Hector Berlioz was a professed atheist, but could anything as tender and touching as “L’Enfance du Christ” have been written by a man who did not believe? And what of Berlioz’s closing line to the work: “Oh my soul, what remains for you to do but shatter your pride before so great a mystery?”
The poet Wallace Stevens once wrote that “The major poetic idea in the world is and always has been the idea of God.” One might modify that insight and say that, since the first Christmas, the major poetic idea has been the Incarnation. Either way, one would think that this situation would have created an artistic crisis for the many agnostics and atheists spawned by the Romantic era. Curiously, it didn’t.
Unbelieving artists went happily about appropriating Christian themes and liturgical forms. One wonders why the atheist Camille Saint-Saëns felt compelled to write a Christmas Oratorio, Johannes Brahms his German Requiem, Leoš Janáček his Slavonic Mass, or Giuseppe Verdi his Requiem? And what impelled Hector Berlioz, of whom Ferdinand Hiller said, “He believes in neither God nor Bach,” to compose such extraordinary religious works as the Messe Solennelle, the Requiem, and the Te Deum?
And why did Berlioz, who had many years before left behind his childhood faith in Catholicism, write the text and music to one of the most tender and exquisite works on the infancy of Christ, entitled L’Enfance du Christ?
The easy answer to this question is that Berlioz and the Romantics used liturgical forms and religious themes because they were still the language of the culture. In fact, such use might be seen as a clever stratagem. While liturgy gains nothing from associating with nationalism or nature worship, to which secularists often resort after abandoning religion, nationalism and nature worship gain a great deal by inhabiting liturgical forms. However, the answer to the question lies deeper in the mystery of the first Christmas.
In an interview with an agnostic journalist, Jean Marie Cardinal Lustiger of Paris remarked that, “Modern civilization is inescapably marked by the encounter with the true God.” That encounter is the Incarnation. “Whether you like it or not,” he told his interlocutor, “atheistic society is Christian society.” This is true not only in the mirror-image sense that a negative is formed from a positive, but also in another way. The Incarnation is the promise of love fulfilled by Love Itself, which turns out to be, not a platonic ideal, but a child in a manger. It is a revelation beyond man’s imagination and has changed the world even for those who know nothing of it. It can be denied, but it is impossible to forget or to ignore.
Once made, the claim that there is a Savior and that he has come among us resonates throughout the world, and haunts it. The hole in the soul is larger after the Incarnation for those who reject it, because of the enormity of what is missing. What can replace it? The frenzy of the search for a substitute is at the heart of Romanticism.
Berlioz was the quintessential Romantic in that he was completely caught up in this frenzy and almost came to personify it. Saint-Saens said of him, “He sought the impossible and would have it at any cost.” Gounod wrote: “With Berlioz every impression and every feeling was carried to extremities; he only knew joy and sorrow at the pitch of delirium; as he said of himself, he was a ‘volcano.”
Berlioz was haunted by manifestations of Love from its earliest appearances in his life. At age twelve, he fell in love at first sight with his neighbor, eighteen-year-old Estelle. Some fifty years later he would visit her when she was a widow and frighten her with declarations of undying love. In his mid-twenties, Berlioz was so smitten with actress Harriet Smithson, whom he had only seen on stage, that Liszt, Mendelssohn, and Chopin had to go searching for him in the fields outside of Paris, afraid that he was going to kill himself.
Berlioz nurtured his early emotional epiphanies and sought to fulfill them in both art and life. They charge his art with a sense of yearning that is about to burst its boundaries. But he persistently misinterpreted his visionary encounters with beauty, and they made his life a misery. All beauty is reflected Beauty. Berlioz mistook the reflections for the thing reflected. He chased after the signs instead of the thing signified. He was invariably disappointed.
After a mad pursuit, he eventually married Harriet Smithson; the marriage was a disaster. He was broken-hearted at his inability to grasp the fleeting reflections of Beauty that so appealed to him and find something permanent in them. Because he could not do so, he concluded that life ultimately made no sense. He chose as his epitaph Shakespeare’s famous line describing life as, “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
Interestingly, Berlioz first gained his love of music from the Church. He relates in his Memoirs the experience of his first Communion: “I went up to receive the sacrament. As I did so the choir burst forth into the Eucharist hymn. At the sound of those virginal voices I was overwhelmed…. This was my first musical experience, and in this manner I suddenly became religious; so religious that I attended Mass everyday and the Communion every Sunday.” He humorously recounts that “my weekly confession to the director of my conscience was, ‘My father, I have done nothing‘; to which the worthy man always replied, ‘Go on, my child, as you have begun;’ and so I did for several years.”
Why his faith failed seven years later, Berlioz never says. However, his mother, whom he so closely identified with the Church, since his father was a “freethinker,” vehemently opposed his musical career to the point of refusing to ever see him again if he chose it. Perhaps it was an attempt to reconcile that led Berlioz, at age twenty, to write a Mass as his first large work. The extraordinary and audacious Messe Solennelle was only recently rediscovered in 1991 in a choir loft in the Netherlands. Berlioz reported that he had destroyed it.
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.
L’Enfance du Christ enjoyed a hugely successful premiere in 1853 and quickly became Berlioz’s most popular work. Critics unanimously noted its simplicity, exquisite delicacy, and sense of proportion as something new in Berlioz’s work. For this reason, Berlioz found the success of L’Enfance du Christ almost irritating. “I should have written L’Enfance du Christ in the same style 20 years ago…. The subject naturally prompted a naive and gentle kind of music,” he complained. Yet, for the first time in his work, the sense of yearning about to burst its boundaries found its equilibrium. The thundering, frightening God of the Requiem is replaced with a divin enfant. Serenity, peace, and tenderness replace the apocalypse. Does the sense of repose in this glorious work come from the Love Itself that he, unbeknownst, was seeking?
And what of Berlioz’s closing lines to the trilogy: “Oh my soul, what remains for you to do but shatter your pride before so great a mystery? Oh my heart, be filled with the pure, deep love which alone can open to us the kingdom of heaven. Amen.”
Could anything as tender and touching as L’Enfance du Christ have been written by a man who did not believe? Concerning what he did not believe, Berlioz was certain and passionate: “An almighty being, wrapped in his infinite indifference, is an atrocious absurdity.” One must agree. But what of the Child who came to suffer with and for us? Could not Berlioz’s will assent to what his imagination so vividly captured? I think Cardinal Lustiger would call Berlioz a Christian despite himself. One hopes that he was able to find the Christmas that he portrayed so beautifully.
This essay was first published here in December 2018.
This essay first appeared in Crisis Magazine (December 1996) and is republished here with gracious permission.
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The featured image is “Flight Into Egypt,” by Eugène Alexis Girardet (1853-1907), and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.