The Play of Daniel — A Medieval Music Drama from Beauvais

No professional theater culture
existed at the time and we do not know what conception the medieval era had
of theater, though we can be pretty sure solemn dramas had a religious basis
(as they do in every indigenous theater culture) and that music was involved
somehow (ditto).

The Play of Daniel, however it was presented in the reign of
Philip Augustus (the surviving manuscript does not apportion voices or
instruments, much less stage directions), was an early landmark in the work
of Noah Greenberg’s New York Pro Musica Antiqua, one of the earliest
organizations to delve into early music and perform it with something like
scholarly fidelity but also modern theatricality. Their Daniel had
its premiere at the Cloisters in 1958, and was later filmed for television.
That televised version, shown each year at Christmastime, was a joy of my
childhood, when the Cloisters represented, for me, something of a dream
palace. The staging, which based costume, movement, attitude, and primitive
but graceful special effects on medieval illustration, was also magical
– and besides, it was my first exposure to Early Music. The annual
showing ended, alas, around 1969, when Channel 13 began to broadcast in color
and assumed no one would want to watch a black and white film (they were
so wrong!), and that film evidently survives only in a damaged
kinescope – it’s not even on Youtube.

The Early Music revival has been one of the triumphs of recent times (its
history is a grand book idea, if some author out there is looking for one).
Today there are dozens of groups of every size touring the world with
once-forgotten repertory and style, and Early Music concerts sell out from
Moscow to Seattle. Once obliged to depend on academic day jobs, musicians can
now make careers performing the work of once-forgotten eras. Yet the
sophistication, the musicality, the wit of Greenberg’s troupe have
seldom been surpassed.

Accordingly, to mark the fiftieth anniversary of that first staging, the
Gotham Early Music Series (GEMS) has
given four performances of Daniel as part of a series of concerts
presented through the year by the Cloisters Museum in the intimate acoustic
of its FuentidueÒa Chapel. No less illustrious a figure than Russell Oberlin,
a founder of the modern countertenor tradition and a star of the 1958
production, sat, silver-haired and regal, right in front of me, and prefaced
the show with some enthusiastic words about the treat in store for us.
Another great countertenor of the recent past, Drew Minter, was the stage
director, and hewed to the faux-naÔve medieval look, in movement, attitude,
costume, image, proper to the piece.

I loved the way the chorus, singing the explanatory introduction as they
marched in procession down the aisle, gravely performed simple,
book-of-hours-style dances, and the nasal whine of the king’s groveling
counselors, and the flashy lions set to devour Daniel who, at a touch from
the Angel, began to mew and fawn to be petted instead. I have no idea how the
Writing on the Wall was done in 1958, but just projecting it up there did not
have the magical effect of a bodyless hand actually writing that I recall
from the film. (Alex Ross, in The New Yorker, is also nostalgic for
that moment. How many people did that film introduce to Early
Music?) The small playing space no doubt forced many compromises on the
company – in the film, of course, the entire huge building could be
used, and was – I remember King Balthazar fleeing from assassins, who
caught and strangled him on the terrace, and the ominous invasion of what
seemed a vast Persian army, and there seemed, in my recollection, more room
for dance. Today, those who attend the Cloisters’ concert series must
content themselves with an hour or two imbibing atmosphere from the
museum’s impressive collection of objects and architectural elements, a
fine way to wind up to or down after a concert.

Perhaps the greatest departure in this revival from the original was to
eliminate the brief explanatory verses by W.H. Auden (no less), recited by a
monkish compËre figure (Alvin Epstein back then – who is still around,
and recently played King Lear downtown), which kept us abreast of
the story, scene by scene, in the happy days before surtitles. Minter saw no
reason for surtitles – and he was right, although Daniel’s is, in
a sense, the first story about surtitles, the Writing on the Wall.
But the story is simple and pretty well known (I have seen Minter himself
sing the title role in Handel’s oratorio Belshazzar). But I
missed the breathing space between numbers that the verses provided, and the
slower pace of the singing, and there were attendees around me who studied
the libretto rather than watching the clear, simple action in front of them.
Like the medieval artists whose handiwork was all around us, the creators of
Daniel, both the ancient and the modern ones, did everything they
could to make the story and its lessons clear; a child of six would have had
no trouble following the action, but some adults evidently did.

All you need, really, is a bunch of singers trained to the demands of
medieval a cappella style but able as well (as church singers need not be) to
move well and to act. James Ruff made a stiff Daniel, but sang with a fine
vibrato-free baritone. Much more fun was had by Peter Walker as doomed King
Balthazar (sic, in this version) and, later, a reluctant prophet
Abacuc (Habakkuk), dragged in by his ear to foretell a messiah, by JosÈ
Lemos, a splendid alto countertenor, as the triumphant Darius, by the three
whiny counselors and the two prancing lions. It was no surprise to see the
names of two dozen well-known early music groups mentioned in the
musicians’ biographies. Psaltery, rebec, shawms – the simple
orchestration contained the usual suspects, except for the intrusion, during
the concluding Te Deum, of modern toned chimes. The processions of
singers in and out of the chapel and off into the echoing distance made wise
use of the building and added medieval atmosphere to the occasion.

I hope Daniel becomes, once more, a seasonal tradition. It will
undoubtedly draw new children of all ages to this marvelous repertory, and,
at 53 minutes, it’s a lot shorter than Handel’s

John Yohalem

image_description=Decorated archway, The Cloisters Museum and Gardens, New York.
product_title=The Play of Daniel— A Medieval Music Drama from Beauvais
product_by=Daniel: James Ruff; King Balthasar/Abacuc: Peter Walker; King Darius: JosÈ Lemos; Queen/Abacuc’s Angel: Sarah Pillow. Staged by Drew Minter. Mary Anne Ballard, music director. Presented by the Cloisters Museum concert series. Performance of December 21.
product_id=Above: Decorated archway, The Cloisters Museum and Gardens, New York.