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The MHS Review 395 Vol. 11 No. 17, 1987

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David M. Greene


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It has always struck me as amazing that, in Western civilization, drama was twice born in the temple. All religious ritual, of course, has dramatic (and musico-dramatic) elements. But, according to ancient Greek legend, the theater came into being when Thespis dialogued with the chorus and became the first actor. A second actor was added, and then a third, and the drama moved outside the place of worship and onto the stage.

After the Germanic and Hunnish inva­sions of the early Christian era, the curtain came down, apparently for good. But eventually dialogued texts were inserted into the liturgy, partly to enable the choir-­singers to memorize the music. As is well known, those involving the Resurrection, with the crucial announcement to the three grief-stricken Marys at the Tomb, "He is not here; He is risen!," cried out for representation.

And so, with the "Quern quaeritis" trope, modern drama was born around a century after Charlemagne in whatever church or monastery chapel. Though fragmentary evidence makes any systematic history of the development im­probable, we know that the dramatization of other crucial points in the Christian story quickly followed. Eventually episodes from hagiography and the Old Testament were included.

The story of the prophet Daniel was an obvious candidate. The Book of Daniel itself is chiefly concerned with his pro­phecies to Belshazzar and Darius, but the episodes of the mysterious handwriting that appeared on the wall at Belshazzar's feast, and that of the prophet who remain­ed unharmed after a night in the lion's den, were two that made Bible stories exciting to kids of my generation. (The Book of Daniel was probably written some cen­turies after whatever facts there are. Its treatment of known history is garbled, and we can't be sure that Daniel ever existed, much less that he underwent these experiences.)

Two medieval Daniel plays have surviv­ed. One, written by a certain Hilarius, but not particularly humorous, focuses on the lion's den, and includes no music. The other--the one on the record offered herewith--treats both episodes, and in­cludes not only music but helpful hints on performance. It is found in a manuscript in the British National Library (formerly British Museum) that was written in the 13th century and which tells us that the play is the work of students at Beauvais Cathedral in France. They apparently per­formed it at New Year's when, traditional­ly, they were grudgingly permitted to kick up their heels, and what we have in the manuscript probably is the end product of a tradition going back a century or more.

The first publication of the Beauvais Ludus Danielis was in France in 1861. But it had to wait nearly a century for a modern performance. The late Noah Greenberg, founder and director of the New York Pro Musica Antigua of sainted memory, en­countered the published version in 1954 and included excerpts in his Christmas con­certs at The Cloisters, the medieval branch of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, over the next two years.

Backed by Lincoln Kirstein, Greenberg was able, in January 1958, to present a fully staged and costumed version, which became an annual tradition. The music was shortly thereafter committed to LP. Now, of course, the work is well known. In my neighborhood, for instance, Muhlenberg College put on a stunning performance in its neo-Gothic chapel a couple of years ago. (The mis-en-scene was antique-Oriental rather than Greenberg's medieval.)

The present recording appeared here on the Argo label eight or nine years ago. It aimed, in the current sense, at "authentici­ty." Used as I was to the Greenbergian glit­ter, I found it stark, and, after an initial playing, left the record on the shelf until now. It is amazing how one learns despite oneself. (I now listen to Schoenberg with equanimity!) Hearing it this time, I found that the performance seemed to me entire­ly just, and to have far more vitality and variety than I recalled. Without the visuals, however, it does seem to me to go on (it runs to almost an hour); but perhaps that is because I, a child of the 20th century, lack medieval calm.

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