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The Heavenly Feast 21:58
 

Liner Notes

Robert Beaser describes The Heavenly Feast as “essentially an interior monologue at the gravesite of Simone Weil,” the eccentric and enigmatic French philosopher, theosophist, anti-Fascist activist, and mystic who in 1943, at the age of thirty-four, starved herself to death in a sanitarium in Kent, England, under the delusion (or so she claimed) that the food she rejected could be provided instead to her comrades in the French Resistance behind enemy lines in German-occupied France.

The catalyst for this work was a commission from the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and its conductor, David Zinman, for an unspecified solo vocal–orchestral piece for the celebrated American soprano Dawn Upshaw. After perusing and considering a number of texts, Beaser turned to the poetry of Gjertrud Schnackenberg, an American poet of his generation whom he had met in 1983 while he was in residence at the American Academy in Rome. In her collection The Lamp-Lit Answer, he found her 1982 poem “The Heavenly Feast,” which contemplates Weil’s grave in Ashford, Kent, and addresses the strange phenomenon of her suicidal refusal of food or any substitute nourishment and her accompanying hallucinations. To her gravestone was attached a small plaque, written in Italian, which translates: “My solitude held in its grasp the grief of others till my death.” Schnackenberg had seen the plaque, and she paraphrased those words liberally in her poem. “As soon as I read that poem,” Beaser later recalled, “I knew immediately that I was going to set it.”

For a time during the 1960s Weil enjoyed a degree of posthumous mystique and popularity among Western intellectuals—especially those on the political left—who saw in her life a symbol of the highest order of devotion to social and political struggles in the name of oppressed peoples and classes. In fact, the first substantive biography of Weil (1973) nearly canonized her. But more recent and more sober assessments have considered a complex of mental illnesses—even a diluted degree of sanity—that may have included manifestations of self-martyrdom and masochistic self-denial to no rational purpose; self-disgust; sexual revulsion; and a form of anorexia that she may have sought irrationally to disguise by placing it at the service of social benevolence and humanitarian aid, all of which long preceded her ultimate suicide.

Weil was born into a Parisian Jewish family that had no religious affiliation or traditional Jewish observances. A child prodigy in academic pursuits such as languages and mathematics, she became a protégé of the French philosopher Alain, and eventually a professor of philosophy—acquiring early in her career a basically antiauthoritarian persona. Her direct involvement in labor protests evolved into her working in a factory for a year, in itself a form of protest against what she perceived as the insular theoretical pontificating by leftist intellectuals of her circle. She was not, insofar as we know, specifically a Communist, and she gradually separated herself from the aspirations toward actual revolution that some in those circles proclaimed. Almost paradoxically, she espoused a twin doctrine of anticolonialism and pacifism. The latter position was confusing, because while she was vocally against French intervention in the Spanish Civil War, she volunteered to fight with the Spanish anti-Fascists. Meanwhile, also paradoxically, at least on the surface, Weil became intrigued by the spiritual dimensions of Christianity and especially by the mysteries of faith associated with Roman Catholicism, and she pursued a complicated involvement with the Church that must have appeared strange indeed in her leftist and intellectual worlds.

As a pacifist, Weil initially proclaimed a preference for appeasing the Germans. But she embraced the Resistance wholeheartedly once Germany had occupied France and the Vichy regime had been installed, and she became actively involved with the Resistance efforts. Her parents, whose congenital Jewishness was, of course, sufficient to place them in mortal danger despite their disavowal of religion, sought refuge in America, and she went along with them. But her urgency to participate directly in the cause of Fighting France—the “Free French”—brought her back across the Atlantic to its London base, where she petitioned to be dispatched behind enemy lines as a leader of “combat nurses.” Though she was unsuccessful in so absurd a scheme, the effort itself was probably another manifestation of both her longing for suffering and her suicidal tendency. Eventually she contracted tuberculosis and was confined in the sanitarium in Kent.

At times Weil could show rational political perceptiveness—when, for example, she became disillusioned with the Soviet Union and its totalitarian dangers. At the same time, however, she was convinced that France could emerge triumphant only if it would take the moral high ground by unilaterally relinquishing its colonial empire—a notion that had no basis in military or political reality at that time.

Throughout her life Weil seemed obsessed with purposeless asceticism, a desire for persecution, and self-affliction, apparently thinking that partaking directly of the hardships and suffering of the very people whose cause she championed—especially through physical labor in spite of her own frailty—was the real path not only to social redemption, but to inner philosophical truth. She subjected herself to periods of fasting, allegedly so that more food could be provided to those in need—which, of course, it could not. And even before her diagnosis of tuberculosis, she refused to eat anything that amounted to more than the meager rations provided to both French soldiers and civilians in wartime France. Hers was an “almost pathological receptiveness to the sufferings of others” as well as “a strong tendency to cultivate her own,” wrote Francine du Plessix Gray in her 2001 biographical study of Weil.

Weil developed a marked antipathy toward Judaism and, typical of Judaic ignorance common even among intellectuals, toward the frequently misunderstood notions of Jews as a “chosen people” and of the nature of the Divine as portrayed in the Hebrew Bible. She even appears strangely to have lent her support to Vichy’s prohibition against Jewish teachers in state schools. Although her first biographer, Simone Petrement, who was also a personal friend, interpreted that stance simply (and perhaps apologetically) as Weil’s rejection of the idea of a Jewish people—viz., a Jewish physical (racial, in the lingo of the time) or national identity apart from a religious following—Gray saw it as a form of self-hatred connected to her desire to separate herself from the Jewish people that she claimed had no distinct existence.

Acknowledging the possibility that Weil’s sanity might not have been fully intact, Susan Sontag wrote nonetheless that in some instances “sanity becomes compromise, evasion, a lie...,” and that even one whose life story we might regard with a mixture of “revulsion, pity, and reverence” could also in the end be “truth-giving, sanity-producing, health-creating, and life-enhancing.” Yet for many, the paradoxes of Weil’s life and death are not so eloquently explained away, although undoubtedly they contribute to the mystique. None of this detracts from the aesthetic beauty of Schnackenberg’s poetry, nor from the powerful images, the raw compassion, and the hallucinatory deathbed flights of fantasy that Beaser could not resist artistically. The birds are heard singing Weil’s purported words: “Send it [the food she rejected] to them, it is theirs.” And the poem concludes with natural images that are clearly reflected in the music: birds, which symbolize Weil’s obsessive focus; moths, which “carve our tortuous paths” in the air; stones; soil; and grass that drew only enough nourishment from the soil to be able to “gain a fraction inch.”

“I tried to understand the psychological meaning of the words,” Beaser has explained, “and throughout the composition of this piece I felt somewhat possessed by them; I felt I had to live up to them.” But he often found that difficult, and he struggled for a solution. When, toward the end, Weil ascends to the heavens accompanied by the birds, Beaser found that image so striking and moving that he was initially at a loss to fashion his musical expression: “I felt almost unequipped to illustrate that.” But ultimately his artistic solution involved responding to the words with a degree of musical simplicity. “The language of this piece is probably the simplest tonal language I’ve ever used,” said the composer. He employed simple canonic phrases, which, he recalls, seemed “almost embarrassing when I began writing the work.” But as he delved more deeply into the text, he realized that structured simplicity was the key to faithful interpretation. “The images in the poem are striking,” he explained, “but also strikingly simple.” Just as those images are recycled throughout the course of the poem, so the musical material constantly evolves through a sort of recycling process: phrases recur with slight transformations and rhythmic alterations—“almost like a tapestry” in the composer’s conception. He feels that, in response to the flow of the text, he developed multiple thematic material, which he then wove throughout the work. “Each thread would transform itself and return,” in a tapestry-like display of musical ideas.

The extended orchestral prelude seems to establish a mood of inner pain and loneliness, especially with its enquiring clarinet solo passage that sets the tone for a desolate gravesite. The solo rhythmic soprano lines rely heavily on rhythmic declamation and ascend to dramatic climax in the description of grass “gripping the shallow soil with all the shocking might of hunger and of thirst.” Similarly dramatic is the treatment of the words that describe Weil toward the end as lacking “the strength even to lift [her] hands,” where the frailty of that sentiment is nonetheless accompanied by a powerful orchestral crescendo that, rather than portraying weakness or succumbing to death, emphasizes the resolute drama in Weil’s refusal. And just before the conclusion, Schnackenberg’s central question is posed after an interlude: “But how in giving thanks can we calculate the worth of one who chose to starve?”

There is no real answer—either in the conclusion of the poem or in the remaining music, with its haunting clarinet passage followed by a slowly fading and thinning instrumental texture.

By: Neil W. Levin

 

Lyrics

Poem: Gjertrude Schnackenberg

Only the stones at first
Seem to have a part in this,
And the little height of the grass
As it gains a fraction inch

By gripping the shallow soil
With all the shocking might
Of hunger and of thirst,
As if the soil itself

Were all that’s left on earth.
I think the grass alone
Can hold within its grasp
What matters to it most,

And still it looks bereft,
And famished as the stones.
I watch a stream of moths
Proceeding on their ways,

They carve out tortuous paths
As if they were intent
On entering unseen
And ever-smaller doors.

So four years into the war,
And cut off from the ones
Whose circumstances you felt
And suffering as yours,

You carved yourself a path
Through ever-narrowing doors
Of hunger and of thirst,
And entered them day by day,

Refusing all at first
But that ration of food
Your people could obtain
Behind the lines in France,

And then refusing that,
From summer into fall
You cut your ration back
To send your part to them,

Your part diminishing
To rations cut in half
And cut in half again,
And then nothing at all

But water at the last
Sipped for the nurse’s sake,
You finally lacked the strength
Even to lift your hands:

Father, I cannot stand
To think of them and eat.
Send it to them, it is theirs.
Send this food for them
,

For my people still in France.
And turned your face away,
As famished as the grass.
Only the stones at first

Seem to have a part in this,
And the little height of the grass
As it gains a fraction inch.
But hidden in the grass

As if the grass itself
Were giving out a cry,
I overhear a finch
Begin her native rhyme

And toil to paraphrase
Her version of your words.
It seems she tries and tries
Until the words come clear,

It is theirs, she seems to say,
Or this is what I hear,
And again: It is theirs, it is theirs.
And the plover joins in praise

With her fluttering, murmured prayers:
Send it to them, it is theirs.
And the blackbirds breaking wide
Take it up in their dialects

To sing you in their way,
I swear I can hear the words,
Send it to them, they say,
Send it to them, it is theirs,

Then all the birds of the air
Give thanks above your grave,
As if they were your cause
And those you meant to save,

As if the birds were there
In attendance at the end,
And, seeing the sacrifice,
Had borne your body up,

So wasted as it was,
To your chair in Paradise,
And saw, before they fled,
Your first breathtaking act

Before the heavenly feast,
The bread set at your place:
To refuse to eat till none
On earth has less than you,

Though God in pity take
Your hands and lift them toward
His table for your sake.
Father, they have no food,

Send it to them, it is theirs.
And the birds returning here
Give tongue to what they’ve heard,
They tell the grass and stones

And the stream of moths who carve
Their tortuous paths in the air.
But how in giving thanks
Can we calculate the worth

Of one who chose to starve?
You held within your grasp
Our hunger and our thirst.
And the little height of the grass

As it gains a fraction inch
Seems to have a part in this.
It grips with a shocking might
What matters to the last,

As if the soil itself
Were all that’s left on earth,
And all the earth were held
Within its famished grasp.


 

Credits

Composer: Robert Beaser

Length: 21:58
Genre: Symphonic

Performers: Constance Hauman, Soprano;  Gerard Schwarz, Conductor;  Seattle Symphony

Date Recorded: 05/01/1999
Venue: Benaroya Hall (F), Seattle, Washington
Engineer: Swanson, Al
Assistant Engineer: Stern, Adam
Project Manager: Richard Lee, Paul Schwendener and Neil Levin

Additional Credits:

Publisher: Helicon Music Corp (European American Music)
Text: Gjertrud Schnackenberg, 1985

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