Friday evening I saw a performance of what artistic director David Deveau described in prefatory remarks as the earliest music ever performed in the Rockport Chamber Music Festival. Yet, as became clear in a “talkback” session between audience and performers afterward, it was also the newest music. Much of it was improvised for the occasion, never to be heard again, as music director Mary Anne Ballard explained in response to a question.
The Play of Daniel was, as described in the festival program booklet, “a medieval music drama set in Beauvais Cathedral, circa 1200 A.D.” More precisely, it is an example of what scholars call liturgical drama, a more or less theatrical reading of texts interpolated into a church service: in this case, a retelling of two incidents from the Book of Daniel in the Hebrew Bible. It was originally performed as part of services for the Feast of the Circumcision, better known in our modern calendar as New Year’s Day. The play has nothing to do with an actual bris, as Ballard also explained in answer to another question. But it would have been performed on the eighth day after Christmas, commemorating the circumcision of Jesus—who, despite the story’s Old Testament origin, is the real focus of this decidedly Christian work.
Performing any medieval music, and particularly liturgical drama, raises all sorts of questions about historicity and performance practice, to which I shall return. But first let me describe what I saw without any consideration of its status as “early music” or “historically informed” performance.
There were hisses and mock boos as the curtain behind the stage was closed prior to the performance in the beautiful Shalin Liu Performance Center. Friday had seen perfect weather, and with the curtain open the window behind the stage gave the audience an exceptional view of Rockport’s still sunny coast and harbor. The transformation of the room from sun-lit concert hall to darkened theater was ably carried out, however. When it was complete, one saw a table, a few chairs, and a larger armchair at center stage, with an assortment of musical instruments to the right. The armchair would serve during the first half of the play as throne for the Babylonian king Belshazzar—who presided over the captivity of the Jews—and during the second half for the Persian ruler Darius, who supplanted him. Daniel, who accurately prophesies Belshazzar’s overthrow in the first half, is thrown into the lions’ den in the second, only to be released at the end by an angel, thereupon declaring the coming birth of Jesus.
The production, stage-directed by Drew Minter and Jeffrey Johnson (who also performed in several minor roles), was ingeniously adapted to the compact space of the Shalin Liu center. The thirteen singers as well as six instrumentalists, all in quasi-medieval costume, entered and exited in processions down the hall’s two aisles. The action, or rather dialogue, took place largely around the table on the stage, the six musicians (including music director Ballard) taking their places on either side. Their lutes, recorders, and harps therefore became part of the staging, as suggested by a few of the work’s original performance rubrics. So too did an array of less obviously medieval percussion instruments, including suspended cymbal and waterphone. The latter, a device used in film and television soundtracks, provoked an entertaining explanation from percussionist Rex Benincasa in the talkback session. In the performance, it provided occasional sound effects, as did some of the other instruments, in a manner that reminded me of kabuki theater.
At center stage, behind the action, was a deep blue curtain or backdrop suspended within a black square frame. This was revealed in the second half to be a representation of the lions’ den, as the curtain was pulled away to reveal a design of stylized lions’ teeth. Real lions also appeared, in the guise of two actors dancing down the aisles in colorful costumes. Other costumes (designed by Sasha Richter) were more conventionally medieval, and Brian Barnett’s lighting design brought out their bright colors. Visually, then, this was a gorgeous production, particularly notable for the spectacular outfits worn by two angels and for singers’ gestures which director Minter based on his study of artwork at New York’s Cloisters Museum (this according to talkback remarks by Gene Murrow, executive director of Gotham Early Music Scene or GEMS, which produced the performance; Minter himself was not present).
As musical theater this production was charming. It clearly seized the imagination of the audience, which filled most of the hall’s 330 seats. I particularly enjoyed the expressive singing of tenor James Ruff as Daniel, and four sopranos (Amy Bartram, Melissa Fogarty, Sarah Gallogly, and Amaranta Viera) sang and danced gracefully in minor roles. The nature of the work, however, is such as to make it difficult to single out any individuals from the ensemble; suffice it to say that I was not aware of a single weak link in the intricate production.
The stylized character of the play affords few opportunities for real drama. Some humor was interjected by a few exchanges between Ballard, playing little melodic fragments on rebec and vielle, and one or another singer. A shift at the end from Old-Testament history or story-telling to Christian sanctity and ritual was carried out impressively: the stage lights dimmed and the entire company exited up the aisles in procession, singing the Gregorian chant “Te Deum,” as directed by the original text, to the accompaniment of small handbells. (The latter are depicted in many late-medieval artworks, such as the famous “Figure of Music” at Chartres cathedral, reproduced in the program book.)
Given what many in the audience clearly found to be an engrossing, even moving, theatrical experience, some may think it impertinent to make an issue of the production’s status as historical performance. Yet a number of the questions in the talkback session clearly reflected the curiosity of audience members about the degree to which this performance resembled an actual medieval one. Answers by members of the cast and crew did not entirely clarify the issue.
It is understandable that, after an intense hour-long performance, singers and musicians would not be prepared to answer questions quite as thoroughly or directly as might have been done under other circumstances. Some of the questions could have been answered by reference to the commentary in the program book. But the latter also gave a less than entirely forthcoming characterization of the production. For this presentation could be considered historical or “authentic” only to the degree that this is true of any modern staging of, say, a Shakespeare play.
Indeed, what we saw might better be characterized as a contemporary work that happened to incorporate the text and melodies of a medieval act of worship. These were adapted for the modern stage using various devices, some of them suggested by historical practices that were in use at various places in Europe during the eleventh through fourteen centuries. Among these were the elaboration of the original melodies through the techniques known as parallel organum and discant, as well as certain types of melodic decoration or embellishment known from late-medieval instrumental music. The instruments themselves are, of course, another borrowing from medieval or early-Renaissance practices, although hardly any original instruments actually survive; what we were hearing were modern constructions based mainly on visual art of the period, and on backward deductions from later instruments.
The original Play of Daniel is believed to have been performed during services at Beauvais Cathedral in northern France—not in the existing, never-finished late-Gothic structure, but a smaller, earlier one that was nevertheless far larger than the confined space of either the Rockport hall or The Cloisters, where this production was created in 2008. The original performers were members of the clergy—doubtless all men, even for the one female role, that of Belshazzar’s queen. In all likelihood there were no instruments at all, except perhaps as props. But whether there was in fact any staging—costumes, props, or movement other than ritual processions—is unknown.
Crucially for the music, the original notation shows only pitches: notes without rhythm. Like later examples of Gregorian chant, which it resembles, the music may well have been sung slowly, with little inflection or nuance. Most of the text, in Latin with a few phrases in French, is in a type of medieval verse that falls into regular rhythmic patterns. Scholars have long assumed that these patterns can be applied to the music as well. But this can be done convincingly only in certain portions of the music, which divides into distinct types. In most modern editions and performances, some sections are presented in the manner of Gregorian chant, whereas others are given a dancelike quality.
This performance strongly emphasized the dance element, with drums and other instruments frequently marking the steady beat that is merely implicit in the original words and music. Only brief portions of the text were sung without accompaniment by instruments, which also furnished interludes. Much of what the instrumentalists were playing apparently consisted of improvisation, although Ballard took credit for the arrangement as a whole and clearly took a large role in creating the sound—the very musical identity—of this performance.
This sound resembles in a general way what one hears nowadays in many “historical informed” performances of early music, including some that took place last week during the Boston Early Music Festival. Yet I doubt that what we hear in such performances is any more or less historical than in a work such as Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana. No one thinks of the latter as “medieval” music, even though it consists of arrangements of genuine medieval songs, one or two of which also occur in the Play of Daniel.
At times, what I was hearing reminded me of nothing more than Prokofiev or neo-Classical Stravinsky, as harps and lutes created a sort of pan-diatonic ostinato or drone background for a singer. The effect could be lovely, but I cannot believe it had much to do with medieval music. Certainly the chords and the little scale figures that the instrumentalists were playing have little basis in what we know of 12th-century French music, even if a casual listener might find them vaguely reminiscent of the Parisian organum of the period. Even less certifiably medieval were the suggestions of contemporary Arabic or perhaps Turkish or north-African idioms in some of the lute and percussion accompaniments.
The reason this matters is that a production such as this, as effective as it is, enshrines and reinforces certain mid-20th-century notions about medieval music and its performance. Ballard told the talkback audience that she made her arrangement without consulting the one that was performed in 1958 by the New York Pro Musica under the direction of Noah Greenberg. That production, according to the program booklet, was “arguably the single most important early music event in 20th-century America.” I remember being enthralled by a recording of it that I came across, years later, as a high school student. The exotic instrumental sounds, the conviction of the singing, and the catchiness of some of the modal melodies surely did give it a popular appeal that attracted many to the incipient historical performance movement.
Yet I was astonished by Ballard’s remark, for in many ways this production seemed very close to that New York one of more than half a century ago. Many details of scoring, such as the bells in the closing recessional and the frequent use of drone accompaniments, are quite similar, as is the “rhythmicization” of much of the music. More fundamentally, the basic approach, turning a sacred liturgy, probably performed at daybreak, into an evening of fully staged musical theater, was evidently the same (although I never saw the New York production). Of course, modern audiences would never stand for the much more solemn and austere type of performance implied by the historical sources.
Or would they? Fifty or one hundred years ago no one could have imagined Bach “cantatas” performed with all-male quartets of singers instead of large mixed choirs. Musicologists knew that Renaissance instruments were very different from their modern counterparts, but hardly anyone actually played lutes or small medieval-style harps. When they did so, it was within a cliquish if not cultish atmosphere of historical reenactment, not contemporary creative music making. To perform a Baroque opera with anything like original staging, gesture, and dance was completely out of the question.
Of course, we now know that all these things are possible. More important, they have completely changed how we experience Renaissance and Baroque music. We know, too, that doing things “authentically” does not mean museum-style petrification—not that museums, either, must present historical material without creative imagination. Some audiences do enjoy things that are strange or challenging, although recreating the sound world of a Romanesque cathedral service in the confined space of a small modern theater would be difficult—and potentially offputting to a secular audience seeking a night of entertainment.
As much as I appreciate what Ballard, Minter, and the rest of the company have done in creating a convincing modern stage piece from this work, I am disappointed that I saw no serious grappling with the conceptual challenges that it presents. What would have happened if, instead of hammering those quizzically notated melodies into dancelike numbers, the singers were allowed to present them free of the tyranny of a rock-like beat, and without the nearly constant and sometimes distracting elaboration and interruption by instruments? For that matter, how much more expressive might this work be if performed with more attention to the actual words—which seemed to be largely ignored in a production that lacked either a printed libretto or translated supertitles?
The Latin is not difficult, but even a listener (such as your reviewer) who has a smattering of the language had a hard time understanding any of it over the occasional din of percussion instruments and in the modern French-style pronunciation with which it was sung. Contrary to what Deveau asserted at the outset, the action of the production is not “self-explanatory,” even to one who knows the biblical story. Not only details but essential elements, such as the appearance of the minor prophet Habakkuk near the end, led by an angel to bring nourishment to Daniel in the lions’ den, must have been baffling to many audience members.
In writing about this production, I am mindful of Joel Cohen’s thoughtful response to the Newbury Consort’s recent performance of the Cantigas of the Spanish king Alfonso “the Wise” [here]. Those works, roughly contemporary with the Play of Daniel, require similar musical reconstruction if they are to be performed today. As Cohen reminds us, “we are centuries away from any living performance tradition for these works . . . as with all medieval music we seek to perform anew, the recreation of some sort of plausible playing and singing ethos is a paramount consideration.”
Plausibility is indeed one criterion of judgment. But historical plausibility (“authenticity”) is a very different thing from theatrical or artistic credibility. This production was a convincing theatrical experience; an imaginative mélange of contemporary and historical performance traditions; a creative reworking of an ancient text—but it was not exactly a medieval music drama.