Photo:   Hiroyuki Ito for The New York Times


Photo: Hiroyuki Ito for The New York Times


It could be argued that the New York Pro Musica’s 1958 modern premiere of the Play of Daniel was the single most important early music event in the United States in the twentieth-century. Not only did Noah Greenberg and his forces bring a great work of medieval musical art to life in the excellent transcription by the Rev. Rembert Weakland, O.S.B.—they set a new standard for the performance of early music altogether, inspiring future generations to enter the field. Danielis ludus itself, having had such a brilliant initial run with the Pro Musica (followed by printed editions and recordings), has become enormously popular worldwide.


Our new production for this special occasion was one of perhaps hundreds that have followed since New York Pro Musica’s premiere at The Cloisters. This Daniel at 50 production allows still another group of committed early musicians to experience the beauty of the work and to grapple with its interpretive questions (such as how to perform the musical pitches, which lack rhythmic values in their 12th-century notation). Just as the youth of Beauvais “invented” their play, so too have we “musical grandchildren” of Noah Greenberg “found” our own arrangements of it, experimenting and improvising in medieval fashion. It would be fair to say that most of the American performers in today’s production might not have been inspired to devote themselves to the field of medieval music had it not been for the movement inaugurated by the New York Pro Musica, most notably through their path-breaking performances of this monument of medieval music, the Play of Daniel.


The creative act that brought our Play of Daniel into being occurred sometime in the latter part of the twelfth century. The play appears to be a collaboration on the part of a brilliant redactor and perhaps his students, who assembled a sequence of pre-existing processionals and a variety of newly-composed music. The resulting Danielis ludus stands as a festive anthology, drawing from genres familiar from within the Church and without. Each processional (conductus), usually accompanying the entrance or exit of a main character, tells a story that comments on the drama rather than participating in it. In medieval times, the men and boys who originally performed the play, perhaps at the Feast of Fools on January 1st, would have switched back and forth between their roles as dramatis personae and their usual functions as choristers of Beauvais Cathedral.

The play itself clearly divides into two halves, almost as if there were two plays, one a sequel to the other. This is explained by the fact that “Act I” (Balthasar’s Feast) comes from Chapter 5 of the Old Testament Book of Daniel, and “Act II” (Daniel in the Lions Den) from Chapter 6. The Daniel play’s exegetical aspect identifies it as a product of the Christian Middle Ages, for Daniel here stands as a prophet of the Birth of Christ. His final words at the end, a prophecy (Ecce venit sanctus ille, sanctorum sanctissimus, “Behold the most Holy One comes, the Most Holy of the Holy”), originate not in the Bible but in a sixth-century sermon by Pseudo-Augustine preached annually to the people of Beauvais at Christmas. Another feature of our play comes from the Apocryphal Abacuc (Habbakuk) story. After Daniel has been cast in the pit, God sends an Angel to Abacuc in the fields, commanding him to take Daniel his dinner. When Daniel accepts the food, the audience perceives this as a proto-Eucharistic moment. The combination of these particular source elements—the Book of Daniel, the Pseudo-Augustinian sermon, and the Apocrypha—is not unique to our play but serves also as a template for a second Play of Daniel, this one by Hilarius, a student of Abelard. The great modern scholar of medieval drama, Karl Young, believed that the Hilarius play must have come first because it is less full-blown and somewhat inferior. Strikingly, both versions set to music the exact same story recounted in rhymed, metrical Latin (although the music of the Hilarius version is lost), but, with one brief exception, the words are different. We can almost imagine a medieval scholar during the “Renaissance of the Twelfth Century” having assigned to two of his students the task of telling the Daniel story in verse, but one student was more ambitious, talented, and imaginative than the other. What most sets the Beauvais Daniel apart, aside from the splendor of its conductus, are the dramatic dialogues that reveal character, such as the fast-moving interchange between the Envious Counselors, Darius, the Satraps, and Daniel which leads to the climax in the Lion Den.

The purpose of Danielis ludus, then, was to celebrate the Birth of Christ and to remind the audience that Daniel’s God is the one True God. Daniel is wiser than all the Babylonians because he is a man of God. He is saved from the jaws of the lions because he is faithful. At the end of the play, the last three pieces build up to the Nativity of Christ in a logical sequence: Darius, having witnessed Daniel’s God save him from the lions, commands his subjects to worship Daniel’s God forever. Then follows Daniel’s own prophecy of the coming of a Holy One (without naming names), and finally, an Angel, an agent of God, announces the Birth of Christ (using the first verse of a hymn by Fulbert of Chartres: Nuntium vobis/ fero de supernis/ natus est Christus/ Dominator orbis/ in Bethleem Jude/ sic enim propheta dixerat ante.)

Much has been made of the possible connection between the Play of Daniel and the Feast of Fools. Our Daniel manuscript (Egerton 2615 of the British Library, copied ca. 1225) also contains an Office of the Feast of Circumcision for Beauvais, and the Feast of Fools was typically celebrated on that day (January 1). At the moment when King Darius has been tricked into decreeing that only he as king is to be worshipped, the play seems to quote the famous “Song of the Ass” (in the refrain “O hez”). Also, in the Satraps’ song at the beginning of the play, performed while they carry in the vessels, we hear melodic echoes of the Song of the Ass. On the Feast of Fools, the lowest level of clerics, the Subdeacons, took charge of the litugical celebration, and one of their standard pranks was to bring an actual donkey into the church. Predictably, this provoked complaints that the celebration had become too rowdy. According to one modern theory put forward by medievalist Margot Fassler, our Danielis ludus was created in order to give the Subdeacons their fun, while, at the same time, bringing them under control by involving them in a noble work of art with a stong moral message: piety is rewarded but blasphemy punished. Further meanings have been discerned by scholars looking for veiled political messages.

Whether one is enjoying its music and poetry or attempting to understand the political, theological, or historical significance of its text, the Daniel play offers interest on all fronts. Both its splendor and its message prove it to be an object worthy of serious study and multiple live productions. It is also flexible enough in its demands to be performed in many different interpretations by a wide variety of performing forces. Its festive conductus are not assigned to specific characters, or if they are, do not specify the number of characters. How many Satraps are there? How many Princes? or Magi? Could a separate choir have performed some of the processionals? Daniel can be performed by a cast of forty as easily as by a cast of ten.

The opening prologue has no designated performer. We have chosen to do it with the entire cast in acknowledgement of the role of the “youth of Beauvais” in creating the work. On this occasion, it is the “youth of New York City” (with a few old-timers, who remember and were inspired by Noah Greenberg and his musicians) who have “invented” the production. In lieu of subtitles or printed translation, a Storyteller presents the tale of Daniel and introduces the characters at the beginning of each performance. 


“Members of the New York Pro Musica Antiqua enacted yesterday afternoon a twelfth-century musical drama, The Play of Daniel, in the Cloisters of the Metropolitan Museum of Art…”

“All performances are sold out and there were voices in the audience yesterday pleading not only for an extension of this year’s run, but also for making this an annual New Year’s season observance at the Cloisters.” —Edward Downes, music critic, New York Times, January 3, 1958

“It was striking to observe how music of such apparent simplicity can exert such a profound impression…such a remarkable achievement should be made available to a wider audience.” —Paul Henry Lang, music critic New York Herald Tribune, January 3, 1958

 “In the field of religious drama…nothing so fine as this has been done in New York in recent memory. The play derives from a period when painters and musicians were largely preoccupied with religious themes. As Edith Hamilton, [famed writer on mythology] has said, the artists over the centuries have done better by religion than the theologians.”  —Brooks Atkinson, drama critic, New York Times, January 26, 1958