Now, you think about opera and something epic comes to mind. You think about French composers and something beautiful but somehow light is expected. You think about nuns and silence and boredom are words that could come to mind. Not that nuns are usually welcome as great historical characters. You think about Francois Poulenc and you may think: Francois who?, the man being not so well-known as some other composers. You think about classical music and it seems it all ended with Mahler and Strauss in the first half of the 20th Century. Maybe you should think less, and listen to some music instead.
Dialogues of the Carmelites is a quite unusual opera, we have to concede that. It is based on a play which in turn is based upon a short piece, which is based upon an almost forgotten episode of the French Revolution period. It was composed by a composer appreciated for his high-spirited music but not really regarded as a master of serious composition. It was also intended to be a ballet, first, and not even based on that particular story but, some may say, fate was dictated from above to get the terrible story of these people to the stage.
One of the main aspects of the social upside downs which take place during the French Revolution was the triumph of anti-clericalism and the suppression of religious belief. Well, at least that was intended, and somewhat accomplished from the institutional point of view: measures were taken, religion abolished, abbeys and nunneries suppressed, clerics lost their jobs (some like Talleyrand to no loss and, in fact, outstanding careers in the Civil service), all in the name of Reason. In July 1790 a new law was passed, known as the Constitution civile du clergé or Civil constitution of the clergy. In it, after the confiscation of land and other property and the banning of sacred vows by previous regulation, was enforced the dissolution of every order, both regular and secular. In fact, French Church became an instrument of the Revolutionary Government.
The Government required all clergy to show allegiance. An Oath must be sworn, But not every member of the clergy was willing to do so (in some areas with strong support from their flocks). Just five bishops (again, Talleyrand) and more or less half the clergy complied. The idea was for the Priests to become some kind of Civil servants, in charge of religious matters but, of course, on behalf of the Government. But there was no place in the new France for the idle nuns and monks, who were not really needed for the cult. They just have to go home, leaving behind the properties the Government was also coveting to fill some big gaps in the budget. But then, in Compiegne (a small provincial town which would become famous in both World Wars), there was a group of Discalced Carmelite nuns, lay sisters and externs (these being in charge of community’s business outside the Monastery) and they simply will not leave.
That was the layout of the story Poulenc was about to set to music. It was intended to be a ballet on the life of Saint Margaret of Cortona, commissioned by La Scala at Milan. The composer began working on it but found the ballet not feasible. In any case Poulenc, who was increasingly focused on religious and vocal music and, at the same time, showing some frustration with his public consideration as a lightweight composer, suggested in its place an opera on a religious theme. The Italian publisher who was supporting the commission, Ricordi, seemingly suggested a play by Georges Bernanos called “Dialogues of the Carmelites” on the advice of her wife, later producer of the opera. Poulenc really liked the play so he began working on the music at some point in summer 1953.
Fittingly, the composition of this opera was to become a period of grief and endurance for Poulenc. First, trouble with the rights to the play arose. Then his partner Lucien Roubert became ill. And the illness was serious enough to make him fear for his life. Coping with all this was too much for the composer and a year after he started the work he had to be interned in a clinic outside Paris with a nervous breakdown. He finally recovered after some rest and heavy sedation made effect and could resume work at a steady pace, somewhat interrupted by the need of giving recitals every so often to earn a living. With Roubert health declining rapidly, Poulenc was forcing pace to finish the opera. Both ended almost at the same time (Poulenc even wrote to a friend indicating that he had finished work just as Roubert was expiring) leaving our composer, one can guess, exhausted and mournful.
We had left our nuns refusing to comply with the orders, clinching to their monastery in spite of the threats and the suggestion of violence. They were, it seems, willing to face martyrdom. In the end, they got it. Authorities grew tired of their resistance and decided to enforce the Constitution, so nuns were arrested and, after a brief stay at Cambrai along with a group of English Benedictine nuns, taken to Paris to await trial. Four years had passed since the promulgation of the Constitution, and events in France had developed against the nuns: the Government had fallen in the hands of the Jacobin faction and, by the time of their detention, the Reign of Terror was marching full throttle. And that meant no-nonsense: everyone considered as an enemy of the State could be sure that his head was at a stake.
In what at the time passed for trial, they were found guilty of treason and sentenced to death, the execution to take place almost immediately, on 17 July 1794. There, at the scaffold, the whole group stopped and jointly and defiantly they all renowned their vows (that vows banned by the revolutionary laws) and sung the Hymn used for the profession of vows ceremony, the Veni Creator Spiritus. Then, as they kept on singing, they mounted the scaffold one by one to meet their martyr’s death, from novice to prioress.
On the event of the Terror ending soon after this events, the now released, and still alive, English nuns at Cambrai decided that it had to be a miracle secured by the martyrdom of their Compiegne colleagues, thus beginning their devotion focusing on the lay clothes they were forced to wear in prison- given for the same reason to the English Benedictines. In 1906 the Compiegne Martyrs were beatified by the Pope.
That was the real story. Obviously Bernanos and then Poulenc himself who was also responsible for the libretto fictionalised the facts to provide a suitable background for the operatic depiction. The main (and fictional) character, Blanche de la Force, is an aristocrat’s daughter seeking refuge in the monastery who, after leaving the community, will go back at the last-minute joining them in martyrdom while singing the Veni Creator spiritus by herself, the others singing Salve Regina. The prioress died an untimely and painful death in the first act, setting the tone for the rest of the congregation seeking the martyr’s death even if, as the new Mother Superior says, it is God who decides who will be martyred. As the nuns vow to die as martyrs and Blanche escapes, Mother Marie follows her so avoiding detention and martyrdom (being, as it seems, spared by God), albeit, as we have seen, Blanche herself will accept her destiny and join the congregation at the end.
Poulenc’s music is light, but not because of the joy of living, as it had usually been, but with the grave joy of those seeking martyrdom. At some points we could easily call it ethereal. The dialogues are set in recitatives, avoiding somehow the monotony of everyday life in a nunnery. Small groups of instruments are used here and there to bring out some particular effect, and above all, a magnificent vocal music, moving when it needs be, powerful yet frail, underscoring each nun’s characters and their defining and contrasting personalities. Dialogues des Carmelites still is one of the most staged “modern” operas, and Poulenc’s credit as a fine master of vocal, religious music has done nothing but increase since its first performance in 1957.
So, in the road to martyrdom, our Compiegne nuns found some source of inner peace and maybe happiness while, in the road to composing the opera depicting the nuns’ last days, Poulenc traveled through hell, and ended up achieving a well deserved place between music’s greatest. Transcending oneself is, it seems, a matter of will and endurance.