Sunday, May 15, 2016


King David is after all not completely gone


Apart from the opening and closing hymn in Latin that is from the old church tradition going back to the Middle Ages in the English tradition, so less Gregorian than it could have been, but quite distinctive, the whole opera is in English and on a score by Benjamin Britten of course. The influence in the form from the Japanese Noh theatre might be true in the all male cast and the economy of the story and architecture of the opera, but I find another influence, or maybe chance meeting, in this music. Benjamin Britten avoids all types of harmonious music or singing and goes, along with the libretto that is impressionistic poetry more than a real dramatic story in some fully developed prose, to a music that can be thought as being part of the reading of the Old testament in the Hebraic tradition, a reading and singing that went back to the first Israeli music school founded by King David himself. Two styles have been identified from the diacritic signs and symbols in the margins of the Hebrew Old Testament: a prosody which is a way to chant rather than plain read the prose parts of the text and a psalmody which is some ritual way to “sing” the sections of the text that are psalms hence poetic in form and inspiration.

This opera thus has a music that is restrained in effects, and tamed in power. It is more an atmosphere, a rather slow rhythm accompanying the story and emphasizing the important moments. There actually is some spoken sentences, but there are also many passages that are more incantations than arias or whatever. The angel for example is reduced to a long “o” dirge or whine behind the chorus or the singers. The only moments when the music has some exuberance, generally heavier than the rest, is when the Emperor of Babylon Nebuchadnezzar speaks or leads some celebration like a banquet or feast with wine or the celebration of the golden god Merodak.

The rest of the time we are in the tradition of Jewish or Hebraic dirges and invocations or recitations in the tradition of the one that is best known to the general public, the Kaddish song for the dead. And we can even think of Maurice Ravel’s rendering of this Kaddish that is a slightly embellished version, of the traditional Jewish version. (Check for example: Kaddisch - Maurice Ravel(1875-1937). Cantor Azi Schwartz. Piano -- Fadi Deeb, Recorded live at the Jerusalem Music Center, June 8th, 2010). I think this church opera is more a meeting of various influences than just a tree with one root.

The story is well known of course. Nebuchadnezzar invites three Israelis, sons of princes in Israel, to become the governors of three provinces of his Babylonian empire because they are deemed to be wise men. This is of course one sign of the living next to each other of two linguistic, cultural and religious traditions in Mesopotamia that is well known in Sumerian times since Sumerian is a language in the still to fully develop Indo-European tradition living along the Semitic Akkadians, to the point that the writing system of the Sumerian language is still called by some the Akkadian writing system. The Semitic Akkadians were the scribes of the Sumerian empire and the Sumerians were the merchants, the landowners and the administrators of the empire, with now and then even some of the emperors and dynasties of such chosen among the Akkadians.

The point in this Old Testament story is that the three young Israelis do not respect the traditions of the Babylonian empire. They do not take part in the banquet ordered to honor them: they do not eat and they do not drink, and we know why. Then when Nebuchadnezzar instates a new god of gold, Merodak, they refuse to honor it – since it is nothing but an idol – with any veneration or whatever is supposed to be offered to a god of gold. That is in full contradiction with Babylonian traditions and it does not respect the authority of the emperor who must be obeyed no matter what he may ask. They are thrown, into a furnace but an angel joins them and they come out of the furnace unscathed, which makes Nebuchadnezzar proclaim the god of the Jews has to be accepted and he converts to Judaism.

What is interesting here is how three foreigners are estranged from their culture by being imposed Babylonian names in the stead and place of there Israeli names, and then they are required to respect local traditions, which they don’t do so they are seen as being hostile and after having  been integrated in the local society they are rejected anew as impious foreigners and sentenced to die. But the angel is an intruder in the game and he saves the three young men which makes the local emperor proclaim his conversion to the foreign religion of the foreigners he had previously sentenced to die. That constant game on who is the stranger, the foreigner to whom must have been fascinating to Benjamin Britten since it is a very common theme. What’s more three young men are sentenced to death. The death of young teenagers or young men is also very common with Benjamin Britten as if young men were cursed in our society and world, cursed to accept the rules of the society, though they may be different and would like to live their lives the way they decide. But that freedom for young men in our society is not an option.

As for the music it is very light because very few instruments and performers. The instruments, winds and strings, are used to their utmost possibilities which means often contrasted one against the others and more to punctuate the text, to create an atmosphere than to swallow up the whole action or singing. The singing and the text is primordial and the music only an accompaniment. The percussion here again give the rhythm of the story, a rhythm that is often slow even contemplative or some kind of meditation inside our mind, certainly a reverberation in our brains, ears and even eyes because that music is highly suggestive of the scene we cannot see except in some retrospective vision on our retinas. We must also note that the Abbot of the beginning becomes the Astrologer of the opera and then goes back to his Abbot identity to tell us the basic meaning at the end because the text from the Bible, Old or New Testaments alike, cannot be understood without the interceding discourse of a representative of God on earth. That is very typical of the Christian Middle Ages, and still is true in all Christian traditions with the reading from the Book and then the sermon of the preacher to expand the reading and show the real meaning… at least the meaning of the text on that particular day.

In other words this small opera would be great in an old Norman church in England or an old Romanesque church in Livradois-Forez in Auvergne. I could suggest Beurrières for example, and I am highly surprised that this music has not so far, to my knowledge at least which may be limited, been performed in the Festival of Sacred Music in La Chaise-Dieu.


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