Le Martyre de Saint Sebastian (1911)

By David Grayson, University of Minnesota

Written for the concert Faith: Meditation and Mysticism, performed on April 28, 1996 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Le Martyre de Saint-Sébastien, Gabriele d’Annunzio’s sacred drama, had rather profane origins. The incident that stimulated the realization of his long-standing ambition to write a mystery play based on the life of St. Sebastian was the sight of dancer Ida Rubinstein’s bare legs as he kneeled to kiss her feet following her memorable portrayal of the sadistic title character in Diaghliev’s production of the ballet Cleopatra. In the beautiful and exotic Russian dancer, with her long legs, slim physique, slender neck, graceful gestures, and air of mystery, the Italian poet, novelist, and dramatist found his ideal incarnation of the martyred saint.

While there is a theatrical tradition of women playing the parts of young men and boys (think of Peter Pan or Cherubino), this particular instance warrants comment because it influenced both the genesis of the work and its reception. Since the Renaissance, St. Sebastian, the third-century Roman martyr who was bound to a tree and shot with arrows, has traditionally been depicted as a beautiful, androgynous, nude youth, providing church artists an opportunity to represent the male nude, often with homoerotic overtones, an aspect which may have appealed to d’Annunzio’s eclectic sexual tastes. Aware that men often played female roles in the medieval mystery and miracle plays, he called Rubinstein’s portrayal of the saint “women s revenge, but since his drama accentuated the erotic nature of the Emperor’s affection for Sebastian, he also used it to cloak this sexual taboo and thus make its expression less shocking.

Late in 1910, while still at work on the play, d’Annunzio asked Claude Debussy to compose the incidental music, but only after both Roger Ducasse and Henry Février had turned him down. Since the 1902 premiere of his opera Pelléas et Mélisande, which gave him international celebrity, Debussy had pursued a number of theatrical projects, but none had come to fruition. In his own words, he felt “like someone waiting for a train in a sunless waiting room. I have, at the same time, the desire to run off, no matter where, and the fear of leaving!” In this state of mind he agreed to compose Khamma, an Egyptian ballet, for the English dancer Maud Allan, and felt that Martyre would be another opportunity to see his name in lights, one that was potentially lucrative: he had the contract exempt him from any financial liability and stipulated that the play could never be performed without his music. His chief regret was that he was given only two months to write music that would normally have taken him a year to compose.

D’Annunuzio was apparently agnostic, and his interest in religion, essentially artistic. There is even something sacrilegious about his conflation of the pagan narcissism of Adonis with the Christian masochism of Sebastian, who tells the archers: “Whoever wounds me most deeply loves me most.” Adding to the decadent atmosphere, d’Annunzio’s account of the legend introduced magic, the occult, mysticism, and sexuality, further enhanced by the “oriental’ splendor and sumptuousness of Leon Bakst’s costumes and sets. Shortly before the premiere (May 22, 1911), the Vatican placed all of d’Annunzio’s works on its index of forbidden books, and the Archbishop of Paris forbade Catholics to attend performances of Martyre, at least in part, it is believed, because of the perceived inappropriateness of having the saint portrayed by a dancer, one who was not only female, but Jewish. In a letter to the press, playwright and composer defended their work as “deeply religious” and “the lyrical glorification, not only of the admirable athlete of Christ, but of all Christian heroism.”

If anything, Debussy was even less (conventionally) religious than d’Annunzio, declaring himself “neither a practicing Catholic nor a believer.” “I do not worship according to the established rites,” he told an interviewer. “I have made the mysteries of nature my religion.” Although he believed that “religious music ceased with the sixteenth century,” he claimed to have composed Martyre as if for a church. “In the last act, when the saint ascends to heaven, I believe I have expressed all the feelings aroused in me by the thought of the Ascension…. Is the faith expressed by my music orthodox or not? I cannot say. It is my faith, my own, singing in all sincerity.” Commenting on the secularism of the age he observed, “We lack the simple faith of yore.” Quite an understatement!

The performance of the complete play takes approximately five hours, including about an hour of Debussy’s music. Iris thus rarely staged and is far more often performed in concert, either the complete (or nearly complete) incidental music connected by brief narrative links, or, without voices, as four “symphonic fragments” extracted from the score.