Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

That all-transforming glow

It's too easy to go to bed, and the only public room in the hotel is filled with a program about Robert Burns. Not feeling that way, I have sought refuge outside in the family camper, parked on the foreshore of the small and still relatively unspoilt Scottish resort of North Berwick. It is just past sunset and the clouds, after a rainy day, tower black against a clear evening sky. Only the rocks are blacker, and on my right the lighthouse on the Bass Rock, where a goodly proportion of the world's gannets breed, prinks away methodically.

I have just drawn on a motley assortment of cassettes and played a snippet, recorded before leaving home for just such an occasion, of Berlioz's oratorio. "The Childhood of Christ." There's not much music, at just this time, that could induce me to reach for a few pieces of paper, though with no clear sense of what I want to say.

About these ads

So much -- too much -- of what we term "religious" art is large scale, ceremonial, formal, sometimes miserable, often noble. It provides the classic opportunity to its creator for the big statement. I'm not belittling a genre that includes "Paradise Lost," the Madonnas of countless artists of talent and some of genius, the masses and requiems of a majority of the great composers. But tonight hearing the ineffable simplicity and gentleness of Berlioz's work, I have felt a note of spiritual authority no less deep for all the low-key domesticity of much of the setting.

Berlioz was not a believer in the orthodox sense, but no work of his is more personal than this, and it came to have a special place in his affections. It began as a joke; to fool (successfully, as it turned out) a social gathering he wrote a piece for choir in a faintly antique style and attributed it to an obscure and possibly mythical composer of an earlier age -- though it is unmistakably Berlioz. In such a guise it was an immediate success, and Berlioz went on to build around it so that the work gradually evolved into its present form. The party piece now forms the "Shepherds' Chorus" with which the second part begins.

Berlioz wrote the story. It is a largely apocryphal reconstruction of the flight into Egypt, starting with Herod's dream and ending with a reflective epilogue for narrator and chorus. In between, Mary and Joseph, playing on the grass with the infant Jesus, are warned of Herod's decree by angels and embark upon their arduous journey, which ends on an alien but welcoming Ishmaelite household where they are restored by a simple, tender musical entertainment on flute and harp. And that's about all there is to the narrative.

Yet for all its simplicity, no music I know can lead the receptive ear to greater mysteries. How music can achieve profundity by such artlessness is in itself unfathomable, and I suspect that unbe-known even to the artist himself, a process of revelation is involved that defies analysis. This night brought one of those moments, in which it seems that the most perfect simplicity can actually evoke the deepest feelings of which we are capable. The image of the child Jesus propelled by protective forces into a hostile land and finding there the care of a very ordinary and humble family, when set against all that we know will follow, struck me with a profound force. Even the sky and the sea, the Bass Rock and the lights of Kirkcaldy, twinkling across the Forth, seemed palpably enhanced.

At the work's end, the epilogue meditates on the mystery of innocence, and the music reaches an incandescent tenderness. The antique quality of the "Shepherds' Chorus" is even more striking here. It's not that Berlioz deserts his own idiom or individuality -- that stands out at every bar -- but a timeless iridescence hovers over the polyphony of these last pages. "My soul," they sing (but the French is better), "what now remains for thee but to bow thy pride before such mystery revealed. Swell, heart, to that grave and pure affection, which alone can unlock the mansions of heaven."

By this time the grey rim at the horizon has all but vanished, and the warmth of the hotel lures, Burns or no Burns. The things we think we understand most perfectly and which become our strongest anchor points, we can often least articulate, and we run great risks in trying to do so. And, anyway, a friend of mine, of impeccable musical taste and judgment, as sound a man as you'll find on Beethoven quartets, once remarked that "L'Enfance du Christ" was boring and full of harmonic faux pas,m so I've probably been suffering a regrettable lapse of taste and judgment.

Perhaps the lesson is only to hear such things in a suitable concert hall where feelings can be kept strictly under control, and no lighthouse or black storm-clouds can confuse the issue -- or those two late children strolling meditatively along the edge of the sea.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.