freaked her the hell out.

Despite these initial hardships, they would eventually get married and would've lived happily ever after if it weren't for the fact that Harriet only spoke English and Berlioz French, and that they both were fairly hot-tempered, opinionated, and aggressive.  Berlioz would support Harriet for the rest of her life, having married her after her fame as an actress had already begun to fade.  

Berlioz's music was much more technically challenging than that of his French contemporaries and almost universally hated by the Paris critics who were used to the refined (read: boring) music that was still popular despite that significant advancements Beethoven was pushing over in Germany. This would remain a point of contention in the advancement of Berlioz's career throughout his entire life.  In an effort to garner attention (read: earn a living wage and not starve to death in the street) Berlioz would end up traveling around Europe, where he found work as a music critic himself and as a pretty accomplished conductor.  He had a pretty unrestrained distaste for many of the conductors of his music as the emphasis on melody and expanded instrumentation did not lend itself to the more simplistic, post-Classical conducting style.  

Berlioz found a great appreciation abroad, touring extensively in Russia, Austria, Belgium, Germany, and England, but found a cold reception in France, causing him to remark that "France is becoming more and more philistine towards music, and the more I see of foreign lands the less I love my own. Art, in France, is dead; so I must go where it is still to be found."  Despite the open hostility in the Parisan media, in 1850 he was appointed head librarian to the Paris Conservatory. This was his first and only steady gig, and offered him some freedom from the incessant cycle of composing and performing which frequently resulted in financial distress.  During this time, he composed our example for today, L'adieu des bergers or The Shepherd's Farewell.  

Berlioz was not outwardly religious, but held an appreciation for the beauty of the religious music he had been exposed to in childhood.  This piece was originally conceived as an organ work for his buddy, Joseph-Louis Duc, and Berlioz eventually expanded it into a choral work, writing the text based on Matthew 2:13, which described Mary and Joseph escaping to Egypt in order to prevent the death of the newborn baby Jesus from King Herod's decree that all male infants be killed within Bethlehem city limits.  

Sales of George R.R. Martin's "The Bible for Children" have been muted
The text in the work is written from the perspective of the shepherds who were witness to the first Christmas as they bid the young family speedy and safe deliverance from the cruel fate that remained for them in Bethlehem.  Berlioz would eventually expand upon the work, crafting it into a full oratorio known as "L'enfance du Christ" fleshing out the story more to include Herod's decree, their journey along "the way of the sea" (a Roman coastal road connecting Palestine and Egypt), and Christ's early childhood.  An oratorio is a large choral work which follows a similar format of an opera, but without the dramatic staging and scenery.  The orchestra is typically standard-sized as opposed to the reduced size pit orchestras, and all performers remain on stage.  Soloists typically sit in the front and stand when performing.  

In the case of The Shepherd's Farewell, Berlioz decided to have a bit of fun at the expense of the Parisian know-it-all's.  He premiered the work under false pretenses, claiming to have rediscovered it from the writings of some 17th-century composer named Ducré (who did not exist).  Correctly suspecting that many of his antagonists would ordinarily just shitpost (to use the parlance of our time) all over his work without actually critiquing it, he thought he'd introduce it in this way to get an objective appraisal of his work.  

The reviews for the work of the cherished, but fictional, Ducré garnered almost universal praise in the papers with some going so far as to say that Berlioz himself could learn much from the old master. Berlioz responded thusly:

Once the dust settled, the critics attempted to save face by observing that the style of this new work was much calmer than the raucous mayhem of Berlioz's previous works to which Berlioz explained: 
In that work many people imagined they could detect a radical change in my style and manner. This opinion is entirely without foundation. The subject naturally lent itself to a gentle and simple style of music, and for that reason alone was more in accordance with their taste and intelligence. Time would probably have developed these qualities, but I should have written L'enfance du Christ in the same manner twenty years ago.
If you read carefully between the lines, you can see a thinly veiled barb about the critics' taste and simple music.  Berlioz was as much a master of literary skill as he was of music, and a lesser known fact remains that he was a rather prolific author, both of musical critiques and scholarly texts, perhaps most popular being his "Treatise on Instrumentation."  In this work, Berlioz outlines his master plan for the orchestra, highlighting the usage of the various instruments in roles that would be used to expand upon the Classical era instrumentation and create an intensely formidable ensemble, the likes of which Wagner and Mahler would absorb into their own epics.  Beethoven may have introduced us to the melody as a tool, but it was Berlioz who truly weaponized it.

One of my favorite enduring musical quotes comes from his treatise.  I first became aware of it from a copy of it adorned the door of my first trombone teacher, when I was but a mere trombone tadpole.

And to conclude today I will now share it with you:
The trombone is, in my view, the real leader among the class of wind instruments I have described as epic. It possesses to the highest degree nobility and grandeur. It commands all the accents, grave or powerful, of high musical poetry, from imposing and calm religious tones to the frenzied clamour of an orgy. 
The composer may at will make it sing a chorus of priests, threaten, utter a subdued lament, whisper a funeral dirge, raise a hymn of glory, break out in dreadful cries, or sound its formidable call for the awakening of the dead or the death of the living. 

See you next Friday.




Merry Christmas once again from Listening Friday!

Well, we made it another year folks.  And with millions of pounds of rotten, squishy Jack-o-Lanterns clogging our landfills and garbage disposal's you know the smell of Christmas is in the air.

In the olden days, before Siri and calendars, ancient peoples of Earth would determine it was Christmas time by noticing the foliage changing, the air growing crisper, or the local adult-contemporary music station beginning to play Bing Crosby on repeat.  Fortunately in these enlightened times we don't need to depend on such simplistic rituals to observe the holidays.  Today, thanks to Al Gore and Leon Trotsky collaborating to bring us the wonderful interconnection of devices known simply as "the internet", we can remain aware of all things temporal with the simple click of a computer mouse.



This was brought to you by the same people who keep tabs on Fish at www.abevigoda.com

What a time to be alive!
In all seriousness though, the surest sign of the season for most of us remains the changing of Muzak programs in the supermarkets and K-Marts of the world to reflect the mentality that we are now counting down the days remaining to buy stuff we can't afford for people we often only see during this magical time of year when it is considered socially appropriate to both overeat fervently and drink one's own weight in eggnog. But I digress.  One of my favorite things about the holiday season is the music.  There are of course the classics, which we will attempt to visit over the next remaining Friday's before Christmas.  These are the hardened, battle-worn titans of the Christmastime aural field.  Names like Andy Williams, Celine Dion, and the Beach Boys carry a lot of water this time of year.  

But the lesser-known heroes of this day are of course the smooth-jazz remixes of those holiday favorites. Crafted meticulously, like the "radio-version" pop remixes of Disney melodies that inexplicably play following the credits of any given full-length feature animated film. These tunes possess the quality of being almost entirely not unlike an album that you would purchase as a Christmas gift for a friend that is more than an acquaintance, but not well-liked enough to take a long car trip with.  This is the sort of music the office suck-up plays at the company Christmas party from a Spotify playlist on his work computer to demonstrate his "sophisticated taste".  Not outrightly offensive, but majestically inappropriate in the fact that no one feels comfortable calling out the fact that it's awful in light of the fact that it's Christmas and drunkenly punching your fist through your co-worker's stereo is precisely the sort of behavior that earns one a lump of coal in their stocking.

So, in true Listening Friday fashion I will now present the farcical holiday kickoff, celebrating the 3rd year we've done this with a small, but nevertheless important announcement.  Any of you who have read this blog semi-regularly will have by now noticed that my consistency in bringing you a new piece of music on Friday's has been severely lacking in recent weeks (or months).  I offer no excuses, but I can explain that I have been finding it increasingly difficult to put myself in proper frame of mind to research and craft these entries.  It is a painstaking process I use, despite what may seem like nonsensical gibberish, I try to pride myself on getting my facts straight and presenting a coherent and useful snippet of prose that may occasionally cause you to snort milk out of your nose, which of course is fine and well until you come to the realization that you were drinking iced tea.  

So, the announcement.  I plan on writing entries leading up to Christmas (which just so happens to conveniently be a Friday this year) and then I will officially step back from writing for a yet to be determined interval.  This of course is contrary to the unofficial stepping back I've already been doing, the key difference being that this hiatus has now been heralded with the so-named announcement.

I have had this nagging feeling over the past few months that I have run into a quagmire of sorts in the structure and the content of the blog and while I know that many of you who will read this do appreciate what I write (and for that I am eternally grateful, beyond your capacity to fully realize), it has not necessarily garnered the readership where I feel it merits my full attention.  However, that is far from the primary reason I am choosing to go on break.  I also refuse to put out an inferior product, and for personal reasons I have not felt my normal level of motivation in generating content that I once found much easier.  Call it indigestion, solar flares, crippling depression, or lactose sensitivity, but writer's block has made this a bit too challenging for now.  I don't plan to permanently abandon this project, but I will be taking an indeterminate leave from it.  

But fear not!  Because for today and then the next five weeks we're counting down the Listening Fridays until Christmas!  And as is our custom, the first entry will continue to be a five-pack of sorts, and as teased in the beginning of this entry we will be exploring the most influential and dominating smooth-jazz renditions that ruined holiday classics from our respective childhoods.  

#5- Santa Claus is Coming to Town - John Frederick Coots and Haven Gillespie, arr. Oli Silk

Wikipedia defines "smooth jazz" as, "a genre of music that grew out of jazz and is influenced by rhythm and blues, funk, rock and roll, and pop music styles..."

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy defines "smooth jazz" as, "the third most heinous weapon of mass destruction ever conceived and tragically the most significant contribution the ape descendants of Earth have ever given the galaxy at large."

A fusion of jazz and hip-hop, smooth jazz takes two innocuous genres and, by cleverly putting them together inside a mixing console, creates something that uniquely sounds at home in both your allergist's waiting room as well as a pornographic film.  Our first example comes from artist, Oli Silk, which is unfortunately his actual name.  

Yeah, girl. It's a Roland.
The video is even more exciting because for a majority of the four minutes, nineteen second length you will be staring vacuously at two stuffed bears dressed like Mr. and Mrs. Claus as they kiss beneath an unseen, but ubiquitous bunch of mistletoe.  You may not survive this ordeal.

#4- Smooth Jazz Christmas Overture - Various, arr. Dave Koz and Friends

I think the most surprising thing about this track is that Dave Koz has friends.  The only thing more repulsive than creating smooth jazz is being the author of a website that writes about smooth jazz. This powerhouse chart covers a lot of territory in it's 8+ minute run time, starting with a silky rendition of Dean Martin's winter classic "Let it Go", it concludes with a nod to fellow smooth jazzer, Oli Silk with a Gospel-esque concoction of "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" that will leave you wondering if the federal government should institute a background check and three day waiting period for drum machines and synthesizers.

This overture covers all bases and features far too many classics to name.  Incidentally, those of you with weaker constitutions and pain tolerances may wish to skip to the next entry because OSHA's recommended daily exposure level to smooth jazz will be exceeded somewhere in between "What Child is This?" and "Jingle Bells".  Personal protective equipment may prove ineffective in which case you may just want to throw your computer directly into the garbage at this time.

#3- This Christmas - Donny Hathaway, arr. Boney James (with Dee Harvey)

"This Christmas" was originally written by Donny Hathaway in 1970 to limited acclaim, but would rise to become "...the premiere holiday song written by an African American" according to jazz guitarist/bassist Phil Upchurch.  The tune was discovered again, some 12 years following Hathaway's death in 1979 and revived through many covers by powerhouse artists like Patti LaBelle, The Temptations, Gladys Knight and the Pips, and of course Boney James.

Go, go gadget OCTAVE KEY
At this point I feel it almost necessary to go full disclosure.  My brother played saxophone in his youth and I played trombone.  That's like a bear living with a much more effeminate, but altogether similarly disagreeable wolverine and as such my own personal bias towards Adolphe Sax and his bastardized collection of plumbing scraps is perhaps slightly coming to the surface of this entry- much in the same way a speeding garbage truck crashes through a brick wall.  I totally respect the work and effort these artists put into their craft and as a musician, I understand the heart-wrenching work it takes to get to the point where you can not only create a marketable album of music, but maintain the status of selling enough of it to make sense to create more of this music.  That much is indisputable.

However, as an American citizen with a computer, I would be failing my civic duty as a blogger should I not lay waste to the genre with unfounded derision and scathing reviews. So on the off-chance that any of these artists actually happen upon this website in a litigious mood I offer this olive branch-

Anyway, heeeeeeeeeere's Boney!

#2- White Christmas - Irving Berlin, performed by Jim Carrey

In the late days of the Cold War the United States was faced with the prospect of total annihilation of the planet through combined nuclear holocaust with the USSR.  As a means of staving off the end of days, the CIA worked with DARPA scientists and Hollywood producers to create cyborg actors that would easily win over the hearts and minds of the American citizenry with their charm on the big screen, but could also be completely controlled by government actors who fed information into their computerized brains.  The top-secret project created two automatons, the second of which would reach the White House as commander-in-chief and successfully bring an end to hostilities.

And his name is RONALD REAGAN!!!!
However, their first prototype proved somewhat unstable and prone to random outbursts of bits and pieces of its programming which consisted of several hundred algorithms designed to predict exactly what the prototypical potato-farmer in Peoria, IL would find funny enough to spit-take on his Ovaltine.  That of course was Jim Carrey.

Once the wall fell, the CIA program funding dried up and the scientists were ordered to terminate the unused Jim Carrey-bot, however they had grown extremely fond of him and the talking anus bit and devised a sinister plan to release him into the wild thus preventing the government agents from disassembling him in their secret lab. They reasoned, correctly, that if the American public were to be made aware of him, they too would fall in love with his crazy antics thus proving his worth to national security and defense as an American treasure.  They called in a favor to Ron Howard, and thus "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" was born.

Our example from Mr. Carrey's extensive repertoire comes from a brief stint on the Tonight Show where he regales us with the Irving Berlin classic, "White Christmas".  Enjoy.

#1- Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas - Hugh Martin, Ralph Blaine, perf. Kenny G

The original Gerber baby of Smooth Jazz himself, Kenny G was actually born on the distant planet Krypton and only immigrated to Earth after his world was doomed to destruction by a supernova. His parents, Marlon Brando and Sally Struthers, elected to save their only son by placing him in what was apparently the only available spaceship on the planet, which seems like a fairly large oversight for an advanced civilization capable of interstellar travel, but who are we simple monkeys to judge?

Anyway, they placed baby Kenny into the rocket and left him with a single soprano saxophone to remind him of his home-world.  Incidentally, as a result of intense gamma ray radiation near the equator of Krypton, all seagulls had mutated to produce a call that sounded suspiciously like George Michaels playing "Careless Whisper".  Of course, the Kryptonians had no way of knowing who George Michaels was nor why anyone would carelessly whisper in the first place and so they assumed that all sea gulls in all the deepest regions of space sang sultry love ballads about forbidden love.

It's just their cross to bear.
After winning a lawsuit against Barbara Streisand for intellectual property infringement of his trademark hairstyle, Kenny G went on to record 387 singles comprised entirely of the "Amen Break" and an ostrich playing the harmonica.  After winning more Grammy's than the Beatles, Oasis, and Jesus combined, he decided to fulfill his destiny and create the ultimate Christmas album.

Using a metaphysical time machine, he created a rift in space-time that allowed him to re-record the musical scores to every single Christmas movie every made, but the catch was they all would sound exactly like "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas".  As a result of the rift, an elderly Jimmy Stewart materializes in the middle of the theatre during the recording process only to be discovered by an upper-middle-class American family who then shower him with presents and adoration, reminding us that the real magic of Christmas is in responsible banking with your local credit union.

So that about does it for our Christmas collection this go around.  We'll have a more sobering example next week, with hopefully just as much fun.  

See you next Friday.