Le Jongleur de Notre-Dame is the title of two musical works: an opera by Jules Massenet and a masque by Peter Maxwell Davies. Both are based upon the retelling of a French legend presented in L’Etui de Nacre (“Mother of Pearl”), a collection of folk tales and retellings published by Anatole France in 1892. This tale originates in a thirteenth-century French miracle play in verse by Goutier de Coinci titled Les Miracles de la Sainte Vierge (“Miracles of the Blessed Virgin”).
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The opera, Le Jongleur de Notre-Dame, by Jules Massenet, is based on a libretto by Maurice Lena (who was a professor at the University of Lyon). The opera was completed in September 1900, but was given its premiere on February 18, 1902 at Theatre de Monte Carlo. It calls for seven male voices (two tenors, three baritones, two bassi as the juggler and monks) and two soprani (as the voice of the Blessed Virgin Mary).
Le Jongleur de Notre-Dame is an opera without female characters, without romantic interest. Instead, the drama is based upon the conflict of ideas about the nature of devotion. Massenet’s treatment of an argument as the central point of drama looks forward to the profusion of early Twentieth Century "philosophic" operas such as Palestrina, Mathis der Maler, and Moses und Aron.
Act I. A jongleur, Jean, is busking at a May-day fair in front of an abbey. He tries to please the crowd by leading a few drinking songs. The Prior of the abbey rebukes him and encourages him to become a monk. Jean does so.
Act II. The monks of the abbey demonstrate their devotion to the Virgin Mary by utilizing their artistic talents. Jean, who has none of these talents (music, poetry, sculpting), confides his artistic deficiencies to Boniface, the cook. Boniface consoles Jean by admitting that his own humble talent is cooking.
Act III. Jean enters the empty chapel of the abbey. He prays to the portrait of the Virgin Mary, and dedicates to her a private performance of his skills as a busker. The Prior walks in unnoticed, and after watching awhile, he moves to rebuke Jean, but Boniface stops him. More of the monks enter the chapel, and they become angered at what seems to them a desecration. As they cannot restrain themselves, the portrait glows and sings and blesses Jean, who then dies.
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Le Jongleur de Notre-Dame, the masque by Peter Maxwell Davies, (based on a scenario and libretto of his own) received its premiere at Stromness, Orkney on June 18, 1978. It calls for a juggler, flautist, clarinetist, percussionist, violinist, one baritone, accompanied by a cellist, pianist, and a children’s band.
The only singing role in this piece is that of the Abbot. The juggler is a non-singing role and communicates entirely through mime and imitation. Three instrumental soloists (flute, clarinet, percussion) represent the monks of the abbey, and communicate by playing virtuostic solos on their instruments. The violinist takes the part of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Perhaps the primary means by which opera attempts to combine words and music is by using themes and instruments to characterize the roles of the drama. By the Romantic period, this effect had migrated into orchestral music: instruments themselves could be characters, take, for example, the E-flat clarinet that represents Till Eulenspiegel in the tone-poem by Strauss. In Maxwell Davies’ masque, the four supporting characters are instruments, they present the drama in expressively written music; the main character is not even musical, but communicates physically.
The children’s band opens the entertainment with a march in seven. The Juggler enters through the audience, performing as he makes his way to the stage, where he busks. Then he knocks on the abbey door, and the Abbot welcomes him into the abbey.
The Juggler is assigned menial tasks about the abbey, and as he works and plays, the other monks interrupt and tease him with solos.
In the chapel, the monks each offer a performance dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Later, once alone, the Juggler offers a performance. The monks and Abbot enter, and move to stop him, but the violinist intercedes with a virtuostic solo.
The Abbot then rules that the Juggler should leave the abbey and travel in the outside world. The Juggler leaves, accompanied by a recessional played by the children’s band.
Stumbited as a part of the Classical Music Quest, for Dreamvirus, in Position Z, connecting Juggler and Parsifal.