Saint François d'Assise is a French opera in three acts and eight scenes by composer and librettist Olivier Messiaen, written from 1975 to 1983. It concerns Saint Francis of Assisi, the title character, and displays the composer's devout Catholicism. The world première took place in Paris on November 28, 1983.
Despite his studies of Mozart and Wagner operas, Messiaen never thought he would compose an opera. However, Rolf Liebermann, general manager of the Paris Opera, commissioned an opera from Messiaen in 1971. The composer refused this commission but changed his mind when Liebermann offered the commission to him a second time (in front of French President Georges Pompidou). In searching for subject matter, Messiaen pondered dramatizing either Christ's Passion or Resurrection, though he reportedly felt unworthy of such an undertaking. Eventually, he chose to dramatize Saint Francis of Assisi. Francis' life, in the composer's mind, paralleled Christ's chastity, humility, poverty and suffering.
Historians quote Messiaen as a believer in four dramas: teaching birdsong to urban dwellers, explaining his perception of colors in music, explaining that his musical rhythms were more attuned to rhythms in nature and communicating the mysteries of Christ to non-believers. These ideas permeate Messiaen's opera.
The opera is set in 13th century Italy. The subject of each scene is borrowed from the Fioretti and the Reflexions on the Stigmata, books written by anonymous Franciscans of the 14th century. There are seven characters: The Angel, Saint Francis, the Leper, Brother Elias, and three Brothers especially beloved of Saint Francis: Brother Leo, Brother Masseo, and Brother Bernard. Throughout the work one must see the progress of grace in the soul of Saint Francis.
Saint Francis explains to Brother Leo that for the love of Christ he must patiently endure all contradictions, all suffering, and that this is the "Perfect joy."
After the recitation of Matins by the Brothers, Saint Francis, remaining alone, asks God that he might meet a leper and be capable of loving him.
A leper-hospital. A leper, horrible and repulsive, covered in blood-stains and pustules, protests violently against his disease. Saint Francis enters and, sitting close to the leper, speaks to him gently. An angel appears behind a window and says: "Leper, your heart accuses you, but God is greater than your heart." Troubled by the voice and by the goodness of Saint Francis, the leper is stricken with remorse for his violence. Saint Francis embraces the leper. Miracle! The leper is cured. The leper dances for joy. More important than the cure of the leper is the growth of grace in the soul of Saint Francis and his exultation at having triumphed over himself.
A forest road on La Verna. An angel appears on the road. He has the appearance of a traveller. He knocks on the door of the monastery and this makes a terrific sound symbolising the inrush of Grace. Brother Masseo opens the door. The Angel asks Brother Elias, the vicar of the Order, a question about Predestination. Brother Elias refuses to answer and pushes the Angel outside. The Angel knocks on the door again and puts the same question to Brother Bernardo who replies with much wisdom. The Angel having gone, Brother Bernard and Brother Masseo look at each other and Brother Bernard remarks: "Perhaps it was an angel..."
The Angel appears to Saint Francis, and, to give him a foretaste of celestial bliss, plays him a solo on his viol. This solo is so pleasant that Saint Francis swoons.
We are at Assisi, at the Carceri. A large green oak tree. It is Spring, and many birds are singing. Saint Francis, followed by Brother Masseo, preaches a sermon to the birds and solemnly blesses them. The birds reply with a great chorus in which are heard not only birds of Umbria, and especially the Blackcap, a bird typical of the Carceri, but also birds of other countries, of distant lands, notably the Isle of Pines, close to New Caledonia.
On La Verna. Night. A cave beneath an overhanging rock. Saint Francis is alone. A great Cross appears. The voice of Christ, symbolized by a choir, is heard almost continually. Five luminous beams dart from the Cross and successively strike the two hands, the two feet, and the right side of Saint Francis, with the same terrific sound that accompanied the Angel's knocking. These five wounds, which resemble the five wounds of Christ, are the divine confirmation of Saint Francis's holiness.
Saint Francis is dying, stretched out at full length on the ground. All the Brothers are around him. He bids farewell to all those he has loved, and sings the last verse of his Canticle of the Sun, the verse of "our sister bodily Death". The Brothers sing Psalm 141. The Angel and the Leper appear to Saint Francis to comfort him. Saint Francis utters his last words: "Lord! Music and poetry have led me to Thee [...] in default of Truth [...] dazzle me for ever by Thy excess of Truth..." He dies. The bells ring. Everything disappears. While the choir hymns the Resurrection, a patch of light illuminates the spot where previously the body of Saint Francis lay. The light increases until it becomes blinding and unbearable. The curtain falls.
In order to allow himself artistic and musical freedom, Messiaen penned both libretto and score. For nearly eight years, the composer consulted several Franciscan sources. He read biographies by Thomas of Celano and St. Bonaventure, as well as Francis' own prayers (including Canticle of the Sun). In addition he cited passages from the Fioretti, Considerations on the Stigmata and the Bible.
Messiaen chose to focus the plot on the progress of grace in the soul of the saint. The dramatization of Francis post-conversion obviously meant the exclusion of certain aspects of the saint's life. Messiaen’s distrust of psychoanalysis caused him to exclude the documented struggle between Francis and his father, Pietro, in order to avoid any Oedipal themes. Believing that historians and writers often falsely romanticized the relationship between Francis and St. Clare, the composer avoided the inclusion of Clare into the plot. The account of Francis' taming of a wild wolf at Gubbio was also abandoned, as the composer thought it would be ridiculous to stage.
Years after the opera’s premiere, critics chastised Messiaen’s libretto for beginning after Francis’ conversion. The composer defended his choice in an interview with Claude Samuel: "Some people have told me, 'There's no sin in your work.' But I myself feel sin isn't interesting, dirt isn't interesting. I prefer flowers. I left out sin."
The opera’s structure of three acts/eight scenes delineate Francis’ spiritual development. Act One contains scenes in which Francis realizes his goals: “La Croix” (The Cross), “Les Laudes” (Lauds) and “Le Baiser au Lépreux” (The Kissing of the Leper). Act Two contains scenes about the journey towards enlightenment, ministry and divinity: “L’Ange voyageur” (The Journeying Angel), “L’Ange musicien” (The Angel Musician) and “Le Prêche aux oiseaux” (The Sermon to the Birds). Act Three shows Francis’ closeness to divinity and entrance into eternity: “Les Stigmates” (The Stigmata) and “La Mort et la Nouvelle Vie” (Death and the New Life).
Messiaen’s wealth of experience as an orchestral composer manifests itself in Saint Francois d’Assise. In fact, Messiaen devotes a great majority of the opera’s running time to orchestral music, though not to the detriment of character development. The composer reflects the characters’ psychological and emotional state through the use of leitmotif and birdsong.
Several leitmotifs exist in the orchestral score, most of which connect to one or more characters.
The dramatic action of the opera begins with the entrance of Brother Leo, who sings the “death” motif to words taken from the end of Ecclesiastes: “I am afraid on the road, when the windows grow larger and more obscure, and when the leaves of the poinsettia no longer turn red.” “I am afraid on the road, when, about to die, the tiare flower is no longer perfumed. Behold! The invisible, the invisible is seen…” This theme repeats nearly every time Leo enters, and the orchestra accompanies it with lazy glissandos in the strings.
Francis answers Leo’s introspection with the “perfect joy” motif, a combination of Trumpet in D, xylophone and woodwinds. This motif reoccurs several times throughout the piece. In some cases, Brother Leo’s “death” motif alternates with Francis’ “perfect joy” motif.
Messiaen linked Francis’ moments of great solemnity with quite possibly the most pervasive motif of the opera. It is structured as a tone cluster in the trombone section, creating an ominous, harsh sound. The motif is quite evident in the second scene, wherein Francis asks God to let him meet a leper: “Fais-moi rencontrer un lépreux.” The tone clusters break up his line of text: “Fais-moi”—cluster—“rencontrer”—cluster—“un lépreux.”
During Scene Four at La Verna, the Angel knocks on the monastery door. Messiaen represents the knocking with a motif heavy pounding sounds in the percussion and strings. He saw these knocks as an entry of grace—a force one must not resist. The Angel’s knocking foreshadows Francis’ eventual acceptance of the stigmata during Scene Seven. The main difference in Scene Seven is that the motif represents the painful, brutal pounding of nails into Christ’s body.
Messiaen considered himself an ornithologist. Thus, his love for birds factored heavily into the opera’s score. The composer traveled to the saint’s native Assisi, as well as New Caledonia, to research and record birdcalls of several local species, later transcribing them into melodies for use as musical themes attached to particular characters.
Upon entering caves at the Carceri (just east of Assisi), Messiaen heard the call of the capinera. Francis often retreated to these caves for meditation and prayer, thus the choice of the capinera is fitting.
This yellow-bellied warbler from New Caledonia signals nearly every entrance and exit of the Angel. Messiaen scored the gerygone with a staccato piccolo alternating with glockenspiel and xylophone.
Francis’ most contrarian brother, Elias, receives the birdcall of this “gloomy sounding pigeon” from New Caledonia.
The philemon birdcall (most likely recorded in New Caledonia) reflects Bernardo’s age and wisdom while punctuating his musical and textual phrases.
In some cases, the Kestrel birdcall accompanies the Gerygone. It is unclear whether the composer recorded this bird in Assisi or New Caledonia, as the common Kestrel exists in both places.
Messiaen devotes the entire sixth scene (“La Prêche aux oiseaux” or, The Sermon to the Birds) to all manner of birdsong as Francis delivers his famous sermon with Brother Masseo in attendance.
Messiaen’s full orchestration puts high demands on opera companies. One of the distinguishing attributes of the orchestration is the usage of a modern, rarely used instrument, the Ondes Martenot.
The opera requires a ten-part, 100-voice choir, which serves a twofold role: greek chorus and divine presence. Throughout the piece, the chorus comments on Francis’ spiritual journey. The first three scenes include a commentary on the preceding plot action with a "moral." For example, after Francis' conversation with Leo on "perfect joy," the chorus sings the text "He who would walk in my steps, let him renounce himself, take up his Cross and follow me." One could say that this text carries a double purpose—the moral is not only sung, but comes from the mouth of Christ. In the latter scenes of the opera, especially The Stigmata, the chorus perpetuates its image as Christ speaking directly to Francis as He bestows the wounds onto the saint. Messiaen’s choral writing, especially the violent, wordless chants during The Stigmata, suggests a mystical, otherwordly presence.
Messiaen’s synesthesia caused a perception of colors associated with particular harmonies or musical scale degrees. For instance, when hearing a C-natural on the piano, the composer saw “white” before his eyes. In the opera, Messiaen underscores the final moments (Francis’ death and ascent into heaven) on a C major chord structure, providing a musical burst of white light. It is unclear whether this final chord structure was coincidental or intentional.
Messiaen’s Other Research
Messiaen traveled to Italy not merely for birdcall research. In Assisi, he visited the Basilica of Saint Francis to study the Giotto frescoes. During rehearsal for the premiere production, the composer coached baritone José van Dam (originator of the title role) on reproducing some of the gestures and attitudes evoked on the Giotto masterpieces. Messiaen also made a side trip to Florence. While in the monastery of San Marco, he found inspiration for the Angel’s costume in one several paintings of the Annunciation by Fra Angelico. As a result, the libretto includes a costume note on the exact shade of the Angel’s robe (as dictated by the original artwork): a pinkish mauve between lilac and salmon.
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