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John McCabe (1939-2015)

Edward II

Royal Ballet Sinfonia, Barry Wordsworth (conductor)
2CDs Download only
Label: Hyperion
Recording details: November 1999
Walthamstow Assembly Halls, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Andrew Keener
Engineered by Tony Faulkner
Release date: April 2000
Total duration: 113 minutes 30 seconds

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.


‘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)

‘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)

‘A gripping score. This exciting recording of such a rich creation brings the atmosphere of the stage leaping out of the speakers’ (Birmingham Post)
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

Act one, Scene one
The ballet opens with the funeral cortège of Edward I, the catafalque escorted by a great train of mourners, including peers, the clergy and flagellants. Over tolling timpani a sombre plainchant-like dirge unfolds in horns and viola, built largely from the intervals of the third, the semitone and whole tone. This 13-bar melody is the thematic reservoir for the entire ballet, all the themes deriving, however indirectly and utterly different in expressive character, from its mournful flow. Two motifs in particular prove particularly fecund.

As the cortège passes out of view, several figures detach themselves and remain onstage, principally Piers Gaveston, the new king's former lover, now recalled from the exile previously imposed by Edward I. A falling three-note motif on flute and violins (later oboe) signals the tenderness of the king's affection (and is Edward's principal motif throughout the score). Descending a semitone short of an octave from A flat to A natural, it also contains a minor third (A flat - F). With a troupe of travelling players, Gaveston enacts a mock coronation of the ass, Fauvel, in a well-meaning send-up of Edward. The 'Fauvel' troupe's music is easily recognisable from its burlesque tone and divides into three parts: a dancing staccato motif for flutes, oboes and xylophone (framed by tom-tom tattoos), a raucous passage pinned by an insistent trumpet fanfare, and a mocking motif for piccolo and E flat clarinet. In essence, these are variants of the first motif.

Solemnity returns as Edward II himself enters and is crowned, to a loud chord and another plainchant-like tune voiced by the trombone and then passed to the woodwinds. The king himself breaks the mood, warmly embracing Gaveston and ignoring the rest of the court. Their dance, a leaping angular figure in the strings, proves too much for Edward's young queen, Isabella, and the outraged clergy. Isabella leaves, and when Edward creates Gaveston Earl of Cornwall, the incensed barons protest. Their agitated displeasure grows more strident, climaxing when their trumpet fanfare is overlaid by Edward's motif in horns as the king rebukes and peremptorily dismisses them.

Scenen two
The distraught Isabella is found at her toilette, pouring out her misery to her maidservant who tries, in vain, to quieten and comfort her mistress. Edward enters, and husband and wife dance a coldly graceful duo, the main theme built once more from the thirds and semitones from the first theme. Gradually, however, intimacy begins to develop — underlined by a dolce cor anglais solo — as Edward starts to thaw. However, Isabella's impetuous complaints against Gaveston and her pleas for the king to give him up anger Edward. Gaveston himself appears before Isabella can salvage the situation and he provokes a furious quarrel with the queen who eventually leaves in tears.

Although Edward is upset by this quarrel, Gaveston's attentions win him round and the lovers dance increasingly with the passion wholly absent from Edward's duo with Isabella, reflected by the dynamic transformations of the dolce cor anglais theme and the return of Edward's motif to the musical foreground. Their dance intensifies with a long theme for the horns which encapsulates the depth of their relationship, the theme being taken up and embellished by the rest of the orchestra.

The scene concludes by switching to a riotous meeting of the barons, emphasized by stark modifications, Maestoso e deciso, of their fanfare from Scene 1 and the baleful colouring of the electric guitar, marked verzerrt ('with fuzz'). Led by Mortimer, Warwick and Lancaster, the barons whip themselves up into a frenzy as they seal a petition against Gaveston to be presented to the king. Their music inverts Edward's motif, transmuting its third into a fourth to create the antithesis of it.

Scene three
The scene now shifts to the countryside where Edward and Gaveston are picnicking, the idyllic atmosphere (Andantino pastorale) reflected in the bassoon's sinuous melody and countersubjects from the flute and violins, much abbreviated transformations of the main theme. The 'Fauvel' troupe now enter, Allegro giocoso, and stage a bawdy impromptu entertainment based on the Roman de Fauvel. The lovers join in the obscene dance as the music develops further the 'Fauvel' group of themes from Scene 1, with a solo viola imitating a viol. Meanwhile, in the palace, the neglected Isabella dances her frustration and resentment of Gaveston in an intense Lento. Mortimer endeavours first to calm then to seduce the queen in order to gain her signature on the petition. Although he oversteps the mark and is rebuked, Isabella approves the document.

In the meantime, Edward and Gaveston are still at play, this time in mock wrestling, seemingly ignorant of impending doom (marked by the quietly, as if distantly, rampaging timpani). The barons' deputation enters, their strident fanfare boldly proclaiming their sense of grievance as they present their case and petition. Edward flatly rejects both, prompting Gaveston to mockery of the barons, incensing them beyond restraint to rebellion.

Scene four
To the accompaniment of two onstage tabors (here the prescribed alternative of two large bass drums is used) and a welter of highly chromatic semi-aleatoric string writing (using, however, motifs again related to the first theme), the grinning, cadaverous figure of the Grim Reaper, molto pesante, stalks the battlegrounds of England, harvesting the dead with his enormous scythe. As the barons gain the upper hand, the 'Fauvel' motifs are transformed into a biting, explosive battle music, fused with other motifs in brass and percussion and spreading to other sections of the orchestra. A hunt for Gaveston now ensues, and he quickly runs out of places to hide, finally being cornered on Blacklow Hill and forced to surrender. Now it is the barons' turn to mock and torment Gaveston in revenge. In a black development of the love music from Scene 2, combined with the 'Fauvel' music (with phasing electric guitar adding a surreal undertow), Gaveston is beaten and finally beheaded by Warwick and Lancaster. His severed head is despatched to the king.

Scene five
Edward's grief at Gaveston's death unmans him. Cradling the head, he dances a poignant apotheosis of his duo from Scene 2, supported predominantly by the strings. Isabella attempts to comfort him (the strings recalling elements of their dance from earlier in Scene 2) but to no avail. Edward spurns her solace and as the oboe reprises Edward's motif in its starkest form, he vows vengeance on the assassins.

Act two, Scene one
Many years have now passed (including the disaster of the battle of Bannockburn). The king's new favourite is Hugh Despenser, a member of a powerful clan who have sided with Edward to their own considerable advantage. They have engineered the downfall of Warwick and Lancaster who, naked and scourged, are led away to execution (Mortimer having fled to France). To a leaping figure, rising and falling through four octaves in electric guitar, clarinets and bassoons, the king plays with his young son, the future Edward III, watched by Despenser. The prince is about to journey to France and there pay homage (in place of his father) to his uncle, King Charles IV (another of the Queen's brothers), in order to set the seal on a treaty Isabella has brokered ending two years of desultory warfare between France and England. Isabella's maid now enters and takes the prince to join his mother. As they leave, Edward confides his fears to Despenser at placing his heir abroad in the custody of the queen, just as disaffected now as she was in Gaveston's time. The dance of Edward and Despenser echoes that of the king and Gaveston in Act 1 but without the same degree of passion: this bond may be intimate, but not so intense. A brief, surging interlude follows, Moderato, illustrating the then still perilous Channel crossing.

Scene two
The prince has arrived at the dazzling French Court, brighter and more colourful than his father's gloomy, haunted domain in England. Waiting for him with Isabella are the Duke of Hainault and his daughter, Philippa, whom Isabella has arranged to be married to Prince Edward (in return for mercenaries). The court celebrates with a set of formal dances in his honour, during which the prince is introduced to his betrothed, and the two children seal the arrangement by dancing innocently together.

Ever present by the queen's side is Mortimer, and as the court disperses they remain behind to share their second pas de deux. This is a far more passionate, unbridled affair, Allegro vigoroso, than that in Act 1 Scene 3. The reminiscence of Edward's motif serves only to unite them in their contempt for Edward and desire to be rid of him. As the Duke of Hainault returns with his soldiers, Isabella — the 'She-Wolf of France', attired in scarlet — is armoured and leads her troops in a ferocious sword dance of naked aggression.

Scene three
Mortimer and Isabella have swept through the country in total victory. Edward and Despenser, disguised as friars, hide in Neath Abbey. The king is exhausted in defeat and dismayed at how easily his enemies have triumphed. A baleful theme begins to unfold, its elements at first shared between clarinet and harp alternating with horn before being elaborated further into a single line by the bassoon. This theme passes to bass clarinet, then cor anglais. Despenser's attempts to comfort Edward prove fruitless, the king's plight echoed by a not-quite-octave fall which seems desolate without the intervening interval of the third. Beating timpani hint at the approach of danger as the abbot enters ostensibly to lead them to safety. They meekly follow but are betrayed and taken. The king is arraigned before an abdication council, where his crimes and failings are aired in an atmosphere of unremitting hostility. Clearly weakened by his ordeals, Edward is pressed angrily by the council to relinquish the crown in favour of the prince, but resists (eloquently represented by a solo cello). A poignant episode occurs when the prince is led in by Isabella, and the boy rushes to embrace his father. Only when Mortimer threatens the prince does Edward relent.

The council departs and Edward is led away on foot to Berkeley Castle, the initial heavy tread of the music forming the ground bass of a passacaglia. Along the way he witnesses Despenser's execution and the enthronement of the prince as Edward III. The 'Fauvel' troupe now appear with a mocking dance of folly, grotesquely parodying the high jinks of Act 1 Scene 3. Edward is cast into a foul dungeon.

Scene four
Edward awaits his death in abject misery. 'Fauvel' appears and unmasks himself as the gaoler, Lightborn, represented by a malign and insistent six-note figure (C-C-C-B flat-C-C), originally heard in Act 1 Scene 3, which drives the music along. Edward believes he has come to kill him, a swirling marimba ostinato signifying his delirium, but instead Lightborn turns comforter and friend — even lover as the music and action recall for the final time, as a haunted memory, the love music of Edward and Gaveston from Act 1 Scene 2. The brutal tenderness of this duo provides Edward with some degree of emotional equilibrium, but his life is now over. The other gaolers enter with irons and a brazier, and pin Edward down, while Lightborn dispatches him by driving a red-hot poker into his anus.

The scene now shifts to the palace for the denouement, where Mortimer, his seduction complete, and Isabella — all in black, her vengeance achieved — dance their third duo, one of appalling and utter evil, the music lithe as the lovers coil around each other. But their triumph is short-lived — the boy-king Edward III has them arrested. Mortimer is dragged away to be executed while the queen is banished by her son.

Scene five
The first theme is now reprised as the cortège of Edward II progresses across the stage just as that of his father had in the opening scene. As it departs, Edward III and Queen Philippa are left alone on stage, children with absolute power, he seated on the throne, she playing at his feet with a doll.

Guy Rickards © 2000

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