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Peter Maxwell Davies

Publisher: Chester Music

Le Jongleur de Notre Dame (1978)
commissioned by the Royal Bank of Scotland
Text Writer
Peter Maxwell Davies
Chester Music Ltd
Opera and Music Theatre
Sub Category
Operetta / Musical Theatre
Year Composed
50 Minutes
Baritone, juggler
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Programme Note
Peter Maxwell Davies Le Jongleur de Notre Dame (1978)

This is the sacred comedy among Davies's pieces of music-theatre. Brought on by a children's wind band in a 7/8 march, the juggler presents himself at an abbey and is accepted by the abbot, the only singing character. The other monks are the clarinettist, percussionist and flautist, all of whom play 'duets' with the juggler as he is put to mundane tasks; sweeping, preparing food, washing clothes, all done with much horseplay. The same three monks then present their offerings to the Virgin in the form of flamboyant instrumental arias. Left alone, the juggler offers his own skills, to the accompaniments of Renaissance dances for piano with cello (who also provide support and commentary throughout). The other members of the community return and are appalled, but the image of the Virgin suddenly springs to life as a violinist, who plays her own solo acceptance. The abbot acknowledges her judgement, and the juggler is escorted boisterously out by the band.


The basis of this piece is the old French legend of the simple juggler who enters a monastery as a novice. He is unable to compete in skill with the other brothers (all performed by the musicians in the group) in designing gifts for the Virgin (performed by the female violinist in the group), having nothing to offer but his juggling. At the core of the work, symbolically representing those gifts, are virtuoso solos for clarinet, marimba and flute, but the Virgin is moved only by the humbler art of the juggler. The piece opens and closes with a march for children’s band.

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Le Jongleur de Notre Dame is based on a medieval French legend which first appears in a poem by Goutier de Coinci called 'Les Miracles de la Sainte Vierge', dating from the 1220s. It has been retold many times, most notably, in modern times, by Anatole France.

It presents an ideal subject for music-theatre, having few characters and involving a sequence of gifts to Our Lady which can be symbolized by pure music. The original story concerns a juggler who joins a monastery, but who is incompetent at studies, singing or any craft or skill suitable to the cloister. When the monks each bring a gift to the statue of the Virgin on the Virgin's birthday (a statue, a prayer, a missal) he can bring nothing, but he creeps alone at night into the chapel and performs his juggling act before the statue. Discovered by the monks, he is about to be reproved by the abbot when the statue of Mary speaks, saying that the juggler's gift is acceptable to her.

In this version the juggler is brought in by a band of young wind players, and he does his 'turn' before the audience. He gets no response in the form of coins, is cold and hungry, and knocks on the door of the monastery. The abbot welcomes him in.

He is introduced to the monks, who do not sing or speak, but play flute, clarinet and percussion. They bully the newcomer, who has to work in the kitchen, clean the monastery, etc. When the presentation to the Virgin occurs, we hear virtuoso clarinet, marimba and flute solos. The juggler, believing himself to be alone, performs his act before the statue. As the abbot is about the stop him, the Virgin doesn't speak or sing - she plays the violin, a long, sweet melody. The abbot interprets this in words - she accepts the juggler's gift, but he must leave the cloister, and go out again into the world, where his talents will be appreciated. So the juggler leaves, collected again by the band of young musicians, while the monks wave goodbye, sadly, from the door of the monastery.

The work offers opportunities for virtuoso instrumental playing, for skilled music-making by children, and for a display of juggling and mime - all based on a plainsong for the Nativity of the Virgin, permeating all of the music. The piano and cello have important 'off stage' parts throughout the work.

  • Ensemble
    Opera Sacra Buffalo / Arditti Quartet
    Edward Albert, baritone
    Charles Peltz
    Mode Records:
"Of all the experimental music theatre works Peter Maxwell Davies wrote during his intense collaboration with the amazing Fires of London ensemble, Le Jongleur de Notre surely an apotheosis of all he was striving to achieve."
Kenneth Walton, Living Scotsman,22/06/2010
"It was a stunning, breathtaking show. The music and libretto were the works of Orkney's resident composer, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, who just happens to be one of the greatest living composers."
Ron Ferguson, Herald Scotland,21/06/2010
"At its heart, though, is the delicious sense of spiritual ecstasy, which shone persistently through Joshua Armstrong's radiant production, set in the shadowy light of St Magnus Cathedral."
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