Farewell to 2019 with Berlioz

Anger is almost always a wasted emotion.

But it is a sad reality that anger above all else will define for many of us the year 2019. Domestic political anger. National anger. Geopolitical anger. Racial anger. Climate change anger. Protests everywhere around the world. 2019 will go down as one of those years where the mood in the UK was continually laced with vitriol, and a lack of tolerance for the opposite-held view. At its worst, it culminated in acts of unimaginable violence in broad daylight, in supposedly one of the freest and most coveted capitals in the world.

There were some glorious moments, too. Who will ever forget this one?

But there were not enough of them to counter the dominant mood. Which is why we need Christmas this year more than any I can remember. At its heart is the story itself, an event of which I recall the esteemed journalist, Paul Johnson, when asked if he believed it, replying,  “Of course it’s true, you couldn’t possibly make something like that up.” Many will have attended church services in the last couple of days without having done so all year; and then there are all those carol services. We hear them year in, year out. And still we come.

We do so, I believe, in recognition of the fundamental goodness that ultimately binds us together. Of all the words in Chrismas carols, two very simple ones which we breeze through every year, ‘Comfort and joy’, go a long way: we would all love both, but comfort is what we all need, because none of us is without some fragility. And fragility is right at the heart of the Christmas story. Christmas brings with it the opportunity to extend the hand, a momentary glance, or just a directed silent thought, of comfort.

Music can come to our aid here: its ability to take us away from ourselves can lead us to a place where our minds become less troubled.

I am not an avid listener to the music of one of the first great Romantic composers, the Frenchman, Hector Berlioz (1803-1869), but I cannot let the 150th anniversary of his death pass without a nod in his direction. During his lifetime, he was never appreciated in his native country and you would struggle to find a complimentary critic. Felix Mendelssohn observed, “He makes me sad, because he is a really cultured, agreeable man, and yet he composes so very badly.” His output is not huge, but it is generally large in scale, so that except for the occasional overture and Symphonie Fantastique, he is not a regular feature in the concert repertoire.

About the only piece to have won any acclaim in his lifetime was the oratorio ‘L’enfance du Christ‘. Within it, and written as an isolated work before the rest of the piece, ‘The Shepherds’ Farewell‘ has earned its place in Christmas music, as a passage not of glory and joy, but as a prayer of comfort and tenderness for the infant child. The words – ‘God go with you, God protect you, guide you safely through the wild!’-are by Berlioz himself, an almost life-long agnostic; and all of them in keeping with that need for comfort.

Some thoughts on the music. There are three verses, all opening with a handful of notes on the oboe. You might think a piece like this would open with something altogether softer, a flute or clarinet, but the oboe is a masterstroke – as it has been in other famous pieces, such as the second movement of Brahms’ symphony or the second movement of his violin concerto. (One celebrated violinist, Pablo de Saraste, actually refused to play the piece, because he wasn’t going to just stand there waiting while an oboe, of all things, played the melody in full before him.) And later, of course, there is Dvorak’s New World symphony, where the oboe melody is now synonymous with the Hovis ad. (Other brands available.)

Any number of choirs sing this beautifully, but I have deliberately eschewed the cathedrals, so that the oboe gets a proper airing. When it comes to Berlioz, few have been a greater champion than the late Colin Davis, and there have been few choral conductors of his equal in any generation. This beautifully tender recording dates back to 1961.

So farewell, 2019. This is my final post of the year. I have not been active enough this year, but we have been moving into our new house, so I hope to redress that in the months ahead. Wherever you read it and listen, you do me a very great honour by allowing me into your lives for a few minutes. My hope for all in the coming year is for a little more kindness and generosity of spirit.

I wonder what 2020 vision will reveal in December next year…

Click the image for musical comfort –