Wednesday, June 18, 2008

St. Francis and the Leper

Ever since reading Michael Linton’s adulatory review of Olivier Messiaen’s opera Saint François d’Assise, I have wished to see it.
Messiaen is an enigma to me. Unlike certain speedy critics, I cannot dismiss his experimental style as obscurantist and irrelevant. Neither can I claim to understand it.

That is, I think, part of its point. Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, from what little I know, tries to depict the Apocalypse by transforming musical tempo. When well-formed, the work induces in the listener perplexity and astonishment, thus foreshadowing what one might feel when God strikes the stage of the world.

Witnessing divine intervention, one can only wonder and adore.

Messiaen’s Quartet certainly produces a marvelous wonder, but one can find another near-epiphany in a performance of the composer’s opera about St. Francis, scenes from which now grace the internet courtesy of YouTube.

The scene in question very touchingly shows St. Francis of Assisi’s transformative encounter with a leper. Messiaen wrote the libretto himself, but here the music takes back-seat to the words and the actions of the performers.

Here the taste for wonder is inflamed by a question only a saint can provoke:

What would drive a man to embrace a leper?

Watch, and marvel:

(My translation, a poor libretto, follows beneath the embedded video.)

Leper: What did he say? I don’t understand.

St. Claire (?) : He said: Your heart accuses you,
but God is far greater than your heart.
But God…
But God is all love.
And he who abides
In love,
He abides in God,
And God abides in him.

(Title: and the Leper comes restored…)

Leper: Father, forgive my endless recriminations.
Those brothers of yours, they call me “The Leper.”

St. Francis: Where do you find sadness for yourself,
When I sing joy?

Leper: I know being hideous well,
I have the same revulsion at myself!

St. Francis: Where do you find fault,
If I open the way to Truth?

Leper: But you are good.
You call me “friend, brother, son”

St. Francis: Where do they find the darkness,
If I bear the Light?
The Light!

Forgive me,
My son.
I have not loved you enough.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Much to my own surprise, I have become a great lover of Messiaen's music- especially the weird and surprising textures in his work. I always try to have one of his works on my music player at all times- most recently Tashi's version of the Quartet for the End of Time. But I also love Des Canyons Aux Etoiles, a work which was commissioned for the US bicentennial and which was inspired by Messiaen's visit to the great canyons of Utah (Some of the movements are titled Ceder Breaks, Bryce Canyon, etc...

I haven't yet purchased his Saint François d'Assise, but I plan to in the not to distant future. What a beatiful libretto! Thank you for posting this.

Br. Matthew Augustine Miller, OP