The Legend of the True Cross

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A concert-length work for soloists, large choir and solo instruments, organ, brass and percussion based on the Arezzo frescoes of Piero della Francesca.

Preliminary Scenario – August 2005

Part 1

Introduction – from Piero della Francesca by Zbigniew Herbert

The Death of Adam

(narrator’s description)

1a. Seth, Adam, Eve, and the Angel (solos and chorus)

1b. The Death and Burial of Adam (chorus)

The Queen of Sheba’s Visit to Solomon

(narrator’s description )

2a. The Adoration of the Sacred Wood (solo and female chorus)

2b. The Meeting of Solomon and Sheba (soloists and chorus)

2c. The Carrying of the Sacred Wood (solo and male chorus)

1st Interlude – Hana and Kip (after Michael Ondaatjee in The English Patient)

The Dream of Constantine and his Victory over Maxentius

(narrator’s description)

3a. The Dream of Constantine (solo)

3b. The Battle (i) (chorus)

Preliminary Scenario – August 2005

Part 2

2nd Interlude – Ellen’s Invention (after Evelyn Waugh in his novel Helena)

The Discovery and Proof of the Cross

(narrator’s description)

4a. The Finding of the True Cross (soloists and chorus)

4b The Proving of the True Cross (soloists and chorus)

3rd Interlude – The Razing of Jerusalem – setting of a Persian lyric poem of 7th C.

The Battle between Caesar Heraclius and Choroes II (narrator’s description )

5. The Battle (ii) (chorus)

The Exaltation of the True Cross

(narrator’s description)

6. The Exaltation (solo and chorus)

Conclusion (narrator and chorus )

The Narration

The Narrator ‘is’ the writer and poet Zbigniew Herbert. We use his descriptions of each fresco found in his essay on Piero. Thus the narrator would be a kind of friendly guide, speaking to ‘us’, as though (potential) visitors to the Church of St Francis at Arezzo.

Friends say: . . .you’ve been there and seen a lot; . . .but tell
us who is the painter closest to your heart, the one you’d never exchange?
A reasonable question since every love, if true should efface the previous
one, should enter, overwhelm and demand exclusiveness. So I pause and
reply:Piero della Francesca.

St Francis’s church is dark and austere. You must walk the length
of the immense, unlit vestibule to reach the organ-loft and one of painting’s
greatest wonders: The Legend of the True Cross, a sequence of frescoes
painted by Piero in full maturity between 1452 and 1466. The subject
is derived from the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus and Jocobus de Voragine’s
Golden Legend. Let us try to describe each fresco.

Herbert then devotes a succinct, poetic paragraph to each fresco, which we intend to use before each ‘choral fresco’.

Then, the narrator in the Conclusion says:

I imagine him walking along the narrow Dan Sepolcro street towards
the town gate – with only the cemetery and the Umbrian hills beyond.
He waers a grey robe over his broad shoulders. He is short, stocky,
strolling with a peasant’s assurance. He silently returns salutations.

Tradition holds that he went blind towards the end of his life.
Marco di Longara told Berto degli Alberti that as a young boy he walked
the streets of Borgo San Sepolcro with an old, blind painter called
Piero della Francesca.

Little Marco could not have known that his hand was leading light.

The use of the narrator ‘device’ provides a different take on the role of the evangelist figure in passions and oratorios. He is speaking directly to us. Even though digital image technology will probably enable the frescos to be present in performance and recordings there is nothing like a guide directing one’s focus to the detail of each fresco . . . and Herbert does this brilliantly. We can also use this as a valuable introduction to our musical work – freeing us from having to provide any description ourselves.

The Six Choral Frescos

We are focusing on the six major frescoes, though incorporating two of the smaller frescoes in the wider scenario. The text for these sections (lasting approximately 10 minutes each) will be prepared by Margaret Morgan and take freely from The Golden Legend, the readings, antiphons, psalms etc for Feast Days of The Exaltation of the Holy Cross (September 14), and the Finding of the Holy Cross (May 3). the Qu’ran, the old English poems Elene and The Dream of the Rood, the Song of Songs, 7th C Persian lyric poetry and Egeria’s Travels to the Holy Land.

The Three Interludes

We feel these interludes provide a sequence of intimate and novel asides, an informal counterpoint to the choral fresco sequence. The first – Hana and Kip – is a love scene. It is derived from the screenplay of The English Patient, having all the resonances of the Song of Songs, but taking place amongst the frescoes at Arezzo. The second – Ellen’s Invention – is Evelyn Waugh ‘solution’ to the enigmatic treatment of the story of the Empress Helena’s dream in the Golden Legend. It could easily be called the dream conversation of Empress Helena and the Wandering Jew. The third is yet to be fixed but is likely to be a conceit on a Persian
lay of 7thC that will imagine the Persian princess Meryem receiving the True Cross from the hands of the General Shahrbarez who describes to her the Razing of Jerusalem.

The Musical Forces

Narrator (as Zbigniew Herbert)

4 soloists (SATB) will share the following roles:












The Wandering Jew


Chosroes II



Large Chorus


percussion ensemble,

brass ensemble

six solo instruments

Part of the rationale for this ambitious project is to create a vivid and colourful new choral work suitable for the amateur choral movement worldwide. The work will not require a large orchestra and the instrumental ensemble parts will be within the reach of good amateur and student players. The visual and dramatic potential are self-evident, but it should be said that the piece is designed to take the images off the walls and fashion them into words and music for our time.

Nigel and Margaret Morgan are particular grateful to the Sisters of Our Lady of Consolation at Stanbrook Abbey for assisting in the development of this preliminary scenario.

The images in the presentation were derived from the Web Gallery of Art pages concerning the Arezzo frescoes.