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.