On December 15, the Orchester National de France will fervently celebrate theChristmas Oratorio of Bach. A nugget among the masterpieces linked to the Nativity.
If the mere mention of the month of December already makes some people salivate, it’s because the time has come to listen to the musical anthology that surrounds the Nativity celebrations. Sound oboe, sound bagpipes, December 25 is within sled reach! It is true that in this game the impatient will not need to wait for Santa Claus to see that the hood is richly stocked. For centuries, composers have taken the place of angels to celebrate the advent of the “divine child”, enriching a universal score with their unique voice.
When the Gospel narrative has long served as the basis for works of the mind, music is, in fact, not to be outdone. Obviously, we should not be surprised, since singing has been considered since the Middle Ages as capable of expressing what words alone could not convey. A quality which Saint Augustine and the Fathers of the Church were not long in making the most of, finding in vocal practice a powerful helper of faith.
It is therefore not surprising that the story of Christmas, as an essential event in the liturgical calendar, invites itself to the work table of the musicians. Following in the footsteps of Heinrich Schütz, author of a Nativity story in the middle of the 17th century, Johann Sebastian Bach discharged, with theChristmas Oratorio, a page that is both monumental and sumptuous. The result of six cantatas adapted from works or fragments of earlier works, this musical fresco highlights the architectural qualities of the cantor of Leipzig in his ability to build a coherent whole, whether the harmonious and skilful ratio of tonalities or the choice of stamps serve constantly.
Ten years have not passed that a second oratorio sees the light of day across the Channel under the pen of Georg Friedrich Handel. Having become a “classic” of Advent, we almost forget that it was originally written for Easter! It is true that the whole, carried at the same time by a dramatic breath, a skilful balance of the components and an ideal which, by the composer’s own admission, aimed more to elevate than to entertain, easily adapts to this slight sprain to the schedule. The British public has not been mistaken: for almost three hundred years now, it has risen from the first notes of theHallelujahtaking up on his own the gesture of King George II, moved by a work whose success has never wavered since.
It would therefore be easy to understand why Berlioz’s hand began to tremble when sketching his Childhood of Christ. This would be to forget, however, that the clothes in which the Dauphinois intended to slip into turned out to be expressly cut for him. Through this “sacred trilogy” intended for the concert, the artist is in fact working to cultivate two aspects that are particularly representative of his art, marked at the same time by religious music and drama. The resulting success is equal to the perilous path he has embarked on. And it is easy to imagine the satisfaction of Berlioz, to whom the Parisian public gave back, by its hearty applause, what belonged to it. If the musician had initially amused himself, like a facetious elf, attributing his composition to another, the dazzling merit finally went to him, once the critics had been duped and the public won over. A true Christmas “miracle”…
Unfortunately, there are darker years when one will seek in vain the light of this night of the Nativity, to which Corelli in his time dedicated one of his most famous concertos. The war has passed through there once again, sounding the death knell for the hopes of yesteryear and scratching the fir tree, symbol of a nature indifferent to the bites of winter. In the Christmas of children who no longer have a home of Claude Debussy, the time of the light waltz of Seasons of Tchaikovsky is over, like the joy that accompanied the decoration of the tree at the raising of the curtain of Nutcracker. The shadow of a second murderous conflict also hangs over Benjamin Britten when he writes A Ceremony of Carols on the boat that brings him back from exile in 1942. We are even surprised to find the themes of innocence and purity, so dear to the composer, in this cycle of songs composed on pre-existing texts.
Forming a fruitful melting pot where the popular and the scholarly mingle, the musical evocation of the Nativity is not reluctant to mix genres. Whether it is music dedicated to worship like the Mass of Midnight for Christmas by Marc Antoine Charpentier, which employs secular melodies, or a score intended for concerts such as theArlesian by Bizet, whose theme of Prelude is a popular Christmas carol of Provençal origin, the present is combined with the past. Liszt will adopt the recipe in turn for his Christmas treeat the foot of which we discover twelve pieces for piano which are based again in part on music already written.
As for the “Christmas spirit” that is so often evoked, it takes on a particular “coloration” in music that we will find abundantly in the features of the pastoral, whose bucolic and rural character will never cease to inspire musicians. . Present with Bach, Handel and Berlioz, it still invites itself into theChristmas Oratorio by Camille Saint-Saëns as well as by César Franck or André Jolivet.
The fact remains that beyond the constants inherent in the representation of a founding myth, it is above all through the “gaze” cast on the Child Jesus – from which Olivier Messiaen will draw an important collection of pieces for piano – that these works touch us, as in their desire to allow us to “see eternity through the window of time”. If there is, according to the Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara, “good music” without this ephemeral vision, let’s recognize that Santa’s costume doesn’t matter! No offense to Santa Claus…
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Christmas music: the icing on the log!
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