March 31, 2021

The Descent into Hell: Dialogues of the Carmelites (1957)

t is the case that music can reveal truth in a way unlike that of any other form of communication, which is why we so often find ourselves turning to the masters—the “Dead White Europeans.” to coin a phrase—when we seek to understand something at its deepest, most intimate level. Bach, for instance, often called the “Fifth Evangelist”; Handel, most especially in “Messiah”; Mozart through his Requiem, which, even if he didn’t write it all himself, could only have been the work of genius. Music has the ability to strike a sympathetic chord within our natural biorhythms, to convey emotion—as opposed to emotionalism—in such a way as to allow the listener to transcend the corporeal world and exist, even for a short time, on a higher plain.

In January 1957, the first performance of Dialogues des Carmélites, French composer Francis Poulenc's opera about the Martyrs of Compiègne during the French Revolution, had its world premiere at La Scala in Italy. The opera, performed in English* as Dialogues of the Carmelites, made its American debut that September in San Francisco, and on Sunday afternoon, December 8 (the Feast of the Immaculate Conception), Dialogues of the Carmelites opened the 1957-58 season of the NBC Opera Company. That the network chose to broadcast such a new opera was a bold move (reserved generally, though not exclusively, for commissioned works), and was a testament to the power of Poulanc's work, and that of the true story it told.

*It was Poulanc's wish that Dialogues be performed in the language of the local audience, and American performances have generally been done in English. NBC's policy was to perform English translations regardless of the opera's original language, so no changes had to be made for TV other than for length.

The French Revolution (1789-99) was hardly the time of enlightenment that its supporters have made it out to be, particularly the Satanic two-year period known as "The Reign of Terror." It came by its nickname honestly; writing its legacy with rivers of blood from the guillotines used in the wholesale slaughter of political opponents, and in particular the persecution of the Catholic Church. By Easter 1794, few of France's forty thousand churches remained open; many had been closed, sold, destroyed, or converted to other uses. Christianity had been denounced as "superstition" and replaced by the Cult of the Supreme Being. Approximately 30,000 French priests were forced to flee the country. 

And what did this horror, described by historian William Bush as "sheer butchery," accomplish? The rise to power of Napoleon, and a war that swept the continent. It is, in its way, so typically French.

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Religious life had been outlawed by the Revolution in 1790, as part of a concerted policy to dechristianize France. The Declaration of the Rights of Man, passed in 1789, theoretically guaranteed freedom of religion in the sense that, according to Article X, "No one may be disturbed for his opinions, even religious ones, provided that their manifestation does not trouble the public order established by the law." (Emphasis added.) The devil was, if not in the details, at least in the italics: since the Church was, by definition, seen as "a counter-revolutionary force," anyone who professed religious belief could be seen to be troubling "the public order." It was, one might say, an early example of attempting to bar religion from the public square.

The Martyrs of Compiègne were sixteen Carmelite nuns, lay sisters and novices, living in community in northern France. They'd been on the radar of revolutionary authorities since 1790, when the State outlawed religious life. Beginning that year, the sisters were subjected to interrogations and threats by government officials, being forced to choose between breaking their vows of "obedience [to God], chastity, and poverty" or facing further punishment. The sisters refused, and led by their prioress, Mother Teresa of St. Augustine, determined that they would allow themselves to be executed as a sacrifice for France and the French Church rather than renounce their beliefs. Their convent was closed by government order in 1792, following the sacking of Catholic churches (on Easter Sunday, no less), and the sisters forced to reenter the outside world. Despite warnings to the contrary, the sisters continued to gather together to pray communally. 

In 1794 the sisters were arrested as part of The Terror, charged with treason for "religious fanaticism," "demonstrating hostility to the revolution," and being "criminals and annihilators of public freedom." On July 17, 1794, having been convicted and sentenced to death, they were taken on an open cart through the streets of Paris, where onlookers hurled insults at them and pelted them with objects. Arriving at the site of their execution, the sisters sang hymns and forgave their executioners. As they were led to the guillotine, each one approached Mother Teresa, kissed a small statue of the Virgin Mary, and asked the prioress for "permission to die." "Permission granted," she replied. Kneeling before the blade, they chanted Psalm 117, Laudate DominumO praise the Lord, all ye nations: praise him, all ye people. / For his merciful kindness is great toward us: and the truth of the Lord endureth for ever. / Praise ye the Lord.

The chant was cut short in each case by the falling of the blade. Mother Teresa, having granted each of her charges permission to die, was the last to be executed. The crowd, raucous only a few minutes earlier, fell silent.

It has been said that the shocking brutality of the execution of the Martyrs of Compiègne, along with the serenity and faith with which they accepted their fate, was a turning point in the Revolution. The leader of the revolutinaries, Robespierre, was himself executed ten days later, leading to the end of The Terror. The sisters were collectively beatified in 1906.
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Music has the ability to move people to action, to change the way in which they see and understand the world around them. In modern parlance, music can make a statement. It's no surprise, then, that Poulenc would be drawn to the story; he had returned to the Catholicism of his youth following the death of a friend in a car accident, and the horror of World War II caused him to look withing himself more deeply, and to focus his musical efforts on religious compositions. Poulenc based his libretto on an unpublished screenplay by the French writer Georges Bernanos, who had intended his work as an allegorical comparison between the Revolution and the twin contemporary threats of Fascism and Communism. 

Rosemark Kuhlmann (L)
Patricia Neway 
Dialogues of the Carmelites
 tells the fictional story of Blanche de la Force, a young woman from an aristocratic family who, as her brother says, is fearful of everything including fear itself. She seeks escape from the world as a member of the Carmelites, despite the warnings of the dying Mother Superior that "the Carmelite Order is not a refuge." She becomes a friend of another young nun, Constance, who tells her of a vision she has had that the two of them will die young, and on the same day.

When the threat from the Revolution grows and her brother urges her to flee while she still has time, Blanche confesses that while she is afraid of what might happen to her in the convent, she's even more afraid to leave. Eventually, as a climate of fear grips the nation, the darkness of the Terror envelopes the sisters. A pivotal scene occurs when an officer of the State arrives with the announcement that the convent has been closed and the nuns are to rejoin the public world. In response to the officer's boast that "The people have no need of servants," Marie replies, "No, but they have a great need for martyrs," "In times like these," the officer scoffs, "death is nothing," "Life is nothing," Marie retorts, "when it is so debased."

After the sisters take a vow of martyrdom, Blanche flees the chapel and returns to her home, where she is forced to work as a servant. She is rescued by Marie, who seeks to bring her back to the other sisters, but on their way they learn the nuns have been arrested and sentenced to death. Marie, who has been determined to give her life, seeks to join them, but she is reminded that "only God decides" martyrdom, and that she has been preserved to resurrect the Order. 

Meanwhile, as the rest of the nuns are led to the guillotine, they sing the Salve Regina, stopping only when the blade falls. Constance, the last of the nuns to approach the scaffold, sees Blanche emerge from the crowd, having finally conquered her fear, and take take up the chant as she walks to her own death, offering her life to God.

The opera's concluding scene, from the 1987 production by the Metropolitan Opera
The two-hour color broadcast was praised by critics; Charles A. Matz, writing in Opera News, pointed out how television allowed viewers to transcend the limitations inherent when one sees the opera in a conventional theater setting; director Kurt Browning's close-ups "permitted vivid affinity with the torments of the protagonists and startling delight in the savor of their triumphs over the flesh.” The cast was hailed as well, with Leontyne Price as the Prioress, Madame Lidoine; Patricia Neway as the former Prioress, Madame de Croissy; Rosemary Kuhlmann as Mother Marie; Judith Raskin as Constance; and Elaine Malbin as Blanche. Peter Herman Adler, the Music and Artistic Director of the NBC Opera Company, was the conductor. 

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The Martyrs of Compiègne were not the only martyrs of the Revolution. A group of 191 Catholics executed at the Carmes Prison in the "September Massacres" of 1792 are collectively known as the Holy September Martyers, and were beatified in October 1926. 

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The story of Dialogues of the Carmelites is set in 1792, but religious persecution didn't end with the French Revolution, just as it didn't end with the Puritans or the Know-Nothings or the Ku Klux Klan or the election of a "Catholic" president. No, it's not over, not by a long shot. 

Not when the dominant political party in this country actively pursues a policy that says, in effect, that you're free to believe whatever you want, as long as you don't try to actually put your beliefs into action. Not when religious organizations are forced to hire people who don't share their beliefs, provide medical benefits that violate their core principles, deny the teachings they profess every Sunday under fear of government investigation. Not when a prominent politician, who may or may not be the current speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, boasts that "I do my religion on Sundays." The buck may stop there, but not the Cross.

Not when a leglislator in North Dakota introduced a bill requiring priests to violate the Seal of Confession (a seal they are bound to protect to the death) if told by a penitent of sexual abuse. Or in Houston, where the city council attempted to pass a law requiring a group of pastors to "turn over any sermons dealing with homosexuality, gender identity or Annise Parker, the city’s first openly lesbian mayor." Not when a U.S. senator criticizes a judicial nominee by saying, "When you read your speeches, the conclusion one draws is that the dogma lives loudly within you," and another asks, "If confirmed, will you recuse yourself from all cases in which the Knights of Columbus has taken a position?"  

The people have no need of servants, but they have a great need for martyrs. 

Once you've decided religion no longer has a place in the public square, how long before you decide it has no place at all? 
Will the day come when churches are taxed out of existence because of their beliefs, or charged with hate crimes because a pastor reads from the Bible, or closed altogether because of laws seeking to "protect" the public from things like the Wuhan virus? When Christians must deny what their religion teaches in order to show "solidarity" with the State? Justice Alito, in his dissent in Obergefell v. Hodges, wrote, "I assume that those who cling to old beliefs will be able to whisper their thoughts in the recesses of their homes, but if they repeat those views in public, they will risk being labeled as bigots and treated as such by governments, employers, and schools."

The anti-clericalism that drove the Reign of Terror may have started as a reaction to the relationship between the aristocrat class and the Church, but it sure as hell didn't end there, whipped up into a frenzy by Robespierre until it wound up even consuming him. "Are there no men left to come to the aid of the country?" Constance asks at one point. Replies Madame Lidoine, "When priests are lacking, martyrs are superabundant." Will Americans one day be required to choose between renouncing their beliefs and facing martyrdom? Only God decides who will be a martyr.

We die not for ourselves alone, Constance tells Blanche early in the opera, but for each other. The triumph of the Martyrs of Compiègne is the crowning glory of Dialogues of the Carmelites. Although the opera doesn't have a classic "happy ending," its effect on the viewer is one not of sadness, but of joy: the joy of Blanche conquering her fears and finding the meaning of her life with her death; the triumph of life over death is the victory of Wordsworth in "The Obsolete Man." The overall impact is moving, stirring, and ultimately heroic. 

Music has the ability to move people to action, to change the way in which they see and understand the world around them.

Sometimes, the courage to do the right thing is more important than to simply go on living. "Life is nothing," said Mother Marie, "when it is so debased." On this Holy Week, the questions hang in the air. How much more debasement will it take? How far will the descent into Hell continue? TV  


  1. Another great Descent into Hell article. I sincerely hope it reaches people who need to see it.

    I'm sure I've said it before, but Leontyne Price is a national treasure.

    1. Thank you, Hal--I hope so as well.

      And you can say that about Leontyne Price as often as you want!

  2. Very interesting post, with a lot to ponder and (for some readers, I suppose) to dispute and debate.

    One correction for the beginning of your essay: "The Messiah" was the work of Handel, not Haydn.

    1. Ugh. Of course it was Handel; I knew that. What in the name of all that is good and holy was I thinking?

  3. What the heck does this mean: "It is, in its way, so typically French." ?

    1. Leave it to the French to overthrow the monarchy and wind up instead with a murderous revolution, a dictatorship, and a continent-wide war. If anyone could possibly be that incompetent, it's the French.

    2. You mean you don't buy into the Cheese-Eating Surrender Monkeys, the ones who assured the Germans when they marched into Paris during World War II that their accommodations were just the way they'd left them when World War I ended?

      Easy to throw around one-word replies; not so easy to back them up.

  4. Powerful, eloquent, persuasive - I wonder how deep our descent has to plummet before we can no longer find our way back to the surface.


Thanks for writing! Drive safely!