Section 1: Prologue 'Amphibian': Tranquillo, molto sostenuto
Section 2: The Fair: Vivace
Section 3: Fifine dances: Allegretto grazioso e capriccioso
Section 4: Elvire's theme
Section 5: Epilogue: Lento con malinconia
Bantock took as his starting point a poem by Robert Browning (1821–89) which critics of the time (the 1870s) considered, not without reason, to be almost unreadable. Dimly, however, buried beneath inordinate length, tortuous syntax and endless digressions, the determined reader may discern a story line in which the narrator is first pictured afloat on the ‘sea of life’, comfortable and secure but disturbed by the presence of a butterfly, symbol of freedom and adventure. That adventure is described in the main body of the poem: the scene, a fairground; the adventure, a dancer, Fifine, with whom the narrator becomes infatuated. He forgets his wife Elvire, and scorns the predictable comforts of domestic life, but is gradually forced to realize their true value as it becomes clear that the wayward Fifine can offer no lasting happiness. Elvire forgives her errant spouse who, as Browning points out in verse 129, has learned his lesson.
In musical terms Bantock follows Browning’s ground plan faithfully, though without his obscurity and prolixity. The Prologue, labelled (as in Browning’s poem) ‘Amphibian’, suggests, by means of a string section divided into twenty-one parts, a suitably watery ambience. It begins in virtual silence and only gradually takes on thematic definition with the emergence of a gently articulated motif (a rise and fall over a semitone) that will later blossom as the expression of Elvire’s steadfast love. Above the undulating background there hovers a fluttering ‘butterfly’ motif in the upper strings which prefigures the temptation that Fifine herself will pose. Passages for solo viola, in the manner of a recitative, suggest the narrator’s restless yearning for something other than the womb-like security in which he is immersed.
Having set out the basis of the dramatic argument and underpinned it with hints of the conflicting Fifine and Elvire themes, Bantock, like Browning, embarks upon the story itself. This is set against the turbulent background of a Fair—literally a ‘Carnival of Venice’, as brief references to that famous tune make clear. The hearty thump of a showman’s drum is heard (a moment uncannily reminiscent of Petrushka, though it seems unlikely that Bantock attended the Paris premiere in June 1911 immediately before commencing his own composition) and is followed by an itinerant fiddler’s trivial tune (to be played, Bantock directs, in the ‘first position’) and the sound of a penny whistle. The carnival, which may be thought of as a symbol of the bustling world itself, proceeds apace until interrupted by the appearance of Fifine in the form of a wayward clarinet solo as prelude to her seductive dance (Allegretto grazioso e capriccioso). Over a sinuous melody in the cellos the clarinet weaves teasing arabesques described by a bemused Musical Times critic (November 1911) as Fifine’s ‘saltatory seductions’—a phrase which may needlessly have over-excited his readers. Little by little the music becomes more passionate as the narrator grows more and more infatuated. The love scene is interrupted by an elaborate clarinet cadenza so demanding and flirtatious as to unnerve the narrator and remind him of the dependability of his wife’s love. It is her theme that now overwhelms him in a passage of great warmth and beauty for strings and horns. Further references are made to Fifine and the Fair, but all ends in disaster. There now begins the final section of the work (Lento con malinconia—an Epilogue growing out of a broken-backed version of Elvire’s theme, presented fugally by the cellos. Gradually the music takes heart and comes to a triumphant expression of Elvire’s love. But if the transgressor is forgiven, an unexpectedly plangent penultimate chord suggest a lingering regret for what has been lost. Not for nothing did Bantock, unlike Browning, subtitle his work ‘A Defence of Inconstancy’!
from notes by Michael Hurd © 1992