To the intimate picture of a child within his family and humble shepherds, follow several episodes, the first manifestations of the Messiah in the world. The visit of the Magi, men of power and knowledge from distant countries; the murderous panic of Herod with the massacre of the Innocents; the flight of the Holy Family to Egypt.
We will not be surprised to find from the pen of Marc-Antoine Charpentier, so prolific already in works for Advent and the Nativity, an oratorio For the feast of L’Épiphanie (1677). Nor, in the abundant production of Johann Sebastian Bach, several cantatas intended for this celebration, such as the sixth and last which composes theChristmas Oratorio.
Joys of Epiphany
With Epiphany, the musicians resonate warm and comforting accents. The tambourines, piccolo flute and oboe perfume the radiant March of the Kings, adapted from a traditional Provencal song, with which Georges Bizet opens the stage music for Arlesienne by Daudet (1872). In the fourth and last movement of his Roman festivals, a symphonic poem composed in 1928, Ottorino Respighi, in turn, rutters the trumpets to make all the festive ardor of the crowds on this day particularly celebrated in Italy.
The pages inspired by the procession of the Magi are also tinged with Orientalism. So does André Caplet in Epiphany, fresco for cello and orchestra after an Ethiopian legend, premiered in December 1923 at the Théâtre du Châtelet which he opened ” in the transparent atmosphere of a blue night “And ends in the” fantastic joy »Of an exotic dance. The broad line of song that we admire in the melody for soprano and orchestra, Die Heiligen drei Koenigen aus Morgenland, composed from 1903 to 1906 by Richard Strauss on a poem by Heinrich Heine, is set with the sparkles of the harp or the triangle. And we find a Francis Poulenc faithful to the sober and fervent aesthetic that he applies to his religious compositions in Clear stellam, the third of his Motets for Christmas time (1951).
Berlioz in a state of grace
The disasters which then occur, with the massacre of the Innocents and the flight to Egypt to protect themselves from it, have undoubtedly inspired musicians less than painters. Marc-Antoine Charpentier – again and again – illustrated the episode in a poignant sacred history composed in 1683-1684, when he was in the service of Mademoiselle de Guise, Caedes sanctorum innocentium.
But it is Hector Berlioz who, in his oratorio The Childhood of Christ, made palpable the haunting and archaic atmosphere of the subject. In the series of paintings he drew “ like old illuminated missals », We first share Herod’s dream, the anguished rage which leads him to instigate the massacre of newborn children: a colossal brass band, appearing as if in close-up, smashes his agitated song. Then follows the only interruption of “ a silence whose duration should represent the value of approximately 8 or 9 bars », A peaceful vision of the stable in Bethlehem, then pastoral music inherited from Rameau and the wonderful Song of the Shepherds in an emotional farewell to the Holy Family. Berlioz had also passed it off as an anonymous melody from the 18th century.e century! It is suffused with the memory of the emotions he felt as a child when listening to the hymns and songs of his native Dauphiné. We can guess their old fashions.
Then place the idyllic scene, during the flight into Egypt, of the Rest of the Holy Family. The protagonists’ humility acts on the orchestral writing, the fluid melody and the limpid polyphony of an instrumental page dominated by the woodwinds. Finally, the narrator (brother of the evangelists of Passions de Bach), recites one of the most miraculous charming songs of the French vocal repertoire! The listener feels inundated with a collected ecstasy, similar to that of the scenes painted by Caravaggio or Rembrandt.