Play of Daniel

A new performing edition, realised for voices and a choice of instruments,
with stage direction, background information, performance notes and
a new parallel working translation. © Ralph Middenway 2012

The Old Testament Book of Daniel is a mixture of apocalyptic and narrative literature and wisdom tales written in Hebrew and Aramaic. Its dramatic power, that struck the mediæval creators of the Play so forcefully, is still evident; and 'the writing on the wall', 'weighed in the balance', 'into the lions' den', are in everyday use, parts of the language.

The Play of Daniel tells of Belshazzar's downfall, Darius's triumph, Daniel's being saved from a horrible death in the lions' den and his prophecies of a Saviour to come.

  Trouveres - (Site copyright Ralph Middenway)

The Play was completed by young clerics and scholars at the Cathédrale de Saint-Pierre, Beauvais, in about 1230, for performance as part of the Feast of Fools, during the twelve days of Christmas, when one of them, 'le Prince des Sots', was in charge for the day. The closest analogy today might be ‘Rag’ Week at university, and some aspects of the Play might suggest a squeaky clean university revue.


And to hold the story together for modern audiences, the editor has introduced this Lord of Misrule, a brash young novice, as Master of Ceremonies, who tells the story, bit by bit, in English verse.


This realisation is informed by various readings of the original score, a single unmeasured vocal line. Apart from that, everything else is forever conjectural. The editor added mensuration, and colourful vocal and instrumental parts, using as guides sacred and secular French music of the time (including troubadour and trouvère songs, dances, and sonorous organa in 12th and early 13th century styles), and ‘ritornelli’ (derived from the score, of the period, or pastiche) to fill dramatic gaps. He does not claim 'authenticity'—given the paucity of documentation, no-one can—but he has been thinking about such music on and off for sixty years and is comfortable with the result.

The poetry is not liturgical, and is tightly structured (much is in measured rhyming couplets), suggesting the use of regular secular musical forms rather than the irregularity of plainsong. Some scholars may frown at the occasional use of hemiola, or of unorthodox cross-rhythms (3:4/6:8), or of hocket. But that these colourful rhythmic devices were then in use is by no means out of the question: the authors were young men of good family; some of them perhaps former pilgrims to Outremer and thus familiar with the exotic rhythms of Middle Eastern music; the young men may or may not have known or cared much about the rules for liturgical music; and in any case they were off the chain for the Feast of Fools.


The score calls for men’s and women’s voices (rather than boys' and men's), but other conventions of the period have been noted, such as preferring noble wind instruments over frivolous strings, and avoiding the tritonus diabolus and ‘false relations’ except where someone is up to something really obnoxious.

Some generic instruments are listed in the lyrics as part of the ensemble. Some in use at the time were likely brought back from the Middle East by returning pilgrims or were recent local copies of instruments brought back by Crusaders. But, even if one knew exactly what instruments were then available in Beauvais, it would be impossible to find original ones and difficult to find usable reproductions. For the Hobart production, the instruments were analogous with rather than equivalent to the presumed originals: a trumpet, flute/piccolo, cor anglais/oboe), small harp, cello, small organ and percussion, but their music, as written (and as played), was within the range of styles of the period as far as could be determined (and managed). 

Play of Daniel front - (Site copyright Ralph Middenway)

The well-received première season of the
St David’s Edition of the Play was in March 2012 in the Anglican Cathedral Church of St David, Hobart. The editor is grateful for the advice of Philippa Moyes, Musical Director, and Michael Lampard (Darius).

Don Gay, the director, wrote the English verse.

Ralph Middenway edited the Latin text of the score from several extant versions, and derived a working translation. In the score's preliminary pages the parallel texts are formatted to reflect the play’s structure, with usable stage directions. The whole is set out for directors, performers,
programme editors and surtitle compilers
in much the same way as any other opera score.

Play of Daniel back - (Site copyright Ralph Middenway)


His Excellency Peter Underwood, the then Governor of Tasmania described it as a: 

'brilliant recreation of this 13th Century Opera.  I say brilliant because the Australian composer Ralph Middenway took the original [vocal line and realised] it for modern instruments and voices but all the while retaining an authentic medieval sound ... The setting, St David's Cathedral, could not have been more appropriate.


This Hobart production highlighted the first two questions producers might like to consider:

  1. In a cathedral or large church how can one stage the Play in such a way that, despite the inevitable flat floor, the audience can see and hear enough to feel they have had their money's worth?
  2. How best can the musical director keep tabs on singers and instrumentalists promenading around a large building, perhaps with many columns?


From this St David's Edition the Editor derived a General Edition, now available from the Alexander Street Press. It is readily adaptable for venues and forces of different sizes and characters, including early or modern instruments.

For this later Edition the Editor has written the Lord of Misrule's English verse commentary.

In collaboration with Professor Emerita Rosemary Lloyd he has also produced a Latin-French version of this performing edition, Le Jeu de Daniel, also available from the Alexandra Street Press.