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In Musical Memoriam: St. Louis IX, King of France

Today, August 25, 2020, marks the 750th anniversary of the death in Tunis of a man who “summarizes the entire Middle Ages”, who “was a legislator, a hero and a saint”, who embodied “power united with holiness, and it is just the latter that goes to the foreground for him” (F.R. Chateaubriand, Études historiques, in Oeuvres complètes, Vol. 6, Pourrat frères, 1836, p. 178): Saint Louis IX, King of France (1214-1270).

Born in 1214, at the end of 1226, at the age of 12, was consecrated king of France. At the age of 20 he married Margaret of Provence, an influential counselor and beloved wife by whom he had eleven well-mannered children. An authentic life of prayer, a great spirit of penance, love for the poor, promotion of the social good and the spiritual elevation of his kingdom, both in peace and in war, were the virtues which shined in him. He died of typhus on the North African coast, near Carthage, during the second of the two crusades he undertook.

Le Roi Louis, a song in honor of the king crusader par excellence, Louis IX of France, reminds us of the enthusiasm for those military expeditions, which “intended to liberate the Holy Land, and especially the Holy Sepulcher, from the hands of the infidels” and, moreover, “from a historical point of view, their purpose was to defend the faith and the civilization of the Christian West against Islam» (Pius XII, Speech to the Pontifical Mission Societies, June 24, 1944, only in Italian). The English translation says:

King Louis has convoked, / All the barons and knights. / King Louis asked, / “Who wants to follow me wherever I will go?” // The most ardent have prepared themselves, / Have sworn faith, fidelity. / The more cautious have guessed,  / Where the King wanted to lead them. // Thus spoke the Duke of Baume, / “I will fight for the kingdom.” / The King said to him, “It’s not enough: / We will defend Christendom.” // Thus spoke the Lord of Estienne: / “I defend the land of Christendom, / But I do not want to go, / To sow death beyond the sea.” // “Ah” said the King, “Our domain, / Extends to the African shores, / Until the furthest deserts. / It’s our fief, and the price of blood.” // So, King Louis went away. / The most faithful have followed him. / They have gone far away, far away, / To conquer the divine fief.

To his figure, emblematic of “a time when States were governed by the philosophy of the Gospel” — the Middle Ages according to Leo XIII (Immortale Dei, 1° novembre 1885, § 21) — is dedicated Saint-Louis, an opera-oratorio in two parts by the composer Darius Milhaud (1892-1974), “a Frenchman from Provence, and by religion a Jew”, as he liked to describe himself (D. Milhaud, Notes sans musique, Juillard, 1949, p. 11).

About this work, composed between November 19, 1970 and January 4, 1971, commissioned by the French Minister for Cultural Affairs francese to commemorate the seven-hundredth anniversary of Saint Louis’ death, the composer recounts:

“Henri Doublier was given the task of coordinating this project, and he made an appropriate selection of thirteenth-century texts for the dramatic part of the opera. To provide more lyrical episodes, I chose excerpts from two poems that Claudel had written about Saint Louis. I composed an opera-oratorio involving four characters. It is an austere work without fantasy. The action is carried by the soloists and by a madrigal group of sixteen singers who have minor roles. They are accompanied by a thirteen-piece on-stage orchestra. The full orchestra and the chorus are in the pit, and they are heard only in the interludes between scenes and at the end of each act. … This opera has had a strange career, Though it was commissioned by the government, the French radio refused to perform it. It was performed in Rome and first staged at the Opera House in Rio de Janeiro” (D. Milhaud, Ma vie hereuse, Paris, Édition Belfond, 1973, p. 287).

The result is about 100 minutes of music, conceived — to complement what the composer described — for four main characters (France personified and Queen Marguerite, sopranos, the Seneschal Joinville, tenor, and King Louis, bass), accompanied by an instrumental ensemble on the stage (flute, oboe, clarinet, horn, trombone, bass tuba, percussion, harp, 2 violins, viola, 2 cellos) and an orchestra (flute, oboe, 2 clarinets, bassoon, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 trombones, bass tuba, timpani, percussion, strings). Its first radio performance was given at the Auditorium of the Foro Italico in Rome on March 18, 1972; its first stage performance Rio de Janeiro’s Opera House on April 4, 1972, and its first hearing in France on February 4, 1973, thanks to the concerts of the Rouen Conservatory.

The libretto is based on a poem that the French Poet, playwright, and essayist, Paul Claudel (1868-1955), of whom Milhaud was a particularly close friend and collaborator, had derived from the Histoire de Saint Louis by Jean sire di Joinville (1224-1317), the first biographer of the holy King, who almost compiles a hagiography.

The life of the King-Saint, after an introduction and a prologue, is presented without a dramatic thread in eleven episodes with the following titles: The chronicler and the poet, Saint Louis and the poor, Saint Louis and France, The King’s justice, God is love, Announcement of Queen Blanche’s death, King Louis’s two wives, in the first part; The King’s council at Acre, The King is a prisoner of love, The personification of the lily, The King’s death at Carthage, in the second part.

As is typical of Milhaud’s enormous production, the music is characterized by polytonality — which is the superimposition of two or more different keys — and by melodic writing and an all-Mediterranean and “French” lyricism. All of these means are very suitable for the subject, with results that recall the secular music of the 14th century in France and in Italy, known as Ars nova. Many vocal and choral passages, especially the final episode representing the King’s death, are of great emotional intensity. “The score of Saint Louis represents a superb combination of religious conviction and musical distinction” (P. Collaer, Darius Milhaud, San Francisco Press, 1988, p. 158).

In Mid-America, at the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers, in 1764 Saint Louis, the Gateway to the West, was founded in honor of Saint Louis IX of France. Those saddened by whoever wants to tear down his bronze statue, which has stood in that historic city since 1906, might find some consolation in Darius Milhaud’s opera-oratorio.

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