Finding Faith in the Manger: Berlioz’s “Infancy of Christ”

"Much later in life, near the age of fifty, Berlioz returned, at least in imagination, to his childhood faith in the form of what he called his sacred trilogy, L’Enfance du Christ. Berlioz first wrote the central portion of the work, the “Shepherd’s Farewell to the Holy Family” as it flees to Egypt. Because of its rustic, archaic charm, Berlioz enjoyed passing it off on its first presentation as the work of an obscure seventeenth-century master, Pierre Ducre, a name Berlioz made up. It took him three years to complete the composition, to which he added a first part dealing with Herod’s dream and a third section portraying the Holy Family’s arrival in Egypt. Conceived “in the manner of the old illuminated missals,” L’Enfance du Christ is, as Berlioz described it, “innocent and sweet.”

Berlioz explained how the defining characteristic of his style applied to L’Enfance du Christ: “When I say passionate expression, I mean an expression determined on enforcing the inner meaning of its subject, even when that subject is the contrary of passion, and when the feeling to be expressed is gentle and tender, or even profoundly calm. This is the sort of expression that has been discovered in L’Enfance du Christ.” Throughout, Berlioz achieves a wonderful sense of dramatic truth—from Herod’s tortured dreams and bloody desperation, the angels’ warning to Mary and Joseph, their moment of respite in the desert, to the pathos of the Holy Family’s door-to-door search for refuge in Egypt, and the final welcoming celebration in the house of the Ishmaelites."