An Opera of Daniel

an adaptation of the 13th century musical drama ‘Ludis Danielis” 


for STB soloists, choir SATB,  

saxophone, double bass, drum kit and piano       50’     2015


narration by W. H. Auden

for Newbury Chamber Choir  

First performance in St John's Church, Newbury, 25 January 2015


3 performances by the Solistas Ensamble del INBA at Cenart, Mexico City, November 2017

dir. Christian Gohmer


The Play of Daniel survives in a beautiful manuscript which was written down in the mid-13th century but only re-discovered in the 1950s. Its music was largely compiled from other works, some of which would have been popular tunes of the day. It probably originated out of the celebrations known as the Feast of Fools or the Feast of Donkeys. The latter was performed on 14th January in honour of the flight of the Holy Family to Egypt (on a donkey) after the birth of Jesus - a sort-of epilogue to Christmas. The Feast of Fools, however, was celebrated on 1st January and this was an occasion when social mores were turned upside-down and the underdogs were in charge; townsfolk would have taken part, including women, children - and animals, real or not, including the obligatory donkey. 


The ‘play’ also had a serious purpose: to drive home the message that Daniel worships the one true God. Because he is faithful he stands above his worldly masters and thus is he saved from the lions. King Darius - when tricked by the conspirators - is made to look an ass, a fool, but is then redeemed when he later orders his subjects to follow Daniel’s God. Daniel foretells the coming of a Holy One and finally the Angel announces the Birth of Christ.


The manuscript contains all the text and even stage directions, but only the pitches of the notes are given, not the rhythms. This does not necessarily mean that the music was performed as plainsong, rather that rhythmic notation was in its infancy, and many of the rhythms would have been implied by the words themselves. There were doubtless standard patterns (modes) that were common knowledge, and if the music were well-known, it would be quite easy for the performers to sing and play together. 


This version has taken the original pitches (with very few changes) and added a free, rhythmic interpretation. The choruses have been adapted for a four-part choir and instruments added. It is not a scholarly reconstruction but a re-imagining of a festive celebration, and it is hoped contemporary audiences and performers can enjoy this work as it was surely intended - a community opera with all the ingredients one would hope for: wit and wisdom, drama and fun.   EL



    (1)    The play is introduced by the ‘youths of Beauvais’ who wrote it down

    (2)    Belshazzar enters and mounts the throne

    (3)    The court sings “Rex, in aeternum vive” (“O king, live forever”) a refrain which will recur frequently throughout the work

    (4)    Belshazzar calls for the Holy Vessels which had been looted by his father from the Jewish Temple

    (5)    The court praise Belshazzar’s glorious deeds and the Vessels are ceremoniously brought in

    (6)    The portentous writing appears on the wall

    (7)    The king calls for his wise men

    (8)    The wise men are unable to decipher the writing

    (9)    The Queen enters while the court sings of her virtues

    (10)    She tells Belshazzar to send for Daniel, who is a Jewish slave in captivity

    (11)    The King orders Daniel to be fetched

    (12)    The Nobles address Daniel who agrees to attend

    (13)    Daniel approaches the court

    (14)    The King promises Daniel great rewards if he can interpret the words

    (15)    Daniel explains the writing means the King’s reign is nearly over and the kingdom will be invaded

    (16)    Belshazzar honours his promise to reward Daniel

    (17)    The Queen departs

    (18)    The Court retires


    (19)    The Persian army advances towards Babylon: Belshazzar is slain and Darius is the new leader

    (20)    The Nobles advise King Darius to favour the wise Daniel

    (21)    Messengers are sent to Daniel

    (22)    Once again, Daniel approaches the court

    (23)    Some courtiers conspire against Daniel: Darius is forced to decree that only he, the King, can answer petitions

    (24)    The conspirators notice Daniel praying to his God: he petitions someone else! The penalty is death by lions

    (25)    Daniel laments his fate

    (26)    The lions roar, the angels sing, Daniel prays for mercy

    (27)    The chief Angel tells the old man Habakkuk to take food to Daniel

    (28)    Daniel is grateful for the food and praises God

    (29)    King Darius approaches the lions’ den, hardly daring to hope that Daniel has survived

    (30)    To his astonishment Daniel responds with “Rex, in aeternum vive”: the Angel has saved him

    (31)    Darius tells his subjects to get Daniel out, and put the conspirators into the pit

    (32)    The conspirators say a mock prayer as they are thrown to the lions and they are quickly gobbled up

    (33)    Everyone rejoices

    (34)    Daniel prophesies the coming of a Holy One

    (35)    The Angel endorses this and foretells the coming of Christ

    (36)    Everyone sings the “Te Deum” (“We worship you, O God”) and then they depart for a well-earned drink.