October 21-22, 2022
Testament (from Vishwas) (2014)
The Tragedy of Salome (1907) Prelude Dance of the Pearls The Apparitions on the Sea Dance amid the Lightning Flashes Dance of Terror
Stabat Mater (1950) Stabat Mater dolorosa
Cujus animam gementem
O quam tristis
Quis est homo
Fac et Ardeat
Fac ut portem
Inflammatus et accensus
Jeanine De Bique, soprano St. Louis Symphony Chorus
Final Scene from Dialogues of the Carmelites (1956)
Jeanine De Bique, soprano (Sister Blanche) Gina Malone, soprano (Sister Constance)
Sarah Price, soprano (Sister Matilde)
Danielle Yilmaz, soprano (First Carmelite)
Nora Justak Teipen, mezzo-soprano (Mother Jeanne)
St. Louis Symphony Chorus
By David Garrett
This concert ends with the heart-wrenching execution of the Carmelite nuns whose dialogues give the words for Francis Poulenc’s opera. Their tragic martyrdom continues the theme of sacrifice, front and center in all the music on this program. Reena Esmail introduces the themes, bringing to musical life the sacrificial witness, or testament, of a 15th century saint-poet of India. Esmail blends beliefs and musical idioms from different cultures, using Western orchestral resources, with the addition of a tabla, a pair of hand drums from India. The fascination of Salome comes from early 20th century French composer Florent Schmitt. Salome’s tragedy is a sacrifice of innocence. Poulenc’s Stabat Mater, moving and impressive, contemplates Mary as she witnesses the sacrifice of her son.
Testament from Vishwas
Based on Reena Esmail's own words
The Hindi word vishwas (िवशवास) indicates fervent belief, or faith. Meera Bai, a celebrated saint-poet from 15th century India, is the quintessential embodiment of vishwas. Though forced into a traditional marriage to unite two kingdoms, she believes she is married to the Lord Krishna, a Hindu deity, and the events of her life are shaped by her fervent devotion to this intangible but omnipresent figure.
Testament is the final movement of the three-part Vishwas, for bharatanatyam (Indian classical) dancer and orchestra. Meera stubbornly stages a hunger strike outside the temple of her Lord Krishna, refusing to eat until the doors are opened. One night, extremely weak after days of fasting, she lies down to rest. A storm brews, and the high winds begin to swing the lamp outside the temple’s wooden door. It catches fire and burns, reopening the entrance to the temple. Krishna, to honor Meera’s faithfulness, has shown himself in the forces of nature. Even as flames surround her, Meera walks calmly into the temple to honor her Lord.
Vishwas weaves traditional Hindustani raags through the fabric of the composition. Testament incorporates one of Meera’s own bhajans (devotional songs): Raag Malhar, the raag that beckons rain. All our information about Meera Bai and her struggles for self-expression comes from her songs.
First performance: May 14, 2014, by the Albany Symphony, in Troy, New York
First SLSO performance: These concerts
Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 trombones, timpani, percussion, table, strings
Approximate duration: 6 minutes
The Tragedy of Salome
Born 1870, Meurthe-et-Moselle, France
Died 1958, Neuilly-sur-Seine, France
Florent Schmitt played a major part in French music, as composer, critic, and advocate for new music. His reputation now relies largely on three works: his choral orchestral setting of Psalm 47, his massive Piano Quintet, and above all The Tragedy of Salome, his most performed orchestral work.
Schmitt dedicated the full orchestra version, dated 1911, to Igor Stravinsky, an admired friend. In 1913, Schmitt was heard in the raucous first audience for Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, loudly abusing the hecklers. His Salome owes something to Stravinsky, but more to Claude Debussy.
Another influence was Richard Strauss, whom Schmitt met when he came to Paris in 1899 to conduct. Strauss based his opera Salome (1905) on the play in French by Oscar Wilde, who shared with the French Decadents a fascination with the biblical Salome, especially as represented in Gustave Moreau’s 1876 painting Salome dancing before Herod, and the variant Apparition, showing the disembodied head of John the Baptist.
In its original form a danced mimodrama (1907), The Tragedy of Salome followed a poetic scenario by Robert d’Humières. Friend of Marcel Proust and Oscar Wilde, this aristocrat reflects the Decadent aesthetic of artificiality and excess for art’s sake. For d’Humières, Salome symbolizes the sacrifice of virginal innocence.
Salome in the Bible
Salome’s mother Herodias was angered by John the Baptist’s denunciation of her remarriage to Herod Antipas, brother of her late husband. Salome’s dancing at a banquet so excited King Herod that he promised her whatever she desired; on her mother’s advice, she demanded the head of John the Baptist (Mark 6; Matthew 14).
In the Prelude, the orchestra sets the scene, a terrace of Herod’s palace overlooking the Dead Sea. A solo English horn presents the main theme, leading to an impressive climax, as the sun sets. Torches are lit, jewels scattered, Salome appears, and adorns herself for her “Dance of the pearls.”
As the second part begins, Salome has vanished, and darkness surrounds Herod and Herodias, lost in lechery and fear. “The Apparitions on the Sea” evokes past excesses. From the Dead Sea a strange chant arises (wordless voice, or oboe as in this performance). Salome reappears and, lit by flashes of lightning, dances lewdly. Herod chases her, tears off her veils—for a moment she is naked, but John the Baptist covers her with his cloak, whereupon Herod gives the sign for his decapitation. Salome seizes the head, but in sudden remorse throws it into the Dead Sea, turning the water red. She starts dancing again, but the head reappears. The dance becomes a frenetic “Dance of Terror” amidst thunder, flames, and lightning.
First performance: January 8, 1911, at the Concerts Colonne in Paris, France, Gabriel Pierné conducting
First SLSO performance: February 2, 1920, Max Zach conducting
Most recent SLSO performance: July 13, 1974, Leonard Slatkin conducting at the Mississippi River Festival
Instrumentation: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 3 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, 2 harps, strings
Approximate duration: 24 minutes
Born 1899, Paris, France
Died 1963, Paris, France
Final Scene from Dialogues of the Carmelites
Music by Poulenc on religious subjects
This concert’s Poulenc music may surprise those who have encountered his music of the 1920s. Poulenc recalled that from 1920 to 1935 he was not greatly concerned with religious matters, and his music from this period was often irreverent, witty, charming, and frivoulously chic. Later in life, turning to more serious religion, Poulenc claimed “I’ve put the best and most genuine of me into it… here I’ve really produced something new.”
Poulenc dedicated his opera Dialogues of the Carmelites to the memory of his mother, who revealed music to him. It was his father who was religious, indeed devout. This side of the composer’s upbringing resurfaced in 1935, after the death in a car crash of his very close friend Pierre-Octave Ferroud, composer and critic (and biographer of Florent Schmitt). When he got the awful news, Poulenc was on his way to visit a shrine, Rocamadour, in southern France, of which his father had told him. This became a pilgrimage, and the shrine’s Madonna carved out of blackwood inspired his first religious work, the Litanies à la vierge noire (Litanies to the Black Virgin, 1936); this was followed by the Mass of 1937 and the Motets for a Time of Penitence (1939). Poulenc’s preoccupation with religious subjects continued with the Stabat Mater (1951), Dialogues of the Carmelites (1956), and the Gloria (1959), one of his last works.
Poulenc’s Stabat Mater
The death in 1949 of another friend, painter and stage set designer Christian Bérard, gave rise to one of Poulenc’s most moving and imposing works. His first idea was a Requiem, which he rejected as too pompous, and he instead chose a Stabat Mater to entrust the soul of “dear Bérard” to Our Lady of Rocamadour.
The Stabat Mater in music
The Stabat Mater poem, of 13th century Franciscan authorship, contemplates the sufferings of Mary as she stands at the foot of the Cross. A sequence in Latin, whose three-line stanzas form rhyming pairs, the Stabat Mater has been in and out of the Catholic liturgy, but has always been read for private devotion.
Though requiring large choral and orchestral forces, Poulenc’s Stabat Mater remains a devotional prayer, made even more personal in two lyrical cries from the solo soprano, who also crowns the closing vision of the glory of Paradise. Slow and fast tempos alternate in the twelve movements.
Poulenc has the choir singing almost continuously, to maintain the lyrical and mystical impetus. The large orchestra plays a crucial part in painting the dramatic contrasts of mood and expression between movements. Sometimes the orchestra leaves the choir unaccompanied, sometimes it punctuates the choir’s utterances—a few times it takes front of stage, shatteringly. Listen with eyes on the text—some movements seem like flashes or glimpses, but there is also fervent grandeur, especially when the solo soprano sings.
There is no opera quite like Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites, with it cast of nuns, whose conversations are about anguish, anxiety, fear, and the human condition. The nuns identify their sufferings with Jesus Christ’s, and—supporting each other by divine grace—explore what is meant by the Communion of Saints.
The opera’s libretto is based on writing by the novelist and Catholic polemicist Georges Bernanos (1888-1948). Bernanos’ dialogues were intended for a film about a historical incident in Paris during the closing days of the French Revolution: the execution by guillotine of nuns from a Carmelite convent in Compiègne, who chose martyrdom rather than conform. The film scenario came from the novella The Last at the Scaffold (1931), by the German Catholic writer Gertrud von Le Fort. Her central character, Blanche de la Force, seeks to escape in the convent the strains of the world, but comes to terms with her fear, discovering strength in weakness. Bernanos daringly implies, in his version, that the nuns die for others, or even in place of others, identifying with Christ’s sacrifice.
Bernanos’ dialogues, considered not cinematic enough for film, met with success as a play. In 1953 the director of a music publishing house suggested Poulenc create an opera for La Scala Opera House in Milan, on Bernanos’ text. Poulenc, declaring “it is made for me!” completed the opera by June 1956. Meanwhile, the premiere in Milan was delayed until January 1957 by a dispute over the rights to use Bernanos’ Dialogues, causing Poulenc great anxiety. The anguish felt in both works in this concert often dominated his personal life at the time.
Referring to the nuns in his opera, Poulenc commented “there can be no doubt that for those ladies, anguish was a necessary state.” And of himself he said, “I think these fearsome nuns, before losing their heads, wanted from me the sacrifice of mine!”
The nuns, on their way to the scaffold, sing the hymn Salve Regina, to a memorable and affecting melody. The large orchestra plays a march in an inexorable rhythm, marked by the repeating bass idea. Drums are heard, bells tolling from a piano, and sparkling, yet searing, flourishes from the harp. The music, growing in religious ecstasy, is punctuated at intervals by the sickening thud of the blade of the guillotine, as each voice is silenced.
At last only Sister Constance’s voice is left. Then, Sister Blanche de la Force makes her way through the crowd, rejoining the nuns in their last hour, free now from any fear. Constance, catching sight of her friend, becomes radiant with happiness; then her voice, too, is silenced. Blanche mounts the scaffold, singing the last four lines of the hymn Veni Creator Spiritus before a final thud stills her voice in mid-phrase.
First performance: June 13, 1951, at the Strasbourg Festival
First SLSO performance: These concerts
Instrumentation: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 3 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, 2 harps, strings, chorus
Approximate duration: 35 minutes
Dialogues of the Carmelites
First performance: January 6, 1957, at La Scala in Milan, Italy, Nino Sanzogno conducting
First SLSO performance: June 18, 2014, as the resident orchestra of Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, Ward Stare conducting
Instrumentation: soprano soloist, piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, 2 harps, piano, celesta, strings, chorus
Approximate duration: 7 minutes
David Garrett, a former programmer of orchestra concerts, is an Australian writer, speaker, and broadcaster about music, whose program notes are read worldwide. He has special interests in French and choral music.
Program Notes are sponsored by Washington University Physicians.