- Georges Bernanos and Francis PoulencCatholic Convergences in Dialogues of the Carmelites
Francis Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites ranks as one of the most Catholic operas of the twentieth century, as theologically insightful as it is lyrically beautiful. Except perhaps for Olivier Messiaen’s modernist masterpiece Saint François d’Assise (which has sadly had only one U.S. production to date, San Francisco Opera, 2000), no other opera in the canon combines twentieth-century musical sensibilities with such profound theological themes on Catholic mysticism, martyrdom, and redemption. In this regard Dialogues has no peer in stature, recognition, and performance. Part of the opera’s beauty is due to Poulenc’s own musical genius; part is due to Georges Bernanos’s text that Poulenc was inspired to use as his libretto; and part is due to the deep understanding of Catholic faith that both Poulenc and Bernanos shared.
Composed in 1956, the opera is based on the true story of sixteen Carmelite nuns of Compiènge, guillotined during the final throes of the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror. Their story of martyrdom is a remarkable episode in the history of the Catholic faith in revolutionary France. As early as September 1792, the Carmelites of Compiènge, like all other monastic religious institutions [End Page 17] in France, were forced to leave their cloister and disband. Forbidden by law to meet or hold religious services, they decided secretly to make a corporate “act of consecration whereby they would offer themselves as a sacrifice that the ills afflicting the Church and our unhappy kingdom might cease.”1 The disbanded nuns were thus arrested on June 21, 1794, for the crime of assembling illegally. They were placed in a prison at Compiègne with another order of religious women, the English Benedictines of Cambrai, who were awaiting their deportation back to England. During the three weeks they shared in prison, the two communities of nuns clandestinely prayed and offered comfort to one another. The Carmelites were then transferred to the Conciergerie in Paris on July 12 to await their trial and execution. For four days they remained there, comforting prisoners and secretly celebrating the Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel on July 16. As the documented records of the Revolutionary Tribunal attest, they were judged guilty of being counter-revolutionaries and were executed on July 17, 1794.2 There were numerous eyewitness reports that the Carmelites sang together the Miserere, the Salve Regina, and the Te Deum as they were led to the scaffold. They intoned the Veni Creator at the foot of the scaffold, and sang the Laudate Dominum omnes gentes as each nun climbed to her death. As they were guillotined, their voices diminished until only the Prioress was left singing, the last to die. Ten days after their execution, the Reign of Terror ended, and French Catholics immediately interpreted the martyrdom of the Carmelites as a mystical expiation for the sins of France. The cult surrounding these nuns was kept alive not only by the French faithful, but by the Benedictine nuns of Cambrai, now returned to Stanbrook Abbey, England. The sixteen Carmelites were beatified by the Church in 1906 and, as their cult spread, their story became the inspiration for a bestselling novel, two dramas, a film, and Poulenc’s opera.3
Given the often clichéd notion that the twentieth century was the most secular of times, it is surprising that Poulenc’s Dialogues has been such a success, both in his own life and in the contemporary [End Page 18] canon of musical opera today. It is with regard to this point that I would like to consider the historical circumstances and spiritual conjunctions from which this opera was produced. I will frame the thesis as two questions: First, how did traditional Catholicism become intellectually compatible with all that was modern and progressive in French culture in the early part of the twentieth century? The second question follows: How are Georges Bernanos and Francis Poulenc artistic players in this Catholic revival? In answering these questions, we can understand Dialogues of the Carmelites as an artistic production that is at once...