Bohuslav Martinů was one of those composers I had heard about but never really paid too much attention to until the past five or six years. I always figured his music would be too “modern” for me. It wasn’t until I attend a performance of his The Greek Passion in Palermo that I began to understand him as a composer. I came out of the Teatro Massimo that Sunday afternoon with tears streaming down my face, a complete and utter emotional wreck. He had touched an emotional well and has continued to do so as I’ve explored his work.
Granted most of my exploration has centred around his vocal works – particularly The Epic of Gilgamesh and Hry o Marii (The Plays of Mary) I’ve started to listen to his symphonic and some of his chamber works. Yes Martinů broke with the romantic tradition but like Smetena, Dvořák, and Janáček is strongly influenced by the folk melodies of his Czech heritage. And unlike many modern composers he writes vocal music to a language – it’s cadences, subtleties and rhythms.
The story of the opera is based on Nikos Kazantzakis‘s Christ Recrucified, a powerful novel that caused a stir when it was published in 1954. It paints a painful and unflattering picture of the people of a Greek village, who turn away refugees from another village. Their fear and bigotry is fuelled by the Church and their Politicians who incite them to murder a young shepherd who had been chosen to play Christ in their Easter Passion Play the following year. His actions had become too Christlike and his association with the refugees threatening, particularly to their local priest. The opera ends on Christmas Eve with his murder by the villager who was to play Judas. As the bells ring and the Kyrie is sung by the devout villagers the refugees, lead by their priest Fotis, leave still searching for a place and people that will welcome them.
The final scene from that moving performance I saw in Palermo is available on YouTube but sadly not for embedding. A left click will take you to the video – the quality is not the finest but it will give an idea of the performance that moved me so much and stays with me to this day.
“Toward midnight the bell began ringing, calling the Christians to the church to see Christ born. One by one the doors opened and the Christians hastened toward the church, shivering with cold. The night was calm, icy, starless.”
“Priest Fotis listened to the bell pealing gaily, announcing that Christ was coming down on earth to save the world. He shook his head and heaved a sigh: In vain, my Christ, in vain, he muttered; two thousand years have gone by and men crucify You still. When will You be born, my Christ, and not be crucified any more, but live among us for eternity.”
On this day in 1803: Thousands of meteor fragments fall from the skies of L’Aigle, France; the event convinces European scientists that meteors exist.