'A gripping score. This exciting recording of such a rich creation brings the atmosphere of the stage leaping out of the speakers' (Birmingham Post)
'Stirringly dramatic, strikingly colourful ... it is good to see McCabe's recent 60th birthday being marked by a number of fine new recordings. This could prove the most widely popular of them all.' (International Record Review)
'A fine performance and excellent presentation make this an essential issue for anybody interested in McCabe's music' (Classic CD)
'Barry Wordsworth gets committed playing from the Royal Ballet Sinfonia ... the best playing they have produced on disc to date. Notes are excellent, as is the recorded sound ... a real winner' (Fanfare, USA)
'McCabe's music communicates with an expressive fervour that easily holds the listener in its thrall over nearly two hours. It's not just the superbly judged orchestration and wealth of memorable invention that impress. Above all, it's McCabe's ability to forge his tightly knit material into a dramatically convincing and organically coherent whole that marks him out as a composer of exceptional gifts ... No raise can be too high for Barry Wordsworth's fluent, pungently theatrical direction, not to mention the unstinting application of the excellent Royal Ballet Sinfonia (which has well and truly assimilated McCabe's idiom into its bloodstream) (Gramophone)
Act 1 Scene 1b: Gaveston – [0'40]
Edward II ruled medieval England between 1307 and 1327 and is most commonly remembered for his unrestrained favouritism for certain courtiers. The most extreme cases were those of Piers Gaveston and Hugh Despenser, with whom many modern historians now allege that he had homosexual relationships.
The ballet was created by renowned choreographer, David Bintley, from the play by Christopher Marlowe—probably the greatest of Shakespeare's rival playwrights—and focuses on the relationships between Edward and his Queen Isabella, Edward and Piers Gaveston and Isabella and Mortimer, displayed by an inventive and highly-charged score.
McCabe reflects the medieval period using various ancient-sounding melodies, such as the plainchant dirge that accompanies the funerals of Edward I at the opening and Edward II at the end. However, he mixes old with new. To create the desired effect an electric guitar is used to underscore particular moments of tension.
The work was successfully premiered by the Stuttgart Ballet in Germany in 1995 and David Bintley brought Edward II with him on taking up the directorship of Birmingham Royal Ballet in 1997, which company revived his production and toured it around Britain in 1998-9, attracting great critical acclaim and two awards. This is John McCabe's third original ballet score.
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Edward II is John McCabe's third original ballet score, although it is the sixth to have been choreographed for the stage. Three of his orchestral concert works — the song-cycle Notturni ed Alba (1970), the Second Symphony (1971; partly inspired by Peckinpah's film The Wild Bunch) and suite The Chagall Windows (1974) — were transformed into ballets by other hands, the last two under the titles, respectively, of Shadow-Reach and (by the Stuttgart Ballet Company) Die Fenster. McCabe's first commissioned ballet score was The Teachings of Don Juan (1973), based on the book by Carlos Castaneda about a Yaqui Indian, for the Northern Dance Theatre. It and the later, full-evening ballets share a common feature in that the central characters are or have been the subjects of later, literary myth-making: Mary, Queen of Scots (1975) written to a scenario by Noel Goodwin for Scottish Ballet, premiered by them in Glasgow in March 1976; Edward II, commissioned by the adventurous Stuttgart Ballet and premiered in April 1995; and, still in progress at the time of writing, a diptych on the tales of 'King' Arthur.
Edward II ruled medieval England between 1307 and 1327, the tenth king to have done so since the Norman Conquest of 1066, and the second to be named Edward (thereby excluding the three Anglo-Saxon kings named Edward). He was born at Caernarfon in 1284, the last of over a dozen children born to Edward I, the conqueror of Wales and 'Hammer of the Scots', and his queen, Eleanor of Castille. Edward II was never meant to inherit the crown, but the early deaths of his elder brothers cleared the way for him. A solitary child due to the absence of his siblings (either through death or marriage), he grew up to be self-obsessed and extremely pious. In 1301 he was declared Prince of Wales, sealing his father's successful conquest. Edward II was no soldier, however, and his attempt to pursue his father's aggressive policy in Scotland ended in a crushing defeat at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314. Although married from 1308 (after his accession but prior to his coronation) to Isabella, the sister of the French king, Edward's ineptitude embroiled his realm in war with France (1323-5).
Internally, his unrestrained favouritism for certain courtiers, often of less than exalted birth, outraged the nobility. The most extreme cases were those of Piers Gaveston and Hugh Despenser, with whom many modern historians now allege that he had homosexual relationships (from hints and allusions in contemporary annals, though there is no real evidence either way). The former liaison had begun while Edward I was still on the throne, and had led to a violent falling-out between king and heir. Gaveston's exile would suggest that his influence was held to be criminal, or in some other way heinous; his return a signal to all of the new king's priorities. Though Edward may have preferred Gaveston to Isabella, he was able to father an heir by her (and in the year of Gaveston's murder), but towards the end of his reign they were clearly totally estranged. What led her to invade her husband's realm was not pique at being ousted from her husband's bed or even the war with her brother, but political concern about influence over the king and the heir. In this respect Hugh Despenser was far more dangerous politically than Gaveston could ever be, a member of a powerful family who were systematically taking control of many aspects of government.
Edward II was conceived by choreographer David Bintley, deriving the plot largely from Christopher Marlowe's great play (c1590-92, but well known in Germany through Bertolt Brecht's celebrated reworking of it). This telescopes the twenty years of Edward's reign into a much shorter, apparent period, and omits entirely the disaster of Bannockburn. An additional literary influence on the scenario is provided by the early fourteenth century satire, Le Roman de Fauvel. This sharp, crude, at times blasphemous indictment of the courts of the French, kings Philip IV and V (respectively father and brother to Isabella) was written in Paris during the early years of Edward's reign. Choreographer David Bintley used this satire to inject a note of comedy to offset and parody the main characters, as well as encapsulate some of the main expressive objectives of the ballet.
Bintley wrote at the time of the premiere: 'The story is in the form of an allegory of the life of an ass, Fauvel, who … rises from the cattle byre to the king's palace where he is flattered by everyone. Fauvel soon becomes the most powerful man in the world and is eventually crowned king … My version of the Roman is in the allegorical style of the Middle Ages, a satire on the sexual relationships between the king, Isabella and Gaveston. Fauvel, the ass, is a depiction of Edward, a king unfit to rule. The Fool and the Virgin are, respectively, Gaveston and Isabella.' A comical figure of Death also figures, presaging the appearance of the Grim Reaper in the civil war that erupts in the following scene.
Following its highly successful premiere in Germany in 1995, Bintley brought Edward II with him on taking up the directorship of Birmingham Royal Ballet in 1997 which company revived his production and toured it around Britain in 1998-9, attracting great critical acclaim and two awards. McCabe's next collaboration with Bintley, the brace of ballets based on 'King' Arthur is being written specifically for the Birmingham Royal Ballet company.
As with Mary, Queen of Scots, Edward II is cast in two large acts, each of which is comprised of five scenes. Several of these scenes (e.g. Act 1 Scenes 2 and 3), are really tableaux, which can be subdivided into smaller units, often involving different characters but related events occurring concurrently. The inherently symphonic nature of McCabe's music binds the whole work together with a degree of internal cohesion far greater than normal for a dance piece. This is a natural consequence of McCabe's powerfully tonal idiom — since the mid-1970s he has eschewed the partly serial style of his earlier years — and the interrelationship of the various themes and character-motifs developed by wholly musical, organic processes that co-exist in symbiosis with the purely balletic demands of the scenario. This is nothing new in his music and is evident in works which have been converted by others into dance pieces and those, such as the First Piano Concerto (1966), which have not. Edward II compellingly runs counter to Robert Simpson's famous distinction, made to justify his omission of Stravinsky from the Pelican symposium, The Symphony (Harmondsworth, 1967), between symphonic and balletic music. In symphonic music, 'the internal activity is fluid, organic' possessing an 'interpenetrative activity of all its constituent elements', quite unlike the 'episodic, sectional' balletic works titled symphonies by Stravinsky. 'When rhythm and melody are dominant, tonality marks time; when tonality changes, rhythm and melody wait'. In Edward II McCabe's music successfully combines both of these seemingly irreconcilable spheres equally well. Its course evolves convincingly through purely musical discourse — in harmony with the dramatic purpose required of it — yet it is eminently danceable, full of soaring melody and rhythmically exciting. It is because the score works so well as absolute music, counterpointing the drama on stage, that the climactic point of the whole work — Edward's death — is so cathartic, in turn preparing the new king's deadly retribution against Mortimer and Isabella.
There are some tremendously impressive theatrical set-pieces in the score, their impact heightened cumulatively by the score's tautness of argument: the bawdy, burlesque entertainment in Act 1 Scene 3 devised by the 'Fauvel' troupe for the king and his lover, Gaveston; the terrifying progress of Death, wielding his scythe through civil-war-torn England in Act 1 Scene 4; the surreally colourful French court of Act 2 Scene 1. Of this last, McCabe has commented: 'Most Classical ballets have a divertissement somewhere, … showing off the virtuosity of the company, such as the last Act of Raymonda. In Edward II, the plot drove the setting to France, necessary for introducing the children — the future King Edward III and Queen Philippa — and putting Mortimer and Isabella on stage alone together.'
The heart of the ballet, though, lies in its treatment of character, as expressed by the various solos and duos for the principals, for instance the king's heart-rending solo expressing grief, then fury, at Gaveston's murder at the close of Act 1, or Isabella's war-dance in Act 2. Composer and choreographer focused on the duos in particular, encapsulating the central relationships, to carry the essence of the drama. Edward and Gaveston have the most sheerly beautiful music in the ballet in Act 1 Scene 2, later malignly recapitulated (dramatically and musically) for Gaveston's murder and in the duo between the deposed king and his gaoler, Lightborn, in the penultimate scene. In marked contrast to this is the exquisite frigidity between Edward and his queen earlier in Act 1 or the crescendo of passion and evil in the three pas de deux of Mortimer and Isabella (Act 1 Scene 3, Act 2 Scenes 2 and 4).
A notable feature of McCabe's score is the resonance throughout of the medieval period. The composer researched the music of the period, but of all the various ancient-sounding melodies, such as the plainchant dirge accompanying the funerals of Edward I at the opening and Edward II at the close, all but two are of his own devising (as is the dirge). The orchestration is rich and diverse, calling for triple woodwind (including piccolo, cor anglais, E flat and bass clarinets, and double bassoon), a large array of percussion, plus piano, celesta, harp and electric guitar in addition to the usual brass and strings. Much of the music's character derives from the telling instrumentation, whether a solo viola mimicking a viol, or brass and drums for the martial scenes, or the surreal timbre of the electric guitar to underscore particular moments of tension. As befits a ballet set in times of civil conflict, the score abounds in alarums and fanfares, clarion calls and marches, yet there are plenty of delicate effects too, and several crucial solos for the oboe, cor anglais, bassoon, trumpet and cello amongst others.
Guy Rickards © 2000