(The) Play of Daniel

This medieval drama is brought vividly to life by the early music group

Author: 
Julie Anne Sadie

(The) Play of Daniel

  • (The) Play of Daniel, 'Ludus Danielis'

The Ludus Danielis is a rare example of an early liturgical drama set to music. It survives in a manuscript (thought to be from around 1230) from the cathedral school of Beauvais, now in the British Library, and internal evidence suggests that it was intended for performance at Matins on January 1. The music is monophonic and comprises nearly 50 melodies. The vocal solos are unmeasured, unlike the choruses, which are rhythmic and suited to pageantry.

The Latin play dramatises two events from the Book of Daniel: the writing on the wall and the tale of Daniel in the lions’ den, which are framed by a Prelude and The Prophecy. The highpoints of the drama are when Daniel interprets the writing for Belshazzar and when Darius pronounces Daniel guilty of worshiping his own God. These, too, are musical highpoints: Daniel, simply and eloquently sung here by John Potter, neither flinches from speaking awkward truths nor easily accepts that death in the lions’ den is his due.

But it is the vivid ways in which the drama has been adapted by William Lyons and the members of the Dufay Collective that deserve comment here. The antiphonal effects between soloist and choir and between sections of the choir (made up of the soloists and seven choristers from Southwell Minster) give a sense of space and movement. To the strings, organ and drums mentioned in the text, flutes and bells have been added. Daniel is accompanied by a harp, Belshazzar by vielles and the army of Darius by drums. Accompaniments and evocative interludes have all been cleverly and imaginatively improvised using drones, ground basses, dissonance and syncopation as well as special effects including tremolo, whispering and growls. The most creative example is found in track 24. The chiming of bells is heard at various points but to greatest effect in the concluding Te Deum. Remarkable.

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