Saint François d'Assise

Saint François d'Assise

"Saint François d'Assise" is a French opera in three acts and eight scenes by composer and librettist Olivier Messiaen, written from 1975 to 1983. It concerns Saint Francis of Assisi, the title character, and displays the composer's devout Catholicism. The world première took place in Paris on November 28, 1983.


Despite his studies of Mozart and Wagner operas, Messiaen never thought he would compose an opera. However, Rolf Liebermann, general manager of the Paris Opera, commissioned an opera from Messiaen in 1971. The composer refused this commission but changed his mind when Liebermann arranged that Messiaen would be a guest at a dinner at the Elysée Palace, hosted by then French President Georges Pompidou, at the end of the dinner Pompidou said to Messiaen "Messiaen, you will write an opera for the Opéra de Paris!".cite web|url=|title=About the Music / Programme Notes—Olivier Messiaen (1908–92)—"Saint Francis of Assisi" (1975–83)|work=BBC Proms website|publisher=BBC|author=Roger Nichols |date=2008-09-07|accessdate=2008-09-08] In searching for subject matter, Messiaen pondered dramatizing either Christ's Passion or Resurrection, though he reportedly felt unworthy of such an undertaking. Eventually, he chose to dramatize Saint Francis of Assisi. Francis' life, in the composer's mind, paralleled Christ's chastity, humility, poverty and suffering.


In order to allow himself artistic and musical freedom, Messiaen penned both libretto and score. For nearly eight years, the composer consulted several Franciscan sources. He read biographies by Thomas of Celano and St. Bonaventure, as well as Francis' own prayers (including "Canticle of the Sun"). In addition he cited passages from the "Fioretti", "Considerations on the Stigmata" and the Bible.

Messiaen chose to focus the plot on the progress of grace in the soul of the saint. The dramatization of Francis post-conversion obviously meant the exclusion of certain aspects of the saint's life. Messiaen’s distrust of psychoanalysis caused him to exclude the documented struggle between Francis and his father, Pietro, in order to avoid any Oedipal themes. Believing that historians and writers often falsely romanticized the relationship between Francis and St. Clare, the composer avoided the inclusion of Clare into the plot. The account of Francis' taming of a wild wolf at Gubbio was also abandoned, as the composer thought it would be ridiculous to stage.Fact|date=August 2008

Years after the opera’s premiere, critics chastised Messiaen’s libretto for beginning after Francis’ conversion. The composer defended his choice in an interview with Claude Samuel: "Some people have told me, 'There's no sin in your work.' But I myself feel sin isn't interesting, dirt isn't interesting. I prefer flowers. I left out sin."citequote|date=August 2008

The opera’s structure of three acts/eight scenes delineate Francis’ spiritual development. Act One contains scenes in which Francis realizes his goals: “La Croix” ("The Cross"), “Les Laudes” ("Lauds") and “Le Baiser au Lépreux” ("The Kissing of the Leper"). Act Two contains scenes about the journey towards enlightenment, ministry and divinity: “L’Ange voyageur” ("The Journeying Angel"), “L’Ange musicien” ("The Angel Musician") and “Le Prêche aux oiseaux” ("The Sermon to the Birds"). Act Three shows Francis’ closeness to divinity and entrance into eternity: “Les Stigmates” ("The Stigmata") and “La Mort et la Nouvelle Vie” ("Death and the New Life").

Historiansweasel inline|date=August 2008 quote Messiaen as a believer in four dramas: teaching birdsong to urban dwellers, explaining his perception of colors in music, explaining that his musical rhythms were more attuned to rhythms in nature and communicating the mysteries of Christ to non-believers. These ideas permeate Messiaen's opera.


*Saint François (Saint Francis) - baritone
*L'Ange (The Angel) - soprano (though sung by a soprano, the libretto refers to the Angel as "he" throughout)
*Le Lépreux (The Leper) - tenor
*Frère Léon (Brother Leo) - baritone
*Frère Massée (Brother Masseo) - tenor
*Frère Elie (Brother Elias) - tenor
*Frère Bernard (Brother Bernard) - bass
*Frère Sylvestre (Brother Sylvestro) - baritone
*Frère Rufin (Brother Rufus) - baritone


:Place: Italy. :Time: 13th Century.

The subject of each scene is borrowed from the "Fioretti" and the "Reflexions on the Stigmata", books written by anonymous Franciscans of the 14th century. There are seven characters: The Angel, Saint Francis, the Leper, Brother Elias, and three Brothers especially beloved of Saint Francis: Brother Leo, Brother Masseo, and Brother Bernard. Throughout the work one must see the progress of grace in the soul of Saint Francis.

Act 1

"Scene 1: The Cross"

Saint Francis explains to Brother Leo that for the love of Christ he must patiently endure all contradictions, all suffering, and that this is the "Perfect joy."

"Scene 2: Lauds"

After the recitation of Matins by the Brothers, Saint Francis, remaining alone, asks God that he might meet a leper and be capable of loving him.

"Scene 3: The Kissing of the Leper"

At a leper-hospital, a leper, horrible and repulsive and covered in blood-stains and pustules, protests violently against his disease. Saint Francis enters and, sitting close to the leper, speaks to him gently. An angel appears behind a window and says: "Leper, your heart accuses you, but God is greater than your heart." Troubled by the voice and by the goodness of Saint Francis, the leper is stricken with remorse for his violence. Saint Francis embraces the leper. Miracle! The leper is cured. The leper dances for joy. More important than the cure of the leper is the growth of grace in the soul of Saint Francis and his exultation at having triumphed over himself.

Act 2

"Scene 4: The Journeying Angel"

On a forest road on La Verna an angel appears but looks like a traveller. He knocks on the door of the monastery and this makes a terrific sound symbolising the inrush of Grace. Brother Masseo opens the door. The Angel asks Brother Elias, the vicar of the Order, a question about Predestination. Brother Elias refuses to answer and pushes the Angel outside. The Angel knocks on the door again and puts the same question to Brother Bernardo who replies with much wisdom. The Angel having gone, Brother Bernard and Brother Masseo look at each other and Brother Bernard remarks: "Perhaps it was an angel..."

"Scene 5: The Angel-Musician"

The Angel appears to Saint Francis, and, to give him a foretaste of celestial bliss, plays him a solo on his viol. This solo is so pleasant that Saint Francis swoons.

"Scene 6: The Sermon to the Birds"

Set at Assisi, at the Carceri, with a large green oak tree in Spring with many birds singing, Saint Francis, followed by Brother Masseo, preaches a sermon to the birds and solemnly blesses them. The birds reply with a great chorus in which are heard not only birds of Umbria, and especially the Blackcap, a bird typical of the Carceri, but also birds of other countries, of distant lands, notably the Isle of Pines, close to New Caledonia.

Act 3

"Scene Seven: The Stigmata"

On La Verna at night in a cave beneath an overhanging rock, Saint Francis is alone. A great Cross appears. The voice of Christ, symbolized by a choir, is heard almost continually. Five luminous beams dart from the Cross and successively strike the two hands, the two feet, and the right side of Saint Francis, with the same terrific sound that accompanied the Angel's knocking. These five wounds, which resemble the five wounds of Christ, are the divine confirmation of Saint Francis's holiness.

"Scene 8: Death and the New Life"

Saint Francis is dying, stretched out at full length on the ground. All the Brothers are around him. He bids farewell to all those he has loved, and sings the last verse of his "Canticle of the Sun", the verse of "our sister bodily Death". The Brothers sing Psalm 141. The Angel and the Leper appear to Saint Francis to comfort him. Saint Francis utters his last words: "Lord! Music and poetry have led me to Thee [...] in default of Truth [...] dazzle me for ever by Thy excess of Truth..." He dies. The bells ring. Everything disappears. While the choir hymns the Resurrection, a patch of light illuminates the spot where previously the body of Saint Francis lay. The light increases until it becomes blinding and unbearable. The curtain falls.

Musical Elements

Messiaen’s wealth of experience as an orchestral composer manifests itself in "Saint Francois d’Assise". In fact, Messiaen devotes a great majority of the opera’s running time to orchestral music, though not to the detriment of character development. The composer reflects the characters’ psychological and emotional state through the use of leitmotif and birdsong.


Several leitmotifs exist in the orchestral score, most of which connect to one or more characters.

*Death (or “J’ai peur”)The dramatic action of the opera begins with the entrance of Brother Leo, who sings the “death” motif to words taken from the end of Ecclesiastes: “I am afraid on the road, when the windows grow larger and more obscure, and when the leaves of the poinsettia no longer turn red.” “I am afraid on the road, when, about to die, the tiare flower is no longer perfumed. Behold! The invisible, the invisible is seen…” This theme repeats nearly every time Leo enters, and the orchestra accompanies it with lazy glissandos in the strings.
*Perfect Joy (“la joie parfaite”)Francis answers Leo’s introspection with the “perfect joy” motif, a combination of Trumpet in D, xylophone and woodwinds. This motif reoccurs several times throughout the piece. In some cases, Brother Leo’s “death” motif alternates with Francis’ “perfect joy” motif.
*SolemnityMessiaen linked Francis’ moments of great solemnity with quite possibly the most pervasive motif of the opera. It is structured as a tone cluster in the trombone section, creating an ominous, harsh sound. The motif is quite evident in the second scene, wherein Francis asks God to let him meet a leper: “Fais-moi rencontrer un lépreux.” The tone clusters break up his line of text: “Fais-moi”—"cluster"—“rencontrer”—"cluster"—“un lépreux.”
*GraceDuring Scene Four at La Verna, the Angel knocks on the monastery door. Messiaen represents the knocking with a motif heavy pounding sounds in the percussion and strings. He saw these knocks as an entry of grace—a force one must not resist. The Angel’s knocking foreshadows Francis’ eventual acceptance of the stigmata during Scene Seven. The main difference in Scene Seven is that the motif represents the painful, brutal pounding of nails into Christ’s body.


Messiaen considered himself an ornithologist. Thus, his love for birds factored heavily into the opera’s score. The composer traveled to the saint’s native Assisi, as well as New Caledonia, to research and record birdcalls of several local species, later transcribing them into melodies for use as musical themes attached to particular characters.

*FrançoisCapinera (Italian for "Blackcap")Upon entering caves at the Carceri (just east of Assisi), Messiaen heard the call of the capinera. Francis often retreated to these caves for meditation and prayer, thus the choice of the capinera is fitting.
*L’Ange – GerygoneThis yellow-bellied warbler from New Caledonia signals nearly every entrance and exit of the Angel. Messiaen scored the gerygone with a staccato piccolo alternating with glockenspiel and xylophone.
*Frère Elie – NotouFrancis’ most contrarian brother, Elias, receives the birdcall of this “gloomy sounding pigeon” from New Caledonia.
*Frère BernardPhilemon (or “friarbird”)The philemon birdcall (most likely recorded in New Caledonia) reflects Bernardo’s age and wisdom while punctuating his musical and textual phrases.

In some cases, the Kestrel birdcall accompanies the Gerygone. It is unclear whether the composer recorded this bird in Assisi or New Caledonia, as the common Kestrel exists in both places.

Messiaen devotes the entire sixth scene (“La Prêche aux oiseaux” or, "The Sermon to the Birds") to all manner of birdsong as Francis delivers his famous sermon with Brother Masseo in attendance.


Messiaen’s full orchestration requires a vast number of musicians (110), often placing costly demands on opera companies, as well as causing space problems in the orchestral pit.

* Woodwinds: three piccolos, three flutes, one flute in G, three oboes, one english horn, two small clarinets in E-flat, three clarinets, one bass clarinet, contrabass clarinet, three bassoons and one contrabassoon.

* Brass: one small trumpet in D, three trumpets, six horns in F, three trombones, two tubas and one contrabass tuba.

* Strings: 16 first violins, 16 second violins (32 violins in total), 14 violas, 12 cellos and 10 double basses.

* percussion: :: The 1st percussionist plays first set of bells, first claves, one wind machine and a snare drum. :: The 2nd percussionist plays the first triangle, second claves, six temple blocks, very small cymbal, small cymbal and suspended cymbal. :: The 3rd percussionist plays second triangle, third claves, one wood block, one whip (instrument), pair of maracas, reco reco, glass chimes, shell chimes, wood chimes, Basque drum and three gongs. :: The 4th percussionist plays the third triangle, fourth claves, set of crotales, large suspended cymbal, suspended cymbal, medium tom, low tom and three tam-tams. :: The 5th percussionist plays the second set of bells, one metal sheet, fifth claves, Geophone (percussion instrument), eoliphone, and a bass drum.

As well as the vast use of diverse percussion instruments, five keyboards are also used which are one xylophone, one xylorimba, one marimba, one glockenspiel and one vibraphone, as well as three Ondes Martenot which the composer described in his interview with Claude Samuel as being 'very rare in an opera!'.


The opera requires a ten-part, 150-voice choir, which serves a twofold role: greek chorus and divine presence. Throughout the piece, the chorus comments on Francis’ spiritual journey. The first three scenes include a commentary on the preceding plot action with a "moral." For example, after Francis' conversation with Leo on "perfect joy," the chorus sings the text "He who would walk in my steps, let him renounce himself, take up his Cross and follow me." One could say that this text carries a double purpose—the moral is not only sung, but comes from the mouth of Christ. In the latter scenes of the opera, especially "The Stigmata", the chorus perpetuates its image as Christ speaking directly to Francis as He bestows the wounds onto the saint. Messiaen’s choral writing, especially the violent, wordless chants during "The Stigmata", suggests a mystical, otherworldly presence.


Messiaen’s synesthesia caused a perception of colors associated with particular harmonies or musical scale degrees. For instance, when hearing a C-natural on the piano, the composer saw “white” before his eyes. In the opera, Messiaen underscores the final moments (Francis’ death and ascent into heaven) on a C major chord structure, providing a musical burst of white light. It is unclear whether this final chord structure was coincidental or intentional.

Messiaen’s Other Research

Messiaen traveled to Italy not merely for birdcall research. In Assisi, he visited the Basilica of Saint Francis to study the Giotto frescoes. During rehearsal for the premiere production, the composer coached baritone José van Dam (creator of the title role) in some of the gestures and attitudes evoked on the Giotto masterpieces. Messiaen also made a side trip to Florence. While in the monastery of San Marco, he found inspiration for the Angel’s costume in one several paintings of the Annunciation by Fra Angelico. As a result, the libretto includes a costume note on the exact shade of the Angel’s robe (as dictated by the original artwork): a pinkish mauve between lilac and salmon.

Recordings and broadcasts

Four recordings of the opera exist, three of which are complete.

*Ozawa (1983)

Conductor Seiji Ozawa recorded the world première production with the orchestra and chorus of the Théâtre national de l'Opéra de Paris. Cast members included José van Dam in the title role with soprano Christiane Eda-Pierre as the Angel. Released on the Cybélia label (then Assai Classics), [cite web|url=|title=Saint Francois d'Assise (Assai Classics) at|accessdate=May 15|accessyear=2007] this was the first complete recording of the opera.

*Zagrosek (1985)

The Salzburg Festival of 1985 included performances of the opera under the baton of Lothar Zagrosek, with the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra and the Arnold Schoenberg Choir. Baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau sang the title role. This recording, released on the Orfeo d'Or label, [cite web|url='Assise+%2F+Zagrosek,+et+al.htm|title=Saint Francois d'Assise (Orfeo d'Or) at CDuniverse|accessdate=May 15|accessyear=2007] includes scenes 3, 6, 7 and 8 only. [cite web|url=|title=Saint Francois d'Assise (Orfeo d'Or) at|accessdate=May 15|accessyear=2007]

*Nagano (1986)

Kent Nagano, who had studied the original 1983 production, conducted a concert performance in Utrecht for release on the KRO label. Philippe Rouillon sang the title role. [cite web|url=|title="Opera News" Recording Reviews Database|accessdate=May 17|accessyear=2007]

*Nagano (1998)

Nagano also helmed this complete live recording with the Hallé Orchestra and Arnold Schoenberg Choir at the Salzburg Festival in 1998 for release on Deutsche Grammophon. José van Dam returned to sing the title role. American soprano Dawn Upshaw sang the Angel, with Chris Merritt as the Leper. [cite web|url=|title=Saint Francois d'Assise (Deutsche Grammophon) at|accessdate=May 15|accessyear=2007]


The opera was given a semi-staged performance as Prom 70 in the 2008 BBC Proms season and broadcast live on BBC Radio 3. This was based on the recent production by Netherlands Opera. [cite web|url=|title=About the Music / Proms by Day—Sunday 7 September—Prom 70: Messiaen's Saint Francis of Assisi |work=BBC Proms website|publisher=BBC|year=2008accessdate=2008-09-08]


*Armstrong, Regis J., et al. "Francis of Assisi: Early Documents". New York: New City Press, 1999. pp. 113-114. ISBN 1565481100
*Braun, William R. "One Saint in Three Acts." "Opera News". Sept. 2002: pp. 46-51.
*Church, John J., "Look at the Birds of the Air...," "Opera World". April, 2001. OPERA America.
*Dingle, Christopher. "Frescoes and Legends: the Sources and Background of Saint François d'Assise". in Christopher Dingle and Nigel Simeone (eds) "Olivier Messiaen: Music, Art & Literature". Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007. pp.301-22. ISBN 0754652971
*Griffiths, Paul. "Olivier Messiaen," "The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians". ed. Stanley Sadie. 2nd ed. London: MacMillan, 2001. Vol. 16, pp. 500-502. ISBN 1561592390
*Messiaen, Olivier. "Saint François d'Assise" (sound recording). José van Dam (baritone), Dawn Upshaw (soprano) and Kent Nagano (conductor). Deutsche Grammophon CD #445 176-2, 1999.:*Aprahamian, Felix, trans. Libretto to "Saint François d'Assise". (booklet accompanying above CD). Deutsche Grammophon CD #445 176-2, 1999.
*Rich, Alan. "Messiaen's Saintly Vision." "Newsweek". 1983-12-12. pp. 111, 113.
*Ruhe, Pierre. "Runnicles' 'Francis' a triumph." "Atlanta Journal-Constitution". 2002-09-30, p. E-1. Via ProQuest Document ID=199140551. Accessed 2007-03-24.
*Samuel, Claude. "Olivier Messiaen, Music and Color: Conversations with Claude Samuel". E. Thomas Glasgow, trans. Portland: Amadeus Press, 1994. ISBN 0931340675


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