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The Play of Daniel: the first early music blockbuster

by Guest Blogger: Mandy Macdonald

I was a schoolgirl in Sydney when I first heard a recording of The Play of Daniel. I’d never heard anything like it. I was completely blown away. I learned passages off by heart and chanted them to myself on walks in the bush. I bored my friends to death with Daniel. I can’t remember who, if anyone, introduced me to it; I probably just picked it up in a record shop out of curiosity.

I certainly didn’t know then that I was listening to an historic recording, the 1958 LP that put the New York Pro Musica Antiqua and its director, Noah Greenberg, on the map and triggered in many people a lifelong fascination with early music.

Half a century on, listening to the recording on remastered CD, I’m still impressed with its vitality and joyful force. Bloodless and academic this is not.

So what was this extraordinary work? The Play of Daniel (in Latin, Ludus Danielis) has been called a medieval opera – and it certainly has plot, character, spectacle and emotional power. It is also described as a liturgical drama, but it contains some secular elements that differentiate it from other church music dramas of the time.

It was devised in the late twelfth or early thirteenth century, possibly under a single overall director, by students and junior clerics of the cathedral school in the French town of Beauvais, and comes down to us in a manuscript of c. 1230 now in the British Library (Egerton MS 2615).

Evidence from the manuscript connects the play with the liturgy for the Feast of the Circumcision on 1 January, and it could have been presented as either a complement or a corrective to the secular celebrations of the Feast of Fools on the same day, for it dramatizes the Church’s message that the mighty will be toppled and pagans defeated.

Cathédrale Saint-Pierre de Beauvais from the west, a magnificent but over-ambitious architectural showpiece  

The play retells the Old Testament story of the prophet Daniel, in two ‘acts’: first, Daniel interprets the mysterious writing on the wall foretelling the collapse of Belshazzar’s kingdom; this is followed by the episode of the lions’ den, rounded off with Daniel’s prophecy of the birth of Christ.

There’s a big cast of characters: a narrator, Daniel, the two kings, a queen, wise men, envious counsellors, the prophet Habakkuk, and sundry advisors, satraps, courtiers and angels – even two lions. The manuscript contains only the text, in Latin and medieval French, some stage directions, and a single line of music – a spare but suggestive melodic core around which a great variety of elaborations have been woven, sometimes controversially, into modern performance.

An unlikely smash hit is born

The man responsible for bringing this forgotten work to vibrant life in the twentieth century was Noah Greenberg (1919–1966), a working-class Jewish socialist from the Bronx, largely self-taught in music, and the most audacious and charismatic of the American early music pioneers. In 1953 he happened upon the Play of Daniel in an article by William Smoldon, an expert on liturgical drama who had transcribed the British Library manuscript in the 1940s. Greenberg had already successfully launched the largely semi-professional New York Pro Musica Antiqua (brief history and a full discography here) in 1952, and he resolved to stage Daniel for the first time for modern audiences.

Five years of planning, discussion, editing, locating “authentic” instruments, stage and costume design, and fundraising later, the first modern performance of Greenberg’s performing score, based on a new transcription by Rembert Weakland and with English narrative interpolations by the poet W.H. Auden, was given at the Cloisters of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, in January 1958.

I haven’t found any online video or audio clips of that first performance, but here are two excerpts from a 50th-anniversary production filmed in 2008 at the Cloisters, which updated various features such as pronunciation but stayed close to the spirit of ’58:

Belshazzar’s Feast

Daniel reads the writing on the wall

Greenberg’s instrumental scoring was largely speculative and was eventually criticized even by his collaborators; but, of course, it was the exotic, thrilling sounds of the straight trumpet, rebec, psaltery, harp, drums and portative organ that captivated audiences. And captivated they were: every performance sold out and rave reviews bristled with superlatives.

Garbed in glowing colors

The production, with its cast “garbed in glowing colors, as if they had stepped out of the illuminated pages of a medieval manuscript” (Edward Downes, New York Times, 3 January 1958), was a media sensation as well as a public triumph. The voices of the high tenor Russell Oberlin and the tenor Charles Bressler, who portrayed Daniel, were particularly praised.

Far from being a flash-in-the-pan revival, Daniel became central to the New York Pro Musica’s repertoire, and toured the USA and Europe. It was recorded soon after the first performance, and that recording has recently been enshrined in the US National Recording Registry as a hallmark of early music performance. A televised version was shown in the USA every Christmas from 1958 for the next decade.

Although many others have since performed and recorded this work, Greenberg’s Play of Daniel is so significant because it was the first modern performance of a complete medieval liturgical drama, and because it marked such a radical departure from the drily academic treatment that was then the norm for the performance of medieval music.

Greenberg’s interpretation wowed thousands who had never experienced medieval music – or possibly even classical music – before.

But its success also depended on the surge in music-recording technology, and in particular the development of the LP, in the 1940s and 50s. Daniel was a landmark not only in the study and interpretation of medieval music but also in cultural packaging: the performances, the recording (including a booklet with scholarly notes, not at all common in the 1950s), and the performing edition made up an integrated project that doubtless saturated the music media for a while.

Yet, though the New York Pro Musica became increasingly professionalized after Daniel, they arguably never quite captured the public imagination again as they had done in 1958. Their later projects seem, to me at least, like sequels.

© Mandy Macdonald 2011

Do you agree? And does anyone have any photos or that TV film? [Please comment]

3 comments to The Play of Daniel: the first early music blockbuster

  • Saw this every year I could when first in New York. Loved it and miss it. Unfortunately I was not here in 2008, but now am back and wonder if it might become a Christmas season institution again. I also wish for a remastered CD of the unsurpassed Pro Musica original.

  • leslie guinn

    I was in the cast for the 1964 (?) Cloisters production which was filmed for one the NYC public television outlets. I have never been able to find a video copy or mention of it. I would love to know of any lead to pursue. We performed it and/or Herod in NYC and Washington, D.C around the same time but the Cloisters performance was the only one I know of that was filmed.
    Thanks,
    Leslie Guinn

  • Nancy Fahringer

    Noah Greenberg gathered a group of musicians to perform the medieval “Play of Daniel” to acclaim …. in the Cloisters, and later for a larger audience at Riverside Church. Some of the performers: Gordon Meyers, Russell Oberlin, Alva Tripp. I was fortunate to be in an informal group of singers who would read through music Noah had found, so that he could get an idea of it. He wasn’t really a great musician, rather a great enthusiast and promoter, and he brought the early music movement a big start in New York City and eventually a wide audience. I think Auden wrote the [English] words to The Play of Daniel.

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