Opera Scotland

Saint François d' Assise Saint Francis of Assisi

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Olivier Messiaen (born Avignon, 10 December 1908; died Paris, 28 April 1992)


The composer.


Writings of Saint Francis of Assisi (Francesco Bernardone c1182-1226).



First performance: Paris (Opéra), 28 November 1983.

First UK performance (excerpts): London (Royal Festival Hall), 26 March 1986 (concert).

First UK performance (complete): London (Royal Festival Hall), 10 December 1988 (semi-staged)

First performance in Scotland: Edinburgh (Usher Hall), 1 September 2001 (concert).

Scottish Opera première: N/A.



Given the composer’s lifelong fascination with birds and birdsong and his intense religious faith, it is hardly surprising that he should have turned to the idea of Saint Francis of Assisi as the inspiration for a composition. The surprise is perhaps that he should have left it to the end of his life before embarking on the work, and that it should have taken the form of an opera, when he had not composed one before. A further surprise is the sheer scale of the work – composed for a big orchestra, and containing four hours of music. Much of it is of a meditative nature, inevitably containing substantial elements of birdsong. It takes the form of eight tableaux divided into three acts.



François (baritone)

Angel (soprano)

Leper (tenor)

Frère Léon (baritone)

Frère Massée (tenor)

Frère Elie (tenor)

Frère Bernard (bass)

Frère Sylvestre (bass)

Frère Rufin (bass)


Plot Summary

Francis, in conversation with Léon, takes the view that man must endure all his sufferings in order to enjoy Christ’s love. While God has created all the beauties of nature by which man is able to live, we must accept that unpleasant things, such as diseases, are also God’s work. Francis is himself revolted by the appearance of the lepers who are common in the community, but he feels he must fight this feeling. A Leper he meets rejects God on the ground that he has done nothing to deserve being given this affliction. He is tired of the platitudes of religious people who tell him he must endure with patience. An Angel sings of God’s love, and Francis, overcoming his own revulsion, kisses the Leper, whereupon the man is immediately cured. The Angel, in the guise of a traveller, visits the brothers while Francis is away and asks them philosophical questions which lead them to wonder if he might be an angel. Francis himself meets the Angel and is entranced by his music. He then preaches his sermon to the birds, which reply in a massive orchestral passage. Francis prays to be afflicted with the pain suffered by Christ at his crucifixion. He then receives the stigmata. As his death approaches the Angel and the Leper comfort him, while the chorus sings of the Resurrection.

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