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Reconsidering Daniel’s Rockport Den


Feast of Fools, from 18th century France
Feast of Fools, from 18th century France

The force of David Schulenberg’s unusually good review, “Daniel in Rockport Lion’s Den,” even for those who were unable to be present at the event, resides in the intelligent way the author enables his account of one specific performance to lead into the broader questions of interpretation/re-creation in medieval music.

Now in turn, I’d like, as a musician and a medievalist, to offer some of my own thoughts about 21st-century revivals, regarding the Daniel play, but also concerning our attempts in general to bring a distant musical past into the present. For starters, what was the “real” Daniel play like in 13th-century Beauvais? What was its look and feel, as far as we can tell? More importantly, what were its purposes and intentions, both conscious and latent?

And then, most important of all, how should we imagine a modern, staged production of a medieval liturgical drama (or any medieval musical/literary opus, for that matter)? Is our re-creation supposed to be detailed, anecdotal and “culinary” (to borrow a term from Bertold Brecht), or are there other, deeper issues, we need to be worried about? (Schulenberg mentioned language in his review, citing insufficient attention to the text during the performance he attended; I would broaden that concern to the question of meaning, in general).

And then, most radically, as I am going to argue, in union with the late Andrea von Ramm and with Anne Azéma, isn’t ANY attempt to “illustrate” the Daniel play in a picture-book way, with medieval-style costumes, a betrayal of what lies deeper within this important work?

But first of all, let’s try to reconstruct a richer historical and cultural context for the year-end event that was the “original” Ludis Danielis/ Play of Daniel. Like the complex and contradictory Christmas and New Year’s season itself, such an attempt is not a simple matter. And you may be surprised by what turns up….

December revelers, from a medieval French manuscript
December revelers, from a medieval French manuscript

The Play of Daniel, Downton Abbey, and the Servant’s Ball

Recently I read, via some chatter on the Internet, that some people found the episode of Downton Abbey that portrayed the servant’s ball to be quite literally incredible. It was impossible to imagine, at least some said, a day on which servants would take the initiative and dance with their masters!

No, dear reader, I am not veering off topic.

The year-end servant’s ball, a historical reality in Victorian and Edwardian England, turned the class structure inside-out, if only mildly, and in a decorous manner. That particular upsetting of social norms and of everyday power relationships was, like countless other variations on the same theme, an adaptation of a pagan rite, older than Christmas, older than Christianity. The Romans called it the Saturnalia, it happened at the solstice periods, and it was not always decorous (besides the theme of masters serving their slaves and domestics, there was a lot of drinking, and rumor has it that some of the participants actually indulged in s*x). We nowadays call the offshoots/variants of Saturnalia many things; most commonly perhaps, we might call it New Year’s Eve. Or, possibly, The Office Party. The Christmas – New Year’s holiday period, as we celebrate it in the West, is an uncomfortable but effective kludge of Christian tradition and myth with a deep and dark pagan substratum.

Daniel, early Christian catacomb painting
Daniel, early Christian catacomb painting

Like the servant’s ball seen on Downton Abbey, the Play of Daniel, written for the Christmas season, is a kindler, gentler Saturnalia avatar. But Daniel’s Christian context and content notwithstanding, it is nonetheless the descendant of pagan revolt and rebellion. Power relationships are inverted, and authority is defied, as they need to be to get Saturnalia right. In the play, a young man or boy, raised up from bondage/slavery, is the prophet. He speaks truth to the powerful, gains ascendancy over kings, and defies plotters’ attempts to emprison and kill him (no, this is not an article about Edgar Snowden).

Daniel in the play is, of course, a virtuous youngster, and his behavior is entirely pious and saintly. He is nonetheless, a Christian cousin to the Saturnalicius Princeps (a.k.a., in the middle ages, the Lord of Misrule), the person who was chosen to be master of ceremonies during the holiday period. The Prince or Lord was supposed to give out nonsensical or idiotic commands, and to create chaos. The Daniel of our play, in contrast, is much milder figure, but he is both the upsetter of established order, and the master of the holiday show. He does prophesy chaos, and he takes charge of the scene in no uncertain manner via his prophecies. This young man of slave stock, raised up to authority, is the Lord of the Revels in Christian garb.  And the Play of Daniel, produced by the youth/lower orders of the Beauvais cathedral (In Belvaco est inventus Et invenit hunc juventus) is an church-sanctioned moment of revelry.

That’s Entertainment—or is it?

The feast of the Boy Bishop, a 20th century revival from Burgos, Spain
The feast of the Boy Bishop, a 20th century revival from Burgos, Spain

I think I understand, and sympathize with Schulenberg’s discomfort around the “entertainment” ethos he says he witnessed in Rockport. Like him, I think there is a serious, even profound aspect to the work, and that the deeper aspects tend to be ignored. Personally, I would be happy to see a contemporary production of Daniel that paid more attention to the legend’s dark side: wars of aggression, profound injustice, slavery, plunder, antisemitism, oppression, cruel and excruciatingly painful punishment. But at least as we attempt to understand the piece historically, we need to realize that the Ludus Danielis was intended to be a blast, and even perhaps (this is my personal conviction) a childrens’ pageant, like the Saturnalia-related feast of the Boy Bishop (see illustration). Schulenberg is correct in stating that the original Daniel was a guy thing, excluding women: but I take issue with his affirmation that all the participants were men. I’m intuiting from  diverse pieces of evidence that they were more likely to have been children and adolescents.

Serious in intent Daniel is and was, but I have trouble believing that it was, therefore, solemn. Some of it was even, probably, lowbrow slapstick comedy: “The angel seizes [elderly prophet Habbakuk] by the hair of his head, and leads him into the [lions’] den,” reads one of the stage directions. Now medieval young people, a.k.a. for the moment angels, do not grab their elders by the hair, unless the world has been turned upside down for a few hours. That stage direction sounds like a laugh-getter to me, at least among the adolescent/video-game set circa 1200 Other rubrics in the manuscript clearly indicate various kinds of motion and gesture. Schulenberg is unsure as to whether there was any movement in the “original,” but I am pretty convinced, perusing the original text and its explicit instructions to performers, that there was. It was not a static recitation.  Daniel, in short, is serious fun, with equal emphasis to be given to both the noun and the adjective.

Chant and anti-chant

The opening page of the Ludus Danielis, with musical notation
The opening page of the Ludus Danielis, with musical notation

Which brings us to the thorny issue of musical style, of how to sing medieval monody in general, and the Daniel tunes in particular. The simple, rhyming verse style, and the character of many of the melodies, seems on the face of it to draw us away from the world of Gregorian chant, and towards a universe that has been lost to us forever, because almost never notated: that of medieval folk and popular music.

Are at least some of the Daniel tunes folksongs or popular tunes of the day, furnished for the occasion with pious texts? It’s probably the case with at least one of the numbers (“Jubilemus regi nostri,” derived from a Latin drinking song), and of others as well. In any case, I need to take issue with Schulenberg’s assertion that there was a “much more solemn and austere type of performance implied by the historical sources.” On the contrary, as I see it, the Beauvais church music at year’s end wants to be different in character from other sacred song: lighter-hearted, closer to want “ordinary” folk can easily assimilate and enjoy (and also, by the way, easier for kids to learn and memorize). In another part of the mansucript that contains Daniel, the marvelous New Year’s Day liturgy opens with the Procession of the Ass, as a live animal is driven into church and made to bray “hee haw” on the refrains.  Other prayers within the same liturgy have simple, rhythmic versification, and catchy tunes. The Mother Church welcomes the revelers, asking them only to maintain a minimum of decorum and to embrace the teachings of the newer religion.

All of this mixing of genres (minus the animal noises perhaps) should be relatively easy to understand for anyone who has experienced the syncretism of Latin American Catholicism, or a Jewish Purim in the synagogue, or a winter evening of Christmas carolling.

The Boys in the Band

The Lord of Misrule, a 19th century rendering
The Lord of Misrule, a 19th century rendering

As to whether there should be strict measuring, regular drumbeats, and lots of added instrumental color and improvisation, I confess to no particular creed. The scansion of the poetic verses suggests to me regular rhythmic cycles for some of the tunes, but not for all of them. A number of them are meant for marching/processing, which might indicate regular beats. As for instruments. the manuscript source at one point does instruct King Darius to make his entrance accompanied by “cytharistae” (harps and /or lutes) going before him. That sounds to me as though, exceptionally, at this season, instruments were permitted within the church walls (see the illustration, at the beginning of this article,  of a very late Feast of Fools in France in France, and note the instruments). On the other side, a case can be made, I suppose, for a capella singing, and in any case the sound of recorders might well have been jarring to medieval congregants.  But as to the overall manner or “vibe” of performance way back then, I am not convinced by Schulenberg’s evocation of penitential grayness: “The music may well have been sung slowly, with little inflection or nuance,” he writes. “Of course, modern audiences would never stand for the much more solemn and austere type of performance implied by the historical sources.” On the contrary, I believe the historical context of the music to be revelry, and the style, or much of it, to be popularizing. Take away the fun of the Daniel play, and you take away a part of its original being.

This nonetheless leaves unresolved much else: interpolated drones, ostinati, chords, and suchlike. I believe we often do, in the North American “early music” world, tend to be over-involved with instrumental busy work, as compensation for something else, since these old languages and their subtleties are relatively opaque to us. What bothered Schulenberg, probably correctly, was a general performance ethos derived at least as much from later 20th century, American “early music” canons as from any older tradition. The recentness of our performance canons, and their distance from a plausible historical past, were of concern to me personally during a concert I heard of medieval Spanish Cantigas at the Boston Early Music Festival. And so, from the BEMF event to this one, the discussion, an important one for music lovers, goes in in these columns.

Forever New York?

Now as regards staging, costuming, gesture: I can get some sense of what Schulenberg was driving at, perhaps, by looking at some video excerpts, on YouTube, of the Metropolitan Museum production from 2008. What we see there, in some charming detail, is a particular kind of American neo-medievalism, evoking, consciously or not, Noah Greenberg’s famous 1958 show at the Cloisters. And, to be as generous as possible, why shouldn’t that memory be treasured? It was an important moment in our cultural history, Noah was a wonderful, pioneering man, and thousands of people have gotten pleasure from that production. As the New Yorker critic wrote last January 15:

‘The Play of Daniel’ has a number of attractions. Not only is it, at an hour and ten minutes, a more compact and much more intimate alternative to Handel’s Messiah, it is also, like the Cloisters itself, a cultural treasure that we can proudly claim—authentically European, forever New York.

Schulenberg, unlike the New Yorker reviewer, wants to get away from the island of Manhattan, from the Medieval Comfort Zone, and from the institutionalization and fossilization that the forgoing sentences imply. So do others, the present writer included. Schulenberg thinks that a possible solution is to make a production of Daniel more sober and earnest, with a lot less decoration and frou-frou, and even though in my heart of hearts I am a reveler, I can summon up certain amount of sympathy with that point of view.

There exists in fact the notion that, in order to get close to the spiritual center of Daniel, its celebration of truth and justice over oppression and misgovernment, of the victory of the weak over the strong, one must above all avoid the pictorialism and anecdotalism of a quasi-”medieval” staging, and to aim for something quite different. It’s not, actually, a totally new idea.  I owe that inspired insight to the late Andrea von Ramm, the magnificent artist who, as a key member of the Studio fur Frühen Musik, almost single-handedly invented or created a viable canon for medieval song during the 1960’s and 1970’s.

7.Andrea von Ramm as the Prophet Daniel, Boston Camerata production, circa 1985 (Herb Snitzer photo)
Andrea von Ramm as the Prophet Daniel, Boston Camerata production, circa 1985 (Herb Snitzer photo)

Andrea staged a student version of Ludus Danielis in Basel, Switzerland in the late 1970’s, and then amplified her concept with The Boston Camerata in the 1980’s. Her Daniel was set in ancient Babylon, and the visual references were all derived from Babylonian and Persian art. Her show was not austere in the least—there was dancing, lighting, poetry, little children running amok, and quite a lot of processing around the performance space. But it did not attempt to look like medieval European visual art, and in that sense the piece itself was liberated, and liberating. Having lived through that particular vision of Daniel, a generation ago, a participant therein might reasonably consider that a return to picture-book medievalism would be a step backwards.

And so, I wish to argue for other ways to set out Daniel as a show. The Play of Daniel is a complex work, existing in many levels of meaning, too fascinating (and containing too much latent rebellion) to be institutionalized, like the Handel Messiah. Centuries later, we can’t possibly recreate the original production, and in trying to do so we seem to fall into all kinds of cultural/methodological/ideological traps…instead of approaching “authenticity,” we end up mirroring ourselves, and we produce something self-referential, to an uncomfortable and “inauthentic” degree. So what not try for something else? Why not search out other dimensions of meaning latent in the Bible story, and in the musical play?

For now, at least, we have to leave the conversation on a question mark, on a half-cadence. However, the Boston Camerata’s Anne Azéma, an eminent scholar-practitioner of medieval song and storytelling, is planning to present her own vision of the piece to Boston audiences, most probably in late 2014. Like her mentor Andrea von Ramm, she says she wants another scenic/visual context, removing the illustrative neo-medieval aspect and replacing it with a different concept. She is also well-known, as a musician and leader, for her focus on text and declamation. There must be other scenic/musical talents waiting in the wings, as well. Let’s see what Anne, and others of her generation, have to propose, as this ancient masterpiece continues to live and resonate within us.

Joel Cohen was music director for The Boston Camerata’s Play of Daniel in the 1980’s, and he has transcribed the entire thirteenth century work from manuscript facsimiles.

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