In the mid-1950s, the composer Francis Poulenc was commissioned to write a new opera. His choice of story – the martyrdom of a group of Carmelite nuns during the revolutionary Terror in France – was in many ways a surprising one. He was seen as something of a musical clown, lacking in seriousness (his latest opera had been a surrealist farce full of cross-dressing), and his tentative Catholicism was largely at odds with his unabashed homosexuality.
Even more surprising was the new opera’s success. Most operas with religious themes fall into one of two camps, neither of which has had much staying power. There are the comic, sensational opera buffa which reached their peak in the 18th century, in which religion is primarily a source of sex and scandal, full of nubile young nuns and lascivious abbots. At the other extreme there are sincere treatments of religious stories like Messiaen’s St Francis of Assisi which, for all its pious seriousness, features little by way of dramatic appeal for those in the stalls.
And yet Poulenc produced a masterpiece. Les Dialogues des Carmélites is one of the few operas of the last 70 years to have secured a permanent place in the international repertoire. The reason for this trend-defying success has almost as much to do with the sheer power of its story – which is largely true – as it does with Poulenc’s music.
The basic details follow a pattern which was typical of the French Revolution: the Carmelite sisters at Compiègne, just north of Paris, were forced to leave their convent in 1792 after the government outlawed all religious orders. They lived for a while in hiding, continuing their work and community prayer. Eventually, at the height of the Terror, in the summer of 1794, the sisters were rounded up and tried for various crimes against the Revolution; chief among these was their religion which, in the eyes of the prosecutor, made them “criminals and annihilators of public freedom”.
There was no legal counsel or case for the defence to be heard, and the sentence was passed: all 16 members of the Carmel of Compiègne – 11 nuns and five lay members – were sentenced to death.
None of this was in any way unusual: by this point the Revolution had already seen thousands of martyrdoms, whether by guillotine, shootings, drowning or random mob violence. During the massacres of September 1792 more than a hundred priests had been hacked to death by crowds of anti-clerical revolutionaries in what had previously been the Carmes Monastery in Paris, but was then serving as a prison.
What then were the sisters of Compiègne, but another 16 names on an already lengthy list? The answer comes in the manner of their deaths, which took place on July 17, 1794. As the sisters were led through the streets of Paris to the place of execution onlookers shouted abuse and threw stones, yet they showed no fear or agitation. Instead – and this forms the moving climax of Poulenc’s operatic treatment – they sang.
Eyewitness accounts record that together they sang the Salve Regina and the Veni Creator Spiritus as, one by one, they were taken to the guillotine. The youngest novice was only 20 years old; the eldest sister was 80, and had to hobble on crutches. The Prioress, Mother Teresa of St Augustine, was the last to be killed; when her turn came she was singing by herself. By then the crowd, it is noted, had fallen strangely silent.
The dramatic impact of such a scene still lingers, two centuries on. It is hardly surprising that the story of the Martyrs of Compiègne has been retold again and again in books, films and, most famously, Poulenc’s opera. But unlike many stories of martyrdom, there has been little embellishment or exaggeration over the years; even before the singing had stopped, the authorities recognised what an impact the Carmelite sisters’ deaths would have on the public, and they took particular care to make sure that there were no surviving relics that could be venerated. Nevertheless, the Terror ended barely a week later with the fall of Robespierre, and many were quick to identify the execution of the sisters as a crucial final turning point, hastening the regime’s collapse. If true, their sacrifice was all the more significant.
In February there came the announcement that Pope Francis had accepted the procedure by which the Martyrs of Compiègne could be canonised as saints without recognition of a miracle attributed to their intercession.
And in the most recent pre-Covid season at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, Poulenc’s Les Dialogues des Carmélites was performed to sold-out audiences. More than 200 years on, the singing voices of the Martyrs of Compiègne can still be heard.
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