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.