Thursday, February 18, 2010

And he died singing


This thought provoking coda to my recent post about Olivier Messiaen's Saint Fran├žois d'Assise comes from the Indian mystic Osho's unique interpretation of the Buddhist Diamond Sutra.
'Just the other night I came across a very beautiful story about Saint Francis, a Buddha.

Saint Francis of Assisi lay on his deathbed. He was singing, and singing so loudly that the whole neighbourhood was aware. Brother Elias,a pompous but prominent member of the Franciscan order, came close to Saint Francis and said, "Father, there are people standing in the street outside your window." Many had come. Fearing that the last moment of Francis' life had come, many who loved him had gathered together around the house.

Said this Brother Elias, "I am afraid nothing we might do could prevent them from hearing you singing. The lack of restraint at so grave an hour might embarrass the order, Father. It might lower the esteem in which you yourself are so justly held. Perhaps in your extremity you have lost sight of your obligation to the many who have come to regard you as a saint. Would it not be more edifying if you would, er, die with more Christian dignity?

"Please excuse me, Brother," Saint Francis said, "but I feel so much joy in my heart that I really can't help myself. I must sing!"


And he died singing. In the whole Christian history, he's the only one who has died singing. Many Zen people have died singing, but they don't belong to Christianity. He is the only Zen master among Christian saints. He didn't care a bit about Christian dignity.'
Yes, I know Osho has been called the 'sex guru' (hold on, I'll explain the header image in a moment) while novelist Tom Robbins described him as the most dangerous man since Jesus Christ. But then Monsignor Marcel Lefevbre has also received a justifiably bad press.

An awful lot of paths meet here. My header image is taken from the poster for Franco Zeffirelli's 1973 biopic about Saint Francis, Brother Sun, Sister Moon. Franco Zeffirelli's first choice to score the film was the unlikely partnership of Leonard Bernstein and Leonard Cohen. Cohen, a sometime Zen Buddhist monk, was influenced by Jacques Brel, who collabarated with Paul Touvier who in turn was protected by Monsignor Marcel Lefebvre. While Bernstein conducted the 1949 Boston premiere of devout Catholic Messiaen's erotic Eastern influenced Turangalîla-Symphonie.


But back to Rome and 1969, where the two Leonards met at Zeffirelli's villa and travelled to Saint Francis' tomb to progress their musical collabaration. Sadly, for reasons that aren't documented but can be imagined neither Bernstein nor Cohen contributed any music to the film: Cohen's biographer Ira B. Nadel says enigmatically that Cohen was "unhappy with the scene". Zeffirelli replaced Cohen and Bernstein with, of all people, the English folk singer Donovan who provided a forgettable score for an equally forgettable film.

The movie may have been forgettable, but the path does not end there. Some of the preliminary sketches produced by Bernstein for the film were used in another of his works. Above is the 1973 poster for Zeffirelli's Brother Sun, Sister Moon. Below is the 1972 LP cover of Bernstein's Mass, a visionary work that has been criticised for lacking Christian dignity. Mass was the work that Bernstein reused his Saint Francis sketches in. Are the graphic similarities a total coincidence?


The Diamond Sutra - the Buddha also said ... by Osho was borrowed from Norwich library. Brother Sun, Sister Moon has recently been released on DVD. Worth seeing as a reminder of how even great artists sometimes get it badly wrong. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

6 comments:

The Wound Dresser said...

...And,Lb went to Danbury prison to ask Fr Daniel Berrigan,S.J. tohelp with the libretto to MASS,and afterwards ,the Nixon admin. was told there were secret messages[I kid you not]in Latin about the Viet Nam war hidden in the opera. the refrain,Dona Nobis Pacem was the hidden message...BTW in the GG post,I seriously doubt that even Gould could record in 1985,three years after his eternal rest,as it were.

Pliable said...

Thanks for that TWD. The typo on the Glenn Gould Siegfried Idyll recording date has been corrected.

It just surprises me I don't make more like that ...

The Wound Dresser said...

actually, I trust your writing so that I actually had to check to see if my memory of GG's passing was wrong.

Pliable said...

Glad someone is checking ...

Dr. Brent said...

Loved the post, but there's an inaccurate statement. Francis was a wonderful example, but he's not the only one in Christian history who died singing. Anabaptist martyrs of the 16th century in Switzerland were tortured and burned as heretics for advocating adult baptism and pacifism; the response of many was to sing a hymn as they were being burned, to give a "good witness" and show that God sustained them in their trials. Some actually had their tongues cut out or had wooden gags forced into their mouths to keep them from singing. I based a set of organ pieces on stories and poems about these martyrs, whose stories are told in an early 17th century book called Martyrs Mirror -- it's a well known book among Mennonites and Amish.

All best to you.

Pliable said...

Dr. Brent, many thanks for pointing that out.

I have a feeling that may not be the only thing that Osho got wrong.

But he is still rather a good read.