La ballade des pendus

March 6, 2011 Comments Off on La ballade des pendus

A few months ago I finished setting François Villon’s poem “La ballade des pendus,” or “The Ballad of the Hanged,” for four-part choir. The poem is dark and sad; I first came across it in FR 322: Medieval/Renaissance/Early Modern Literature with the awesome horn-blowing professor. Villon lived in the 15th century, and my professor called him “le premier bad-boy,” which sounds hysterical in French. At the time he wrote this, he was on death row for killing a priest, I believe. The words are stark and unapologetic, yet very moving. In fact, it’s a very modern poem, I think, aside from the archaic words and spellings (which might make it quite difficult for a choir to sing). Here’s my rough translation:

Brother humans, who live after us,
Do not let your hearts be hardened against us,
For, if you take pity on us poor ones,
God will sooner have mercy on you.
You see us hanging here, five, six:
As for our fattened flesh,
It was long ago devoured and rotted,
And we, the bones, are becoming ash and dust.
Let no one make light of our woe,
But pray God that He will absolve us all!

If we call you brothers, you must not
Be disdainful of it, although we were killed
By justice. But you know
That not all men have reasonable minds;
Forgive us, for we have trespassed
Against the son of the Virgin Mary—
May His grace not be dried up for us,
but preserve us from the thunder of Hell.
We are dead, let no soul harass us,
But pray God that He will absolve us all!

The rain has bathed and washed us,
The sun dried and blackened us:
Magpies, crows have gouged our eyeballs
And plucked our beards and eyebrows.
We never rest;
Now here, now there, as the wind changes,
Shuffles us about as it pleases,
More bird-pecked than thimbles.
Do not then become one of us,
But pray God that He will absolve us all!

Prince Jesus, Master of all,
Do not let Hell be our overlord:
We have no business there.
Mankind, make no mockery here;
But pray God that He will absolve us all!

The music is pretty far out there, for me—parts of it are extremely dissonant. It’s sort of in D minor, but I go back and forth between harmonic and natural, and every once in a while I pull off some pretty cool modal stuff, notably on the “thunder of Hell.” “You see us hanging here, five, six” is in a time-signature-less measure that sort of swings back and forth like a hanged body. Then “flesh” in the next line is a sort of unreasonable wail—unreasonable to the living, that is, but to the shriveled, rotted dead, the idea of flesh must be heartrendingly painful. The end of that first stanza sets up the repeating line “But pray God that He will absolve us all!”

The next stanza begins with a simple melody sung in canon by altos and basses, then bursts into a painfully fervent prayer with “Forgive us, for we have trespassed…” The fastest notes in the piece come next, on “the thunder of Hell.” The last line comes back, identical to the first repetition.

Then everything changes. The tenors and then the basses keep up an almost instrumental accompaniment, while the sopranos and altos take turns singing about the physical realities of death. The part about the wind consists of gusts of notes running up and down, with cross-relations galore, changing as the wind does. (Cross-relations are where one part has, say, a B, and a beat later another part sings Bb. It sounds strange and various.) “More bird-pecked than thimbles” picks up a slower version of the melody from “the thunder of Hell”—Hell is frightening, but their state on Earth is also terrible, and, what’s more, is immediate and present, not a distant threat. This time the “pray God” line is similar but much slower and with more wistful harmonies.

The final stanza, which is half the length of the other stanzas, struck me as separate. I was inspired by the chorales Bach sprinkled through the St. John Passion—in all the other movements, the choir is playing a part in the story, but in the chorales, it takes on the pious reactions of ordinary Christians. This has that same sense of detachment, because here the narrators are addressing Jesus more than the reader. They are in a strange situation: dead, yet still occupying their bodies. The shortness of this stanza, along with its direct appeal to Jesus, makes me think that at this point the hanged sense that they are about to finally leave their physical bodies and be judged. I take the tune from the “forgive us, for we have trespassed” section, but quieter and more earnest; “do not let Hell be our overlord” is characterized by slow triplets that emphasize this most important line of their prayer. And then, beginning with the next line, the melody from the very beginning comes back (because it’s the same sentiment), and merges via a last, plaintive cry to the audience into a final, even slower rendition of the “pray God” line. All in all the piece takes about seven minutes.

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