Monday, October 10, 2022

Some Little Knights Music

One never knows when and how a musical work might cross one's path.

  • A few years ago, some back and forth with friends about music in quintuple meter led me to a virtual obsession with a little fugue by the little-known Anton Reicha.
  • Last year, encounters with an unusual hymn from the 1970s by another little-known composer turned into a series of experiments in creating virtual performances of a hazy hymn tune.
  • Eleven years ago, I walked into a hall to hear a young chamber orchestra rehearsing and fell in love with four minutes of a string symphony by a 12-year-old Mendelssohn, leading to this extended analysis.
  • More than twenty years ago, a snowstorm cancelled a rehearsal which led me to create some synthesized practice materials which I later converted into thirty minutes of slo-mo Schoenberg.
You never know.

Now if, out of the blue, you'd told me the Italian/American composer Gian Carlo Menotti had written a dramatic cantata about a bishop lamenting the loss of children in an ill-fated crusade...I'm pretty sure I'd have had no interest in the matter. I know and have played some of Menotti's better-known opera arias (this is an all-timer), and I have no objection to his music, but I'm not a big fan of dramatic cantatas or obscure historical fables...and I just would have had little incentive to invest in getting to know this mostly forgotten music.

However, it turns out that the major recording of this work, The Death of the Bishop of Brindisi, was made by my hometown Boston Symphony Orchestra featuring a children's choir from Catholic Memorial, the boys prep school where I've been teaching the past five years. I just learned of this 1965 LP a few weeks ago and am still sorting out some of its history. The most extraordinary part is that my school was only founded in 1957. Within a year of that founding, an organist named Berj Zamkochian had started a glee club which somehow provided half of the children's voices for this major recording less than a decade later. (The other children's choir members came from another school where Zamkochian taught. I'm wondering if that school was co-ed, because Catholic Memorial was a 9-12 school, which makes me wonder how many treble voices they would have had.)

Zamkochian is a rather remarkable figure who served as the BSO's organist from 1957-2004, making highly regarded recordings of the Saint-Saens "Organ" Symphony and the Poulenc Organ Concerto with Charles Munch. Obviously, he had an "in" at Symphony Hall, but it's still impressive that he was able to have students trained at this level in so little time. 

The chorus of townspeople on this LP is sung by The New England Conservatory Chorus, led by the legendary Lorna Cooke deVaron. I had the honor of working as an accompanist with deVaron during her retirement years when she was still very active leading a few ambitious community choirs. So this recording features a chorus from my alma mater, conducted by someone I knew and worked under, and featuring a children's choir from the school where I now teach. Reason enough to give Menotti's cantata a second look!

And as it turns out, I've now listened to the thirty-minute cantata at least ten times and have gotten to know it pretty well. While it's definitely odd and has some features I don't love, I find it strangely compelling, and I especially enjoy the way the children's choir is used. Maybe this isn't so surprising since Menotti is best-known for an opera about a child. Although the central character is clearly The Bishop, I find him a bit tiresome for reasons I'll discuss, but the children's choir serves as the heart of the show. 

The cantata concerns a legendary "Children's Crusade" from the year 1212, based on true (at least in part) stories of young people inspired by a child's vision to go reclaim the Holy Land peacefully. Menotti's cantata is focused on a dying bishop who is haunted by his memories of having blessed this doomed crusade. The cantata plays out like some combination of a deathbed confession and waking fever dream with "The Bishop" questioning his leadership and the very foundations of his faith as he relives his fateful choices. The only other character in the present is "The Nun" who tries in vain to bring him back to reality and to offer consolation. As the drama unfolds, we experience in flashback the first hopeful and later terrified voices of children and the mobbed voices of townspeople who, transfixed by the children's visions, beg the bishop to bless the journey and then later curse him for the outcome. (You can read much more detail about the historical background here in a write-up by bass-baritone Bruce Burroughs who has sung the part of the bishop.)

The cantata proceeds as an uninterrupted flow of music, about thirty minutes with no separate arias or movements. The music for The Bishop and The Nun is in a declamatory, parlando style almost throughout, with orchestra supplying psychological backup. The two choruses generally sing more obviously tuneful material, bringing the bishop's memories to life.

Here is a basic outline of the overall structure:

  • INTRODUCTION (1 minute): A one-minute orchestral introduction features a dark, foreboding tune we'll later hear as the first tune sung by the children setting off on their journey. The modal melody is first played by low woodwinds and horns in a manner which suggests the distant past. It is then played again by more passionate strings which adds a more expansive and emotional tone to set up the bishop's entrance. 
  • BISHOP & NUN (5.5 minutes): The bishop begins singing about how the onset of night makes it impossible to shield his "unraveled mind" as "mem'ries unlock their secret dungeons." As he hears voices and asks for the doors to be locked, the nun tries to assure him no one is there and that he only hears the sea. Their dialogue leads to him recounting the moment he first encountered the children on the shore.
  • START OF MISSION (10 minutes): In succession, we hear the children announce their mission, the townspeople marveling at them, the bishop begging to be freed from these memories, the nun assuring him he tried to stop the children, the townspeople begging for his blessing, and the bishop again wondering why he gave in. (Notably, we don't experience the blessing itself, just his regret.)
  • DEPARTURE & STORM (4 minutes): At precisely halfway through the cantata, the beatific children's chorus sets out, singing "I shall kiss our Lord's tomb, I shall free the Holy Land." Immediately, the bishop describes a storm, and we soon hear the children crying for help and subsequently drowning, with the bishop (in the present) despairing that he can't help.
  • BISHOP & TOWNSPEOPLE (4 minutes): The bishop twice sings more or less the same music of regret, framing an outburst from the townspeople in which they curse him.
  • BISHOP & NUN (3.5 minutes): The nun continues to console the bishop, first asking him to "fret not" and then singing a short requiem for him as he continues his anguished questioning.
  • ALL (3 minutes): The assembled voices sing words of comfort and assurance that these existential questions are not in vain. Chilling death knells in the orchestra bring the curtain down.
Importantly from a dramatic perspective, the bishop always remains in the present, experiencing the memories at times as if the children and townspeople are in the present as well. Though he is alternately desperate and philosophical, we never experience him in a settled state. The nun's role as consoling voice is virtually unchanged throughout. The children are presented (presumably according to the bishop's perspective) as innocent and idealistic throughout. They do cry out to him and their parents during the storm, but then sing a dignified Jesu Deus noster, miserere nobis as they disappear into the sea. The townspeople represent human fallibility and mob mentality, singing with great passion and purpose throughout but without wisdom or self-reflection. 

First performed in 1963, it's hard not to hear in this music some connection to the events unfolding in Vietnam; the cantata mostly focuses on the doubts felt by a leader sending young people off to risk their lives under questionable circumstances. Just read this series of words from the bishop (from various sections of the cantata), who questions himself, the prospect of leading the innocent, his faith, and God:
  • “Beware, beware of pleading children, for where are we to guide them if not within the maze where our own perdition lies.”
  • “And was it not my love which led them to their doom?”
  • “I fear the voice of innocence, for he who loves the helpless must mistrust his love.”
  • “O God, you gave me a ring, you gave me a staff and called me shepherd. If I must guide your flock, why did you leave me unguided?”
  • “I do not mind leading a man who knows that I know not, but can I tell the innocent: "Do not seek my hand for I, too, am lost"?”
  • “Do not call for help, my children. Love has no wings and faith is fallible.”
  • “Was it God's will or my own folly? Who was I to know if it was God or Satan who blinded them with secret splendor?”
  • “But then our soul is deeper than we are, and who can trace and kill the Minotaur who haunts the labyrinth of our hearts?”
  • “What love, what faith can justify the man who makes himself the arbiter of other people's lives?”
  • “What man can call himself a leader if God will mock his strategy?"
  • “Many are the innocents who call for help, but God has made Pilates of us all.”
These words are clear and powerful in their expressions of a crumbling faith. That said, probably my biggest objection to the cantata from a musical/dramatic perspective is that it is so focused on the bishop's unrelenting grief and regret. We don't see or hear him experience much range of emotions or change in character. His music, though consistently anguished, has a certain sameness and, because it so declamatory in style, there aren't many satisfying or memorable melodic hooks. I realize that Menotti's dramatic focus is on this haunted deathbed moment, and that the variety is provided by the other voices, but it makes for a strange leading role. There's no big aria or particularly striking moment that stands out. The one "bishop motif" that sticks with me is a wailing, ascending half-step in the orchestra which occurs at multiple intervals as shown in this quick demo:

Another issue with the words above has to do with Menotti the librettist. Often the language he uses doesn't flow in the most singable way (notice how many of the lines look more like poetry or even prose than lyrics) and I can't imagine an audience following all of these phrases easily without a printed libretto. At one point the Townspeople cry out, "While the Cathar sews his heresy in Languedoc, the Tartar hordes advance in pagan splendor." I'd love to know what listener could follow that easily on the fly. Earlier on, The Nun sings, "Now that your death is near, rescue you must the heart from the wreckage of your past, and steer your floundering soul toward the emerging haven." 

Speaking of The Nun, her role is the most disappointing for me as it simply doesn't offer much in the way of vocal rewards for the singer or standout moments for the audience. The idea of her singing a requiem alongside the bishop's words towards the end is lovely, but she only gets to sing six words (Requiem aeternam. Dona eis Domine. Amen.) on one mid-register pitch! She has one semi-vivid moment with "Do not fret, my brother..." starting around 24:38 (see video at end of post), culminating with a high G and leading into the little requiem, but she is basically a one-note character.

Against all of that, though, the innocent children grab our attention every time they appear (I suppose on some level, this might be Menotti's point - the dead are the ones we hear as alive.). Here you can hear that opening of the cantata with their melody-to-be in the low winds followed by a skip to their first entrance:

A small notable feature of this modal melody is how the second half of the first bar outlines a minor subdominant (iv) triad which gives the music an old-fashioned plagal feeling with its implied i-iv-i. 

The children's music, in general, provides a simplicity and directness which helps bring the story to life, even if the cantata isn't really so much about storytelling. The townspeople also offer vivid interjections, though I've already mentioned that their language comes across as too literary in places. For example: "The coward Christian knight waiting his chance to plunder his unwary neighbor hides in his towers." The Townspeople do feature in perhaps the most stirring music with their Cecil B. Demille climax on the words: "What burning vision in their sunken eyes gave them such lasting strength?" [occurs at 11:30 in the full recording at end of this post.]

The most dramatic music in the work occurs with the wildly orchestrated storm which begins just past the half-way point at 17:02. This music is effective, probably even more so in a concert hall, but a bit generic, and each lead-in to the children singing is odd in a way I'll let you evaluate for yourself. (It almost seems like Menotti wanted to be sure the children don't miss these entrances.) The drowning of the voices is the musical highlight here. Listen starting at 19:45 to how these words are reflected in all that's going on around them in the orchestra:
In a windy, wat'ry abyss we are flung.
I can no longer hear my own voice. Ah-Ah...
Can you hear me, mother?
Jesu Deus noster, miserere nobis. Ah-Ah...

According to this article, Menotti loved the final "Sleep, sleep in peace" chorus (sung by all, including the children) so much that he "asked to have it sung at his own funeral." (I don't know if he got his wish.) The Bishop has ended his time with us despairing that he can find no rest:

For all that I have suffered, for all that I have sought,
let me, if for an instant only, behold the eternal truth.
Give me the answer!
No forgiveness can wash my guilt away
for without knowledge absolute there can be no paradise for me.
No gates of Heaven shall I enter unless it be revealed to me why,
why I, who loved so purely, was cursed with such destructive love.
That final chorus includes this somewhat enigmatic (and again, more literary than lyrical) answer, and perhaps Menotti found that enigma satisfying. It certainly provides us with an ending, while also leaving us with much to question:
Nothing is purposeless, nothing.
Then why should God have given you in life a questioning mind
if not to hand to you in death the blinding answer?

You might be questioning why I've spent so much time thinking and writing about a work which isn't entirely satisfying, but I suppose it confirms that I do find the music gripping and powerful. It strikes me very much as a product of its mid-century, middlebrow time when there was a cultural hunger for art which combines general accessibility (it is tonal and sounds like movie music at times) with intellectual ambition (it is philosophical and poetic). Speaking of Menotti's musical approach, the 1964 New York Times review of a performance by the same forces at Philharmonic Hall was perhaps too harsh, a sign of The Times when inaccessible modernity was all the rage:

The score is typical Menotti — craftsmanlike, well orchestrated, highly conservative, and undistinguished in its musical ideas. Basically it is good background music. There is storm music, and religious music, and in general the music illustrates the text. The melodic content, though, is far from striking. What this bland, slick score lacks is nourishment.

Obviously I agree about the melodic content, but I don't find the score bland, and I do think it gives the listener an opportunity to experience both the fervor of the children and townspeople and the regret which they led to for the bishop. And all in thirty minutes.

So, I'll leave you with the recommendation that you find thirty minutes to listen to this unusual work. I've created two versions of the complete RCA recording, which is also available as individual tracks in a playlist here. Both of my versions include easy-to-access chapter links which allow you to move about within the score. The first one I made simply includes the text in easy-to-read size, and in a way that makes it possible to ponder the more serpentine phrases. The second version includes the full score, which is admittedly hard to read in detail, but which shows more the orchestral shape of things; the libretto is also repeated in running captions at the bottom. This video is directly embedded below as well. And if you'd like to study Menotti's libretto on its own, you may find that here.

For further reading/exploration:
  • The 1964 BSO program booklet. These programs are super fun to read with all their historic ads. This booklet also heralds the debut concert of what is now the legendary Boston Symphony Chamber Players. Program notes for Menotti begin on p.28 of this PDF (numbered as p.222 in the booklet pages).
  • Bruce Burroughs' reflections on performing the part of The Bishop, with more historical detail about the Children's Crusades. 
  • There are also at least three live performances available on YouTube via this playlist

P.S. The title of this post is a play not only on the young Crusaders of the story, but the fact that our Catholic Memorial students are known on the field as Knights. Thus, it's especially fun to hear the townspeople sing the following about these 60's C.M. students: "Behold the singing children, God's own little knights." And the children themselves later sing: "Do not cry, dear mother, for your little knight."