Monday, October 04, 2010

Saint François d'Assise.

I've never had any sort of devotion to Saint Francis of Assisi, whose feast is celebrated today.  Il Poverello may be beloved by millions of people around the world, but he has never captured my heart or inspired my imagination - one reason, I suppose, why I became a Jesuit and not a Franciscan (there are many other reasons, of course, and this particular one is far down the list).  On the other hand, though, I am a fan of Olivier Messiaen, an intensely Catholic composer who made Saint Francis the subject of his only opera

Messiaen's Saint François d'Assise isn't performed very often, for understandable reasons - it's long (about four hours, not counting intermissions), it doesn't offer much in the way of a conventional narrative (the story, such as it is, consists of a series of essentially self-contained vignettes from the title character's life), and the likely audience isn't that large (though he was a great composer, Messiaen isn't exactly a household name). 

Though live performances of Saint François d'Assise are few and far between, the opera is well worth hearing.  Considered in religious terms, Saint François d'Assise is as much an expression of Messiaen's own intensely mystical Catholicism as it is a tribute to a great saint.  The opera also stands as a fine example of Messiaen's unique musical style, which was shaped in part by the composer's fascination with birds and the music they make; as Messiaen put it, he chose Saint Francis as a subject "because he is the saint who most resembles Christ, and also for a more personal reason: he spoke to the birds, and I am an ornithologist." 

In the video presented at the start of this post, you can hear how Messiaen decided to present Francis' sermon to the birds.  The somewhat abstract staging conceived by American director Peter Sellars for the first Salzburg Festival production of Saint François d'Assise was reportedly not to Messiaen's liking, but the singer you see and hear above, Belgian bass-baritone José van Dam, was the composer's personal choice for the role of Saint Francis.  I hope that you enjoy this selection from Saint François d'Assise, and, even if you are not moved by Messiaen's music, I hope you will appreciate the sincere devotion that inspired his work.  AMDG.


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