Music to Commemorate the Martyrs of Compiègne

Tomorrow’s Feast is the memorial of the Martyrs of Compiègne. On that day in Paris, 1794, 14 carmelite nuns and 2 servants were guillotined by the french government during the Reign of Terror. After refusing to fully disassemble their community, the sisters were imprisoned and run through a mock trial where in they were found guilty of crimes against the state and condemned to death. Previously having made an act of consecration offering up their lives for martyrdom, the sisters courageously faced their deaths singing throughout the executions, shocking the surrounding crown into silence. The Reign of Terror ended soon thereafter. Given their example to the end, what better way to commemorate these saints than with music.

In January of 1957, Francois Poulenc premiered his opera, Dialogues des Carmélites, inspired by these unflinching sisters. He composed both the music and libretto (text). Although the majority of the opera is in french, the prayer movements are in Latin. The stirring finale, “Salve Regina,” features the nuns last offering of prayer as one by one they are led to  climb the steps of the guillotine by the march of the string ostinato (repeatedly played musical phrase). Following the sisters both in ascending to the platform and then to heaven, the prayer gradually rises in pitch phrase by phrase while the number of voices dwindles. In the end, a lone soprano is left to sing the concluding line of the Veni Creator Spiritus added on by Poulenc, “Now to the Father and the Son, Who rose from death, be glory given, with Thou, O Holy Comforter, henceforth by all in earth and heaven.” Like those sisters before her, she is cut off unable to sing, “Amen.” (The Metropolitan Opera’s full synopsis can be found here.)

As part of our daughter’s Nameday festivities we will be listening to this Dialogues and using the chorus, “Ave Maria” below for our Morning Liturgy (Morning Time) weekly music study on Monday. Please join us by using our easy ABC method of music study here.



The finale:


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