An analysis of the second act of Messiaen’s “Saint Francois d’Assise”

Alright, let’s keep writing on this mystical beast of an opera. In the previous chapter I mentioned that while the first act of Saint Francois was focused on the earthly, the human, and on suffering, this second act takes a turn toward the heavenly, the divine, and the joyful. 

However, it’s important to know that at no point does any scene actually take place in heaven. We remain human, with our feet on the ground on this earth. This is because of Messiaen taking what is, in my opinion, the only logical way to approach concepts of God: the illogical way. That may sound funny, but let me explain. Any attempt to prove the existence of God through conventional sciences and mathematics, has, for all intents and purposes, failed. Therefore, there is but one approach to take: God and Heaven both exist outside of the human sphere of language or logic. Trying to prove or disprove the existence of God using the very human elements of science is like trying to calculate infinity using regular numbers. We can talk about these concepts and describe them, but in the end, we cannot come close to forming a full image of it, since they are so separated from us. In this way, God becomes an almost Lovecraftian concept – with the important distinction that God loves and cares about humans, while Lovecraftian horrors are mostly indifferent (as an aside, this ‘cosmic horror’ side will become very apparent in the first scene of the third act, which is one of the most intense pieces of music that have ever been written). From this perspective, it makes total sense to not try to create an image of Heaven within the opera, because we cannot conceptualise Heaven, so any attempt at doing so would be inadequate at best.

Instead, the concepts used in this second act are elements that exist somewhere in between Heaven and earth – mediums that can be used to convey certain messages from Heaven to earth, given that the language is right. In my interpretation, the three scenes of this act portray three ways of communication from Heaven to earth: 

  1. angels 
  2. music, and 
  3. birds.

However, these things aren’t simply three elements of one category. Rather, they all exist and function in their own ways, and often their functions are intertwined.

The first scene of this act – the fourth scene overall – is the only scene where Francis has no sung lines. Here the angel is put in the spotlight, briefly becoming the main character if only for this one scene. He knocks on the door, and because he’s an angel, this knocking moves heaven and earth, making a tremendous noise. Brother Messeo, who is watching the convent, then teaches the angel (he doesn’t know it’s an angel) how to knock – quietly, 3 times, then wait for just enough time to say a prayer, and if nobody has come yet, you may knock again, quietly, 3 times. The angel wishes to speak to Father Francis, but does not want to disturb him and decides to speak to Brother Elias instead. He asks a question to Brother Elias, who then gets angry because he feels the angel is lecturing him (he, too, does not recognise that it’s an angel) and kicks him out of the convent. The angel then knocks on the door again, making the same tremendous noise, and Messeo answers, saying “Hello, my friend. You have not heeded my lesson,” in a bit of subtle comedy that I greatly appreciate. The angel wishes to speak to brother Bernard and asks him the same question, which Bernard answers very wisely.

At first glance, this scene might kind of seem like just an interlude, like it’s just something that happened in the life of St. Francis, so we’ll include it in the story, we’re not trying to build a whole thematically coherent narrative here. However, looking deeper into it there is a point to this scene. When the angel meets Brother Elias and Brother Bernard, he asks them both the same question:

“What do you think about predestination? Have you rejected the old man and embraced the new man, to find your true face as predicted by God, in the justice and holiness of truth?”

Elias answers: “What is this? He’s lecturing me!” and pushes the angel out of the convent. Brother Bernard, however, answers wisely: 

“I have often thought that after my death our lord Jesus Christ will look at me as he looked at money, tribute money, saying: “whose is this image and this inscription?” And if it pleases God and his grace, I would like to be able to answer: “yours, yours”. That is why I have left the world, and why I am here”.

When I first heard this, the question and answer did not make sense to me. Messiaen himself does a reasonable job at explaining the concepts in his interview with Claude Samuel, but it still required me to do some bible study of my own before it really clicked. The ‘old man’ and the ‘new man’ are concepts introduced by the apostle Paul. In essence, the ‘old man’ is from before the crucifixion, where the ‘new man’ was created by the crucifixion and the resurrection – it’s someone who is following Christ and the new way. But what is ‘the old man’? Messiaen says it’s the man ‘given over to fantasies and emotions’, while the new man ‘follows the path of grace’. In this way, the brothers can be seen to reflect these two kinds of ‘man’. Brother Elias’s angry reaction shows that he is still subject to his ‘old man’ rages and emotions. By refusing to answer the question, he has in fact unknowingly answered the question. 

Brother Bernard’s answer refers to a different event, which is told in the new testament. Simplified: when the apostles ask Jesus if they should pay tribute money to Caesar, Jesus holds up the coin and says: “whose is this image and this inscription?” The message is clear: Those who serve money, do not serve God. Since Brother Bernard wants to serve God, he hopes to be able to answer: “yours” when this question is asked about him.  Bernard hereby shows that he has indeed embraced the “new man”, and the angel is pleased.

So, who is the angel? We can interpret that he is a being that can come down from heaven to earth to relay messages from above. We can also note that he is able to disguise himself somehow, seeing as none of the three brothers Messeo, Elias and Bernard recognise him. The most interesting thing we can learn about the angel from this scene, however, is the language that he speaks. In the first act, he exclusively uses words to communicate. But why would a being from heaven, with greater knowledge than any man, have to rely on concepts like the ‘old man’ and the ‘new man’ – concepts that were brought forth by Saint Paul, who is merely human, to get his point across? The answer is that verbal language is simply insufficient to truly relay the word of God to humans. Since humans are fluent in verbal language, they have come close, but a perfect representation of heavenly concepts in human language is impossible (see what I explained above about the ‘illogical way’ to approach God). Therefore, an angel, despite his great, divine knowledge, cannot explain the concepts of heaven any better within verbal language than a human can, simply because both run into the limits of language. 

It is for this reason that the angel ends the scene saying: “I will now go and talk to Francis, in a better way than with words”. When conveying an image of ‘the invisible’, instead of describing it with verbal language he takes the route of music. This is the plot of the fifth scene, where the angel visits Francis in his grotto and plays the violin for him, giving him a vision of heaven which overwhelms him. It’s no coincidence that this moment is musically situated right in the middle of the second act, which places it approximately in the middle of the opera as well. “God”, says the angel, quoting Thomas Aquinas, “overwhelms us by an excess of truth. Music brings us closer to God by lack of truth” – see how again the angel adopts words that have been written by humans. In the context of this quote it makes sense how Messiaen, known for his complex harmonies, now writes nothing but a simple C major chord that lasts for minutes, while the three ondes-martenots represent the sound of the angel’s violin. It does sound heavenly indeed. 

Music can be understood as a language that is specifically shaped (whether it’s somehow engineered in this way or just naturally happens to be) to communicate ideas of the divine. The angel might be the messenger who comes down to earth from heaven, but he needs music in order to bring heaven down to earth with him.

The final question then is: What do the birds do? The answer to this can be very simple if seen from outside the work: Messiaen was fascinated by them his whole life, and there is written history of Francis preaching to the birds, so writing them into the opera seems like a win-win. But this is a lazy way to answer the question, as it doesn’t require one to actually examine the work we’re talking about. Instead, let’s look at what the opera actually says. In the sixth scene, Francis outright identifies three features that make birds divine. First of all, they have been granted freedom, the freedom to fly anywhere they please at any moment. Freedom is the ultimate destination of every being, and thus the birds have been gifted by God. Secondly, they are able to communicate through music in their song, which is the same way that the angel communicates when conveying ideas of the divine that are too grand for verbal language. Thirdly, birds are by their nature virtuous creatures. They don’t possess anything and therefore aren’t corrupted by greed; they live purely by the grace of God, which is something that we should all strive for. Interestingly, this mirrors what Francis talked about in the first scene (see my previous post, or alternatively just listen to the scene instead), where he listed the epitomes of power, intelligence and virtue. The birds are powerful because they can fly everywhere, they are intelligent because they can speak the language of angels, and they are virtuous for they live by the grace of God. While Francis argued that neither of these make the ‘perfect joy’, the reason he gave for that was that they come from God, not from ourselves – which only illustrates how much closer to God birds are, since they all already possess these qualities naturally. We can understand birds to be sort of the opposite to angels: While the angels are heavenly beings that descend to earth to express messages, birds are earthly beings that can fly up to heaven (metaphorically) to interpret messages. 

There is way more to be said about birds, but let’s continue with that later. I hope to write on the third act next, and hopefully bring a bunch of these ideas closer together.

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