David’s revenge (ii) Honegger in Bercy

The cavernous Palais Omnisports Paris-Bercy is a place that I primarily associate either with Lady Gaga and Rihanna or with indoor tennis, but at the end of September it hosted the French Protestants en Fête Festival, subtitled Paris d’espérance (a bit of wordplay which could be loosely translated ‘betting on hope’). On Sunday September 29th an estimated 12-15,000 (including Catholic Cardinal André Vingt-Trois, as there was an ecumenical dimension to the Paris-wide festival, whose venues included the Institut Catholique) attended a televised worship service  with singing led by a thousand-member choir and instrumental ensemble directed by my good friend John Featherstone. Prior to this was a Saturday evening marathon entertainment event featuring everything from headliner Camerounian saxophonist/singer Manu Djibango and manouche jazz guitar to Gospel and theatre sketches; my part in the proceedings was that I had been entrusted with kicking off the evening by directing a ‘classical’ set with forces drawn from the CRESCENDO professional Christian musicians’ network.

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I put ‘classical’ in inverted commas as we found ourselves performing in a rock concert atmosphere complete with giant screens, dry ice, cameramen a matter of inches from the players and a live audience of around 7000, a setting which had its challenges but also a peculiar thrill to it. On the program were works by Mendelssohn, two of Brahms’s Vier ernste Gesänge given a memorable performance by the formidable Bertrand Grunenwald, my own Breathe in me (on a prayer to the Holy Spirit by St Augustine that I discovered in an adaptation by Mother Teresa of Calcutta), plus three movements from Honegger’s Roi David.

Théâtre du Jorat, Mézières, 1921

Théâtre du Jorat, Mézières, 1921

Honegger’s ‘Symphonic Psalm’ on the life of King David  is without doubt Francophone Protestantism’s greatest contribution to modern musical literature. It has to be conceded that the composer’s neo-classical aesthetic is not to all tastes, and that the recitation accompanying the piece has not aged as well as the score itself, yet the work is a real feat of musico-poetic imagination, particularly when you consider the highly problematic practical circumstances under which it was written. If Le Roi David is now best-known as an oratorio with full orchestra, it was originally composed for a Biblical drama by Swiss poet René Morax for the Théâtre du Jorat in Mezières near Lausanne, where Honegger had the delicate task of writing for 100 amateur voices accompanied by an instrumental ensemble of only 17 players (including a solitary double bass). It was this original 1921 instrumentation that we used at Bercy, and the score just goes to prove the maxim that necessity really is the mother of invention, with the composer following the no-nonsense advice of Igor Stravinsky, who had advocated him for the project: ‘It’s very simple … Do as if you wanted this ensemble, and compose for a hundred singers and seventeen instrumentalists’. Le Roi David is remarkable for the way in which Honegger is able to squeeze every last drop of colour and texture from the forces available to him with masterly economy (not least by the imaginative use of keyboard sonorities and muted brass). In particular, the extended Danse devant l’arche and the work’s finale La Mort de David, with which we concluded our set at Bercy, have to count among the great moments of the modern choral/orchestral repertoire. In the finale, first the soprano soloist (the excellent Diana Higbee) and then the chorus take us beyond the Davidic timeframe with a promise that is both Messianic and eschatological, its note of ultimate hope being all the more noteworthy in having been written in the wake of the carnage of World War I:

Dieu te dit: un jour viendra
où une fleur fleurira
de ta souche reverdie,
et son parfum remplira
tous les peuples d’ici-bas
du souffle de la vie.
Alleluia!

God tells you: a day will come
when a flower will blossom
from your stem grown green once more
and its perfume will fill
all the peoples here below
with the breath of life
Alleluia!

Arthur Honegger, 1921

Arthur Honegger, 1921

Besides this one-of-a-kind event in Bercy (of which a commemorative DVD has just appeared) and my memories of Kodaly’s Psalmus Hungaricus there are two additional reasons why the Biblical figure of King David has very much in my mind of late. The first, of course, is the present season of Advent – just yesterday in our liturgical readings we heard David and ‘Uriah’s wife’ (a.k.a. Bathsheba) mentioned in the genealogy of Joseph that opens Matthew’s Gospel. The second, however, may surprise you as the third part of this post takes a sudden lurch away from music to an urgent subject which has not yet been featured on this blog but may well do so in the future with a certain frequency given the current turn of international events – global finance.

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David’s revenge (i) Psalmus Hungaricus

In my previous post I indulged in some reminiscences about my first exposure to the world of professional music as a teenage chorister in London, talking about Benjamin Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream in which I sang in 1980. Today I would like to go back a year in thinking about a Biblical figure who has been uppermost in my mind recently for reasons both musical and non-musical: King David, the hero of the present three-part post. On July 24, 1979 I took part in a performance at the BBC Proms under Sir Charles Mackerras of the Psalmus Hungaricus Op.13 of Zoltán Kodály , a piece that I still regard as one of the twentieth century’s most underrated choral masterworks. Written to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of Buda and Pest and given its first performance in the same concert as Bartók’s Dance Suite, this setting of Psalm 55 is one of imposing emotional range, encompassing moments both of hushed meditation and rugged, declamatory ferocity in its trajectory leading from a cry of affliction and betrayal to contrite expectation and final vindication. That it is not better-known outside Hungary can surely only be attributed to linguistic factors (in 1979 we sang in English) and the difficulty of the cruelly taxing solo tenor part. Its climaxes may strike some listeners as bombastic, but there are also introspective passages of a haunting, evocative beauty, notably the clarinet and violin solos of the Psalm’s central section in which Kodaly displays a similar flair for delicate orchestral colour as that found in Hary Janos or his unjustly neglected Peacock Variations. Above all, what continues to stand out for me when listening again to the Psalmus Hungaricus is the unusually dramatic, almost operatic intensity of its portrayal of King David. This is a thorougly un-sanitized Psalmist who shines through not only as a sublime liturgical poet but the passionate creature of flesh and blood that we find in the Biblical record, capable of giving expression to even the most visceral of human feelings.

Zoltán Kodály, 1930

Zoltán Kodály, 1930

The première of Kodály’s Psalmus Hungaricus took place on November 19, 1923. Just two weeks later, another Davidic masterpiece, Le Roi David by Arthur Honegger (1892-1955) received its first performance in the oratorio form which would make the composer’s international reputation. This piece now leads me to fast forward from 1979 to 2013 and a concert which was certainly one of the most unusual concerts with which I have ever been involved.