Act 1 Scene 1 No 1: Prelude [2'05]
Of all the landmarks in the chequered history of British opera none is more remarkable than The Immortal Hour, and no Englishman’s operatic career more curious than that of its composer, Rutland Boughton. The Immortal Hour still holds the world record for the greatest number of consecutive performances of any serious opera, and yet—save for the brief and often fatally amateur revival—it has been allowed to fall into obscurity and become, like its composer, the object of much patronizing misunderstanding and not a little derision. During his lifetime Rutland Boughton was a controversial figure, as much the architect of his misfortunes as he was of his many triumphs. But now that the dust has settled it is possible to look with a fresh and candid eye on his undaunted spirit and the work which his contemporaries regarded as a masterpiece.
Rutland Boughton was born in Aylesbury on January 23rd, 1878. His father was a grocer, in a small and not very thriving way of business, and there was no money to spare for a musical education, even though the boy showed clear evidence of exceptional gifts. In 1892 he was apprenticed to a London concert agency. Though self-taught, he was full of confidence and his compositions soon attracted sympathetic interest, so that a fund was raised to pay for a brief period at the Royal College of Music where he studied under Stanford and Walford Davies. On leaving, in 1901, he endured great poverty, but gradually made his way as a composer, eventually, in 1905, being offered a post in Birmingham at the Midland Institute of Music. Here he began to blossom—not only as a composer of choral music, a conductor and an inspiring teacher of singing, but also as a thinker and polemicist. Socialism, of the William Morris variety, and the principles of Wagnerian music drama combined to play a crucial part in his development and, together with the poet Reginald Buckley and the artist Christina Walshe, he began to formulate theories for a specifically English type of opera which he called ‘Choral Drama’. By 1911 he was proposing a commune of artists, living and working together as a direct and practical challenge to the conditions of London musical life which offered scant opportunity to any would-be operatic composer.
His dream of performances that grew directly out of a supportive community eventually found a degree of reality when, on August 5th, 1914, the first meeting of the first Glastonbury Festival took place. There was no theatre, only the local Assembly Rooms; no orchestra, only a grand piano. The performers were local amateurs and Boughton’s friends—many of whom enjoyed, or were later to enjoy, important professional careers. Everything was against it—even the times, for war had been declared on August 4th. But such was the composer’s driving enthusiasm and imaginative ability in overcoming obstacles that the experiment was a success. And not least of the triumphs were the three performances of The Immortal Hour, which first saw the light of day on August 26th.
Save for a short period when Boughton was required to serve his country the Festivals continued, Spring, Summer, and Winter, until the end of 1926—only collapsing when he insisted on presenting his Coventry Nativity opera Bethlehem in modern dress as a gesture of solidarity with the miners and the General Strike. The scandal of Christ being born in a miner’s cottage, and Herod as a top-hatted capitalist, proved too much for his fellow directors and the Glastonbury Festivals were wound up in July 1927. By this time, however, Rutland Boughton was famous.
Of the seven music dramas he wrote for Glastonbury, four (The Immortal Hour, 1914; Bethlehem, 1915; Alkestis, 1922; and The Queen of Cornwall, 1924) were works of great power and originality. One, The Immortal Hour, seemed to exert a special fascination over everyone that came in contact with it. Thus, urged on by his musical director Appleby Matthews, Barry Jackson decided to try it out at his Birmingham Repertory Theatre in June 1921. It scored such a success that he eventually persuaded a very reluctant composer to let him take it to London. There, at the Regent Theatre, King’s Cross, it proceeded to run, and run—216 consecutive performances, starting on October 23rd, 1922; a revival of 160 consecutive performances, starting on November 17th, 1923; with major revivals in 1926 and 1932. People went again and again, spellbound by the music, the story, and Gwen Ffrangcon-Davies’s performance as Etain. In all operatic history there has never been a triumph so complete or extraordinary.
In terms of worldly success Boughton’s career after Glastonbury was perhaps something of an anticlimax, though in terms of personal satisfaction it was what he wanted. Subsequent festivals were attempted at Stroud (1934) and Bath (1935), but failed to take root. Instead, he turned to other things and by 1945 was able to announce the completion of a project that had occupied him since 1908: a cycle of five music dramas on the story of King Arthur (The Birth of Arthur, The Round Table, The Lily Maid, Galahad, and Avalon). He had also composed songs and choral music, chamber and orchestral music in great quantity, written many articles and several provocative books, and campaigned vigorously in the cause of Socialism. He died, a fulfilled and contented man, on January 25th, 1960.
Rutland Boughton adapted his libretto for The Immortal Hour from a verse drama by Fiona Macleod, first published in 1900 in The Fortnightly Review and later (1908) in book form, He appears to have begun sketching the music in Birmingham in 1910, but the major part of the work was done during 1911-1912 when he was living in a cottage deep in the woods at Grayshott. The magic of these surroundings left their mark on the shape of the work, for it was Boughton’s original intention to perform it in the open air—conceiving, for example, the long choral procession that opens Act II as winding its way through the trees from a far distance. For the most part he took the play as it stood, but made a number of important cuts that significantly tightened its dramatic shape. He also expanded certain lyrical moments by the insertion of appropriate poems by the same author. All in all, Boughton’s version of The Immortal Hour is much more theatrically effective than the original play and much more apt for music. The story is as follows:
Act I, Scene i Deep in a dim, remote, forgotten wood Dalua stands. He is the Faery Fool, the agent of all dark and unknown powers, whose touch brings madness and death to mortals. Dalua waits for those whose destiny it is to fall beneath his shadow. At first he does not know why he has come to so remote a spot, but when he senses the approach of others he understands the workings of a destiny beyond his control. As he waits he is mocked by unseen spirits who greet him as the Outcast among the Gods, feared even by the Immortal Ones themselves.
Etain now enters, wandering as in a dream. She is under Dalua’s shadow and no longer remembers that she is a princess of the faery Land of the Ever-Young. She knows only her name. Dalua tells her that a king draws near and that he has wooed the Immortal Hour—the ‘Joy beyond all mortal joy, the Fountain of all Beauty’, and that in her he will believe that he has found his heart’s desire. Forgetting her true nature she will submit to his love, until the moment comes for him to learn that his quest for perfection can only be satisfied by death— ‘Love at Peace’ rather than ‘Love aflame with all Desire’.
At the sound of a hunting horn Etain leaves. The King enters. He is Eochaidh, High King of Eire, led by dreams and visions to search for his heart’s desire. Heedless of a warning spirit voice urging him to return Eochaidh allows himself to be led further into the forest by Dalua’s mocking voice.
Scene ii A storm has arisen and Etain has taken shelter in a peasant’s hut. Through the storm comes Eochaidh who also asks for shelter. As soon as he sees Etain he knows that his search is ended and declares his love. True to Dalua’s prediction, Etain returns his love, but as night draws on she hears, as in a dream, the echoing faery voices of her own country.
Act 2 A year has passed and Eochaidh has called a great feast to celebrate his happiness. Druids, warriors and maidens assemble to greet their King and Queen. But both Eochaidh and Etain have been troubled by strange forebodings and Etain begs to be excused the celebrations. She leaves. A stranger now enters. He reveals that he too is ‘a King’s first son’, a poet and singer. He asks if he may touch with his own lips the white hand of the Queen and sing a little echoing song that he has made. Sadly, compelled by a fate he cannot alter, the King consents and sends for Etain. While they await her arrival an old bard sings a song of the transience of human life and happiness. Etain enters, dressed in the strange garments she wore when Eochaidh first saw her. At the touch of the stranger’s lips and the first notes of his song she begins to recognise him as Midir, her rightful Lord, Prince of Light and Love. Joyfully she returns with him to the Land of the Ever-Young, called by irresistible faery voices. Eochaidh falls, stricken. Dalua’s shadow, the Shadow of Death, now covers him completely.
This strange, disturbing play was the work of William Sharp (1855–1905) writing under the pseudonym ‘Fiona Macleod’. Sharp’s was an astonishing case of dual personality. Halfway through a successful and extremely industrious literary career he became aware of the need to express another, more intuitive, feminine side of his nature, and thereupon began to write as Fiona Macleod. Throughout his life he maintained that she actually existed, and, in a sense, seems almost to have believed this himself. Fiona’s poems and stories made a deep impression and formed an important aspect of the Celtic Revival movement that flourished in the 1890s and embraced such literary talents as W B Yeats, J M Synge, and Lady Gregory.
There can be no doubt that in gaining access to the feminine areas of his psyche William Sharp unleashed forces which cost him dear. In doing so, however, he gave voice to an instinctive understanding of ancient Celtic legends, and his re-interpretations have something of the myth-making power of genuine bardic tradition. Thus The Immortal Hour is no mere repetition of an existing legend, but a new creation, compelling in its own right. Of the various interpretations that suggest themselves, the most likely must be that the Midir-Etain-Eochaidh drama is a Celtic version of the Orpheus and Euridice legend. Etain also has something of the significance of Proserpine, so that the whole story has the further overtones of Spring being won from the grips of Winter—the perpetual renewal of Life in the face of Death. In addition, Sharp suggests that Etain might be seen as the Soul torn between the pure, immortal love of Midir and the mundane, earthly love of Eochaidh.
The new element in the story is, of course, Dalua—an invention of Fiona Macleod. He dominates the drama—a brooding, implacable Fate. In a sense, he is the Hubris that arises from Eochaidh’s demand to have and hold the kind of perfection that can only be claimed by the Gods themselves. Sharp describes him as ‘madness incorporate as a living force’, and Eochaidh’s rash demands are, in mortal terms, mad indeed.
As for the faery world, it goes without saying that it does not involve tiny creatures with fluttering wings, sitting on toadstools or prancing in magic circles. Rather it offers an awesome mirror-image of the mortal world and a proud, fierce race to whom the comings and goings of humans are no more important than the peregrination of ants. The words of Midir’s song that lures Etain back to faery reality set the tone: ‘They laugh and are glad and are terrible.’
Whatever its shortcomings as a verse drama, Sharp’s play makes an excellent libretto, since it leaves ample room for music to supply the necessary sense of emotional definition. And this is exactly what Boughton’s score does. The first of his strokes of genius, then, lay in recognising the play’s possibilities and moulding them to his own ends. The second is to be found in his ability to blend three potentially conflicting musical ingredients: the purely choral utterance, derived from oratorio and therefore an important part of the British musical heritage; the system of representative themes, derived from Wagner though carried out in a distinctly un-Wagnerian way; and the self-contained song, derived from the traditional British tendency towards ballad-opera methods. These three elements he was able to combine into a convincing individual style, thereby creating an appropriate sound-world that has no real parallel in the music of his contemporaries. Overtones of other composers there certainly are—what composer is ever free of them?—but the sum total is highly individual and very particular to Rutland Boughton.
The network of representative themes is carried through more in terms of a subtle musical mosaic than true symphonic development. The themes-are bold and clear-cut; always the exact measure of the mood or thought to be conveyed. Take, for example, the ideas that open the first scene: solemn, pulsating string chords out of which rises a shadowy theme on the clarinet (pentatonic, as are many important themes in this score), As an image of the ‘Immortal Hour’, the ‘Joy that is more great than Joy’, the ‘Beauty of all Beauty’ it is evocative and memorable, exactly capturing the necessary element of mystery and wonder. Equally precise is the theme that follows: a painful, weary sequence of chords, scarcely able to rise out of the depths, which tells us all we need to know about Dalua.
Such ideas are then transformed according to the needs of the drama. At the words ‘For Lu and Œngus laughed not’ Dalua’s theme is allowed to expand, thereby revealing his tortured relationship with the other Gods. Closely related to this same idea (in particular through its second phrase) is the theme that announces Etain’s entrance—she too belonging to the Immortal Clan. A further transformation is to be seen in the playful, courtly version which accompanies Dalua’s confrontation with Etain (‘Hail, Daughter of Kings’). And so on, throughout the work—one need only instance the solemn, Parsifal-like chords which accompany the first mention of Midir’s name (Dalua to Etain) and their transformation into the lilting, deceptively lighthearted tune that accompanies his fateful entrance in Act II. By any standards this is a remarkably accomplished score. Why then the neglect? In part, its sheer popularity in the twenties has, as Boughton foresaw, worked against it—critics finding it hard to believe that a work that enjoyed so long a run could be anything other than an operetta of no serious intent. The lack of really sensitive modern performances (the last being at Sadler’s Wells in 1953) has also had its effect, as has the impossibility of forming any serious idea of its orchestral richness from a mere study of the published vocal score, or listening to the 1932 recording (a potted version on two 78s). Few commentators seem to have been prepared to study the published full score, issued by Stainer & Bell in 1920 as part of the Carnegie Collection of British Music.
It is also true that The Immortal Hour belongs to a very English type of opera (other examples would include A Village Rorneo and Juliet, The Pilgrim’s Progress, and A Midsummer Marriage) that make special demands on a producer. All are easy enough to stage when sympathy and imagination are brought to the task, but equally easy to mishandle. The chance to hear such a work in a modern recording, and ponder its particular qualities, must surely be a challenge to find once more the means to bring it into the living theatre where alone it can make its complete effect.
Michael Hurd © 1983