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1906; prelude and nine fragments for mezzo-soprano & orchestra
author of text
translator of text
translator of text
after Wharton

Bantock came to Sappho through the English translation by Henry Thornton Wharton, first published in 1885, though Bantock probably owned the third edition of 1895. The amazing fact is that Sappho’s words have only survived in very fragmentary form, quoted by classical lexicographers and grammarians to illustrate various points, though since Wharton possibly another hundred fragments have been unearthed (literally) by archaeologists from the Egyptian desert. It would appear that in the Alexandrian Library there were nine volumes of Sappho’s poetry which are now lost. There have been various estimates of when Sappho’s work vanished, for it certainly seems to have survived for well over nine hundred years. Dates as early as AD380 and as late as 1073 have been suggested for its destruction, possibly at the hands of one or other brand of religious zealots, probably Christian.

As it is, what we have is one complete poem, ‘Ode to Aphrodite’ (Bantock’s first song), an extended fragment of a second (Bantock’s ‘Peer of gods’), and a succession of fragments of one or two lines, surviving as quotations in the work of others. These Helen Bantock has taken from the Wharton translation, stringing together unrelated fragments and where necessary changing the order of the words and adding linking verses of her own. She thus constructed nine poems with a narrative and emotional thread. Possibly of the total number of lines that Bantock set, quite a number were actually written by his wife. Certainly much of the shaping and the thrust and meaning of the work is hers, rather than that of her great mentor of twenty-five centuries earlier.

To understand Helen’s catalytic role in assembling Bantock’s text, we might briefly consider the first verses of the last song. Taking Wharton’s English version of fragment 26:

Wharton: O Muse of the golden throne,
raise that strain which the renowned elder of Teos …
Bantock: Muse of the golden throne, O raise that strain,
Which once thou used to sweetly sing.

Helen has moved the ‘O’ to the end of the first line and deleted the following twelve words, incidentally changing the meaning. She has inserted the words ‘once thou’ and rearranged Wharton’s final words in a more poetic scansion.

This is her method in the majority of the songs. Thus, in her ‘Bridal Song’ she juxtaposes Wharton’s fragments 93, 103, 106, 91, 92, 133 and 105 (in order). The penultimate of these fragments is probably not by Sappho at all, but rather an imitation of her style.

Sappho lived on the island of Lesbos (origin of the modern term ‘lesbian’) and it is clear that hers was an erotic and passionate nature. Several readings are possible. Helen Bantock may well have intended to present her husband with a broadly heterosexual narrative; Bantock himself surely reacted in this spirit (as did early audiences), perhaps taking his cue from Alexander Pope’s well-known translation of Ovid:

Say, lovely youth that dost my heart command,
Can Phaon’s eyes forget his Sappho’s hand?

However, the nature of the passion that Helen Bantock was celebrating—and her husband illuminating—with these songs is vividly portrayed. What is certain is the consuming immediacy and ardour of the heroine and the vigour with which the story is told. Bantock responds to the poetess’s constantly changing moods, her light and shade and spectral shadows, the transition from moments of highest passion to cold stillness and back again all in the space of seconds.

Of importance is the handling of the songs which might be regarded as interludes—Nos III and VIII—and in particular No VIII, ‘Bridal Song’, which can seem out of style with the rest of the work, with its lilting no-nonsense tune and generally Griegian textures, the rhythm and tambourine reminding us of something familiar. But what? Several parallels come to mind. Lohengrin was suggested by one early reviewer, but Grieg or Delius strike the present writer as better parallels. From an end-of-century perspective Delius’s Florida Suite or his operas Koanga or A Village Romeo and Juliet have comparable moments, but it is unlikely that Bantock could have known of these when writing Sappho.

Sappho was one of a circle of girls on whom she seems to have had violent crushes and jealousies: erotic passions experienced within a close-knit circle of female friends. It is said she was short and dark and unattractive and she may well have had the role of older teacher, a sort of Aeolic Jean Brodie. Such is the power of her narrative that she gives passionate life to what may have been to the passing observer trivial events. As Joseph Addison remarked as long ago as 1711: ‘She felt the Passion in all its Warmth, and described it in all its Symptoms.’ Thus in the first song she appeals to the goddess of love because one of her girls has spurned her: the petulant reaction of one rejected. And yet could it be that her reaction to these powerful feelings was the grit that enabled this particular oyster to spin a string of exquisite pearls. Again in the second song she remembers a favourite of long ago. In the sixth she despairs because her favourite had looked at a man.

At this stage in his life, Bantock was increasingly being recognized for his large-scale orchestral and choral works, an output to be crowned, simultaneously with Sappho, by his complete setting of Omar Khayyám, running for some two-and-a-half hours. This is a fascinating juxtaposition, for Helen Bantock’s role has remarkable resonances of Fitzgerald’s Victorian realization of Persian verses. Modern scholars of each poet doubtless have similar reservations about their mutation into Victorian verse, and yet they are remarkable English-language works in their own right.

Sappho is associated with the metre named after her, which we can hear in the first and sixth songs. Bantock also evokes Sappho’s musical character in his treatment of her words. Sappho is reputed to have played the harp or lyre and also to have been a singer, and Aristoxenus is quoted by Plutarch as asserting that she invented the mixolydian scale (G to G on the white notes of the keyboard).

It was Sir Thomas Beecham who, in his autobiography A Mingled Chime, remarked on Bantock’s ‘quick penetration of the true lyrical writer for reaching the heart of a poem and re-creating it in fitting and telling turns of melody … and when I recall the texts of … the Sappho songs, I cannot help believing that Bantock’s settings of them will remain unchallenged for some time to come’.

Bantock clearly assembled the music over several years, for the second song is dated as early as 25 November 1900. On 27 October 1904 Bantock wrote to his wife remarking: ‘I have been copying out the Sappho Song with its unfinished ending as you suggested, and commenced work on another of them—‘O fair, O lovely’, which will have to be more lyrical.’ The manuscript of the completed cycle is dated 7 May 1905 and it seems probable that much of the work on pulling it together was done during the early months of that year. The very existence of the Prelude suggests that Bantock intended it to be an orchestral cycle from the outset, and it was the Prelude which he orchestrated first, completing the score on 8 August 1905.

The orchestral score of the fifth song, ‘The moon has set’, has the date 5 May 1907, so when the Prelude was played and a song sung twice during the 1906 Proms (three songs had been promised), it seems likely that the complete orchestrated cycle was far from ready. The ‘Hymn to Aphrodite’ had been first heard with piano accompaniment, and it was sung by the Canadian contralto Edith J Miller at the Aeolian Hall on 25 May 1906, and on 7 June at the same hall the ‘Hymn’ and ‘Evening Song’ were both heard with piano. These performances may well have triggered Henry Wood’s interest and Sappho’s subsequent appearance in the Promenade Concerts at Queen’s Hall. In those days the programmes for the Proms were planned much more flexibly than today, allowing repeats and last-minute insertions to catch the popular reaction day by day. The first performance of any of Sappho with orchestra took place at a Queen’s Hall Prom on 7 September 1906, when Florence Oliver sang the ‘Hymn to Aphrodite’, Henry Wood conducting. It must have impressed because on 20 September it was repeated with Edith J Miller as soloist, and then five days later, on 25 September, Wood conducted the Prelude in its first performance.

What now followed was a succession of performances of small groups of the songs usually preceded by the Prelude; but no singer emerged to champion the complete cycle round the country, or indeed in Europe. Nevertheless Miss Grainger Kerr took up ‘Evening Song’, giving it at Nottingham early in November 1906 and again in Glasgow on 13 January 1907. Various organizations also adopted the Prelude, playing it as a new Bantock tone poem; it was given by the Society Armonica in Birmingham on 16 January 1907, at Bournemouth on 1 February 1907 and subsequently round the country.

‘I loved thee once, Atthis, long ago’, the second song, was heard in Manchester on 10 February 1907, its announced pairing with the ‘Hymn to Aphrodite’ failing to materialize. However, the latter very demanding song was given by a student, Miss Gwladys Roberts, at a Royal Academy of Music concert at Queen’s Hall on 26 March 1907.

And so it went on, the various songs getting their first and subsequent performances. Extracts were heard twice in London’s Queen’s Hall in April 1908: on the 9th, at a Philharmonic Society concert, the Prelude was followed by Edith Clegg singing Nos IV, V and VIII conducted by Henry Wood, while on 14 April Phyllis Lett, with Beecham conducting, included No VIII and three others. Later that year the Prelude and Nos VII and VIII (VII seeing its first performance) followed the second part of Omar Khayyám at Hanley on 3 December. On 10 January 1909, while away from home, Bantock wrote to his wife asking her to copy out the words of I, III, V, VIII and IX and send them to Liverpool, presumably signalling the performance of another, more extended selection.

But the work appears not to have been quite the success its publishers had hoped. As the piano score was published by Breitkopf und Härtel and the words are bilingual in German and English it may well have been played complete in Germany around the time of its first publication; Havergal Brian certainly thought so, writing in The Staffordshire Sentinel in November 1909: ‘… His Sappho songs, which an eminent German critic describes as the finest in existence … seem to have entered upon an excursion round the continent of Europe.’

But any complete performance in the United Kingdom, at least, seems to have been long delayed. When it was done at Bournemouth during the war (‘Miss Foreshen’ on 18 December 1916) only two songs were presented (I, IX), while Phyllis Lett at the Hereford Three Choirs performance on 7 September 1921 presented three songs (II, III, IX).

The complete performance given on 5 March 1921 at the Usher Hall, Edinburgh, in the fifth season of the Reid Orchestral Concerts conducted by Donald Francis Tovey, did not claim to be a premiere but it may well have been. The soloist was Denne Parker, then aged thirty-one, and despite the success of that occasion there was no opportunity for her to repeat her achievement because almost immediately she went abroad and lived in Rangoon until the following year (though on 29 January 1923 she gave the complete cycle, with Bantock himself at the piano, in the unlikely location of the men’s dining room in Cadbury’s chocolate factory in a concert promoted by the Bourneville Works Musical Society). Later she gave the first complete performance in Canada, though again with piano accompaniment.

The Prelude and three songs (I, V, VIII) surfaced in South Africa, performed by local soloist Margaret Roux in a Bantock concert given by the Durban Municipal Orchestra on 23 October 1930 to mark the composer’s visit. Small groups of songs with piano accompaniment continued to be given occasionally, including at the Bantock memorial concert in Birmingham after the composer’s death (when Astra Desmond sang five of them), but other than Sir Adrian Boult’s performance of the Prelude just after the War the music was not heard again with orchestra until the Bantock Centenary in 1968 when there were two broadcast performances, by Johanna Peters with the BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra conducted by Norman del Mar, and by Sibyl Michelow with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra conducted by Maurice Handford. The Handford broadcast was billed and announced as complete, but what was actually heard was only the Prelude and five songs (I, II, III, VI, IX). A few weeks later del Mar included the Prelude and six of the songs in his performance (I, II, III, V, VI, IX).

What may have been only the second complete performance was given by the Birmingham University Orchestra with Sarah Walker as soloist, under the baton of Professor Stephen Banfield. This was on 10 November 1996 in a concert at the Adrian Boult Hall of the Birmingham Conservatoire to mark the fiftieth anniversary of Bantock’s death. For this performance new performing materials were prepared; these have been used for this recording.

The Prelude includes themes from the songs and opens with five harp arpeggios—surely Sappho herself improvising on her lyre?—a motif that recurs at the outset of the second and the last songs. Three themes now follow that appear in the fifth song, ‘The moon has set’. The first of these soon arises from the depths, Bantock marking it ‘with yearning’; in the song it has the words ‘I yearn and seek—I know not what to do’. Then there is a big climax with a trumpet motif which will underline the words ‘Fatal creature, bitter-sweet—Yea, Eros shakes my soul’, and this is reinforced by the motif to which Bantock sets Sappho’s next words, describing how the passion strikes her in her haunted dream as a ‘wind on the mountain falling on the oaks’, before the bold lyrical presentation of the motif from the sixth song, ‘Peer of gods’, to the words ‘Dare I to love thee’. Briefly looking back we are next taken to the instrumental music that leads to the words ‘Ah! a hue as honey pale o’erspreads thy cheek’ in the fourth song before returning to the sixth for the despairing chromatic line at the words ‘Sight have I none, nor hearing’. Finally come allusions to the seventh and ninth songs at the words ‘Death is evil, the gods have so judged’ and finally ‘Delicate Adonis is dying’, from the seventh and the end of the ninth song. In the space of ten minutes Bantock tells the story, or at least evokes the emotions, visiting most of the significant incidents and reflecting all the passionate facets of Sappho’s personality, and to that extent it is a character portrait.

This is a cycle to be sung dramatically, the soloist embodying the changing emotions of the love-lorn Sappho. In the first song she appeals to the goddess of love to help her in her predicament: it is clearly not the first time. In the second she dismisses her former love whom she contemptuously says will be forgotten; but she, Sappho, will live in memory because she has gathered ‘the roses of Pieria’. Pieria was in fact a part of Macedonia, north of Mount Olympus, the home of the Muses. The roses of Pieria are thus simply poems, and Sappho is saying with Keats ‘high-piled books, in chancery, hold like rich garners the full ripen’d grain’. The way Bantock repeats ‘Thou art nought to me’ perfectly catches her resignation, for by the third repetition we know all too well she has admitted to herself it is an empty lie.

We come to a brief interlude in the drama with ‘Evening Song’, in which (under the influence of Hesperus—the morning star, in fact the planet Venus) the soloist hails spring’s messenger ‘the sweet-voiced nightingale’ in a poem redolent with images later adopted by many English poets.

In the fourth song Sappho remembers the light in lovers’ eyes and sings in praise of love—‘Let us drain a thousand cups of Love’. But the fifth song brings a contrast. Sappho sleeps, and in a passionate troubled dream is tormented by longing and ends resignedly ‘Alas! I shall be ever maiden; Neither honey nor bee for me’. This song probably has the widest range of moods in the cycle, and the transition to the ‘yearning tune’ and the build-up of the following climax is the pivotal moment of the whole work. The haunted atmosphere at the end—as the soloist suddenly faces the possibility that all will not come right and sings ‘Alas! I shall be ever maiden’—finds Bantock in spectral mood, the voice entirely below the stave and directed to sing ‘with mournful tone’; the poignant closing chords are punctuated by the thumping of her heart.

Wharton’s text ‘That man seems to me peer of gods … that indeed makes my heart flutter in my bosom’ is rendered more poetically by Helena in the sixth song: but do the Bantocks think our heroine has now met the man of her dreams? In fact the original meaning is more probably Sappho describing the symptoms of the despair which engulfs her when she sees a girl she loves laughing in the company of a man, a reading underlined by the seventh song: she contemplates suicide and in another dream is told by Aphrodite (‘the daughter of Cyprus’) that Death is evil. Helen Bantock has run this on to the lyric lamenting the death of Adonis. The annual festival for the death of Adonis signalled vintage time and the harvest.

The force of the ecstatic ‘Bridal Song’ which follows can be read in a number of ways—at face value, the marriage of Sappho’s girlfriend from the first song; or perhaps as a dream of what might have been. Bantock ends with a hymn to Aphrodite, goddess of love. Bantock makes clear that his music celebrates all love, an archetypal passion, the moods and emotions it creates. The whole work might just as well be called ‘Aphrodite’s Spell’, and indeed over thirty years later his third symphony would be called The Cyprian Goddess and be a paean to Aphrodite.

How should we assess the music? I remember listening to an acetate of Sir Adrian Boult’s performance of the Prelude with Bantock’s son Raymond at the time of the Bantock Centenary in 1968. His asked me, in doubting tones, whether the chord of the added sixth was too sweet—it may have been then, but it no longer seems so today in the context of this music. Indeed this listener at least has no such stylistic reservations, but prefers to assess the music on its own terms. The clue comes from the printed vocal score—all eighty-six pages of it—the music framed in a double-ruled border with art nouveau (or should one say Jugendstil) decorated corners. This is very much a fin de siècle score with its vivid invention and true-to-life emotion and story-telling, and viewed in this context it begins to make glorious sense.

from notes by Lewis Foreman © 1997

Bantock découvrit Sappho à travers l’édition de Henry Thornton Wharton, publiée pour la première fois en 1885, même si le compositeur possédait probablement la troisième édition de 1895. Fait surprenant, les poèmes de Sappho n’ont survécu que de manière très fragmentaire, sous forme de citations reprises par divers lexicographes et grammairiens classiques pour illustrer différents points – bien que des archéologues aient peut-être déterré (au sens littéral du terme), depuis Wharton, une nouvelle centaine de fragments dans le désert égyptien. La bibliothèque d’Alexandrie renfermait apparemment neuf volumes de poésie de Sappho, désormais perdus. Plusieurs estimations ont été avancées quant à la date de disparition des œuvres de Sappho, qui semblent avoir survécu avec certitude durant plus de neuf siècles et auraient été détruites entre 380 et 1073 ap.J.C., vraisemblablement lors d’une quelconque flambée de fanatisme religieux, probablement chrétien.

En l’état actuel des recherches, nous disposons d’un poème complet, «Epithalamia» («Hymn to Aphrodite» dans le cycle de Bantock), d’un large fragment d’un deuxième poème («Peer of gods» de Bantock) et d’une succession de fragments d’une ou deux lignes, qui nous sont parvenus sous forme de citations disséminées chez d’autres auteurs. Helena Bantock a puisé dans la traduction de Wharton et relié les fragments indépendants; lorsque nécessaire, elle a changé l’ordre des mots et ajouté ses propres vers de liaison, élaborant ainsi neuf poèmes dotés d’une trame narrative et émotionnelle. Il est donc possible qu’une grande partie des vers mis en musique par Bantock ait en réalité été écrite par sa femme – la forme, l’idée directrice et la signification de l’œuvre lui doivent certainement beaucoup plus qu’à son illustre mentor d’il y a vingt-cinq siècles.

Sappho, qui vécut sur l’île de Lesbos (à l’origine du «lesbienne» moderne), était manifestement de nature érotique et passionnée. Plusieurs lectures des poèmes anglais sont possibles. Helena Bantock a fort bien pu vouloir présenter à son mari une narration largement hétérosexuelle, et Bantock a certainement réagi dans cet esprit (qui fut aussi celui des premiers auditoires), s’appuyant peut-être sur la célèbre traduction d’Ovide par Alexander Pope:

Say, lovely youth that dost my heart command,
Can Phaon’s eyes forget his Sappho’s hand?
Dis, adorable jeune personne qui domine mon cœur,
Les yeux de Phaon peuvent-ils oublier la main de sa Sappho?

Cependant, la nature de la passion célébrée par Helena Bantock – et enluminée par son époux – au fil de ces chants est des plus équivoques, et seules demeurent sûres l’immédiateté dévorante et l’ardeur de l’héroïne, la vigueur de la narration. Bantock répond aux humeurs constamment changeantes de la poétesse, à son clair-obscur et à ses ombres spectrales, au passage, en l’espace de quelques secondes, de la passion la plus élevée à l’immobilité froide, avant le retour de la passion.

Le traitement des chants qui peuvent étre considérés comme des interludes – les n°III et VIII – est important, en particulier pour ce qui est du n°VIII, «Bridal Song», dont le style peut paraître différent du reste de l’œuvre, avec sa mélodie chantante et efficace, ses textures généralement griegiennes, et un rythme et un tambour de basque qui nous rappellent quelque chose de familier. Mais quoi? Plusieurs parallèles nous viennent à l’esprit. Naguère, un critique suggéra Lohengrin, mais l’auteur des présentes lignes voit en Grieg ou Delius des parallèles plus saisissants. Vus de notre fin de siècle, la Florida Suite de Delius, ou ses opéras Koanga et A Village Romeo and Juliet, présentent des moments comparables, mais il est peu probable que Bantock les eût connus lorsqu’il écrivit Sappho.

Sappho appartenait à un cénacle de jeunes filles, pour lesquelles elle semble avoir éprouvé de violentes inclinations et jalousies: des passions érotiques vécues au sein d’un cercle d’amies très uni. Décrite comme petite, brune et peu attirante, elle a fort bien pu tenir le rôle du professeur plus âgé, sorte de Jean Brodie éolienne. La puissance de sa narration, intense, donne une vie colorée à des événements sans doute insignifiants aux yeux du simple observateur. Comme Joseph Addison le faisait déjà remarquer en 1711: «Elle sentit la passion dans toute sa chaleur, et la décrivit dans tous ses symptômes». Ainsi dans le premier chant, où elle en appelle à la déesse de l’amour parce qu’une de ses jeunes filles l’a éconduite – réaction agressive de la rejetée. Et il se pourrait que cette réaction à des sentiments puissants fût le grain de sable qui permit à cette huître singulière de confectionner un collier de perles exquises. A nouveau, dans le deuxième chant, elle se remémore une favorite d’il y a longtemps, puis se désespère, dans le sixième, de ce que sa favorite a regardé un homme.

A ce moment de sa vie, Bantock était de plus en plus reconnu pour ses œuvres chorales et orchestrales à grande échelle, une production couronnée, à l’époque de Sappho, par sa mise en musique de l’intégralité des Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám de Fitzgerald, qui dure quelque deux heures et demie. Cette juxtaposition est d’ailleurs fascinante, car le rôle joué par Helena Bantock présente de remarquables échos avec la réalisation victorienne des vers persans exécutée par Fitzgerald. Et, quelles que soient les indubitables réserves des spécialistes modernes quant à ces mutations victoriennes, ces œuvres sont, en tant que telles, d’extraordinaires œuvres en langue anglaise.

Dans son autobiographie A Mingled Chime, Sir Thomas Beecham fit remarquer à propos de Bantock la «rapide pénétration du véritable écrivain passionné pour atteindre le cœur d’un poème et le recréer en tournures mélodiques appropriées et efficaces … et lorsque je me remémore les textes … des chants de Sappho, je ne peux m’empêcher de penser que les mises en musique de Bantock resteront quelque temps encore inégalées».

extrait des notes rédigées par Lewis Foreman © 1997
Français: Hypérion

Bantock gelangte an die Werke der Sappho über die Ausgabe von Henry Thornton Wharton, die zum ersten Mal 1885 veröffentlicht wurde, obwohl Bantock vielleicht die dritte Ausgabe von 1895 besaß. Es ist eine erstaunliche Tatsache, daß die Texte der Sappho nur in fragmentarischer Form erhalten sind, die von klassischen Lexikographen und Grammatikern immer wieder zur Illustration verschiedener Merkmale angeführt werden. Seit der Ausgabe Whartons wurden möglicherweise weitere hundert Fragmente in der ägyptischen Wüste von Archäologen (buchstäblich) ausgegraben. Es hat den Anschein, daß es in der Alexandrinischen Bibliothek neun Bände mit Dichtungen der Sappho gegeben hat, die heutzutage als verloren gelten. Man hat zahlreiche Schätzungen darüber angestellt, wann das Werk der Sappho verschwunden ist, denn man kann mit Sicherheit davon ausgehen, daß es gute 900 Jahre erhalten blieb. Vorschläge darüber, wann das Werk zerstört worden sein könnte, reichen von 380 v. Chr. bis hin zum Jahr 1073. Vielleicht geriet es in die Hände von religiösen Fanatikern, wahrscheinlich christlichen Glaubens.

So wie es aussieht, haben wir es mit einem vollständigen Gedicht namens ‘Epithalamia’ (dem ‘Hymnus an Aphrodite’ in Bantocks Zyklus), einem erweiterten, zweiten Gedicht (Bantocks ‘Wie ein Gott erscheint’), und einer Aufeinanderfolge von aus einer oder zwei Zeilen bestehenden Fragmenten zu tun, die als Zitate in den Werken Anderer erhalten geblieben sind. Diese hat Helena Bantock der Übersetzung Whartons entnommen, die zusammenhangslosen Fragmente miteinander verbunden und, wo dies nötig war, die Wortfolge verändert und eigene, verbindene Verse eingefügt. Sie hat so neun Gedichte erzählerisch und in ihrer Gefühlsentwicklung zusammenhängend aufgefädelt. Man kann davon ausgehen, daß im Grunde eine Vielzahl der Verse, die Bantock vertont hat, von seiner Frau geschrieben wurden. Mit Sicherheit stammt viel mehr an Formgegbung, Schwung und Bedeutung des Werkes von ihr als von ihrer 2500 Jahre älteren, großen Mentorin selbst.

Die Dichterin Sappho lebte auf Lesbos (worauf der moderne Begriff ‘lesbisch’ zurückgeht), und es ist offensichtlich, daß ihr ein erotischer und leidenschaftlicher Charakter eigen war. Mehrere Lesarten sind plausibel. Es ist gut möglich, daß Helena Bantock beabsichtigt hat, ihrem Mann eine größtenteils heterosexuelle Erzählung vorzulegen; Bantock selbst hat mit Sicherheit in diesem Sinn darauf reagiert (wie auch zuerst die Zuhörer), eventuell unter Zuhilfenahme von Alexander Popes bekannter Übersetzung von Ovid:

Say, lovely youth that dost my heart command,
Can Phaon’s eyes forget his Sappho’s hand?

Wie auch immer: die Beschaffenheit der Leidenschaft, die Helena Bantock mit diesen Liedern feierte – und von ihrem Ehemann in festlichem Schein dargestellt wurde – ist weit davon entfernt, genau geklärt zu sein. Als sicher gelten hingegen die vereinnahmende Unmittelbarkeit der Heldin und die Leidenschaftlichkeit, mit der die Geschichte erzählt wird. Bantock reagiert auf die permanent wechselnden Stimmungslagen der Dichterin, ihrem Spektrum unterschiedlicher Schattierungen zwischen Licht und Schatten, dem Übergang von glühendster Leidenschaft zu kältester Regungslosigkeit, und erneut aufflammender Leidenschaft, und all dies in Sekundenschnelle.

Es ist wichtig, mit den Liedern richtig umzugehen, die als Interludien betrachtet werden könnten. Dazu zählen Nr. III, Nr. IV und insbesondere das Lied Nr. VIII namens ‘Brautgesang’, das sich in stilistischer Hinsicht durch seine muntere, gleichzeitig sachliche Melodie und allgemein an Grieg erinnernde Beschaffenheit vom Rest des Werkes abhebt, wobei uns Rhythmus und Tamburin an etwas Bekanntes erinnern. Aber woran? Mehrere Parallelen sind denkbar. Einer der ersten Rezensenten schlug den Lohengrin vor, aber dem Verfasser dieses Artikels scheinen Grieg oder Delius als Parallelen plausibler zu sein. Aus der Perspektive des ausgehenden letzten Jahrhunderts bergen Delius’ Florida Suite oder seine Opern Koanga bzw. A Village Romeo and Juliet gemeinsame Elemente, aber es ist unwahrscheinlich, daß Bantock diese, als er Sappho schrieb, bekannt gewesen sind.

Sappho gehört zu einem Kreis von Frauen, für die sie scheinbar eine leidenschaftliche Schwärmerei und Eifersüchteleien hegte: erotische Leidenschaften, die sie innerhalb eines engen Kreises von Freundinnen auslebte. Man behauptet von Sappho, sie sei klein, dunkelhaarig und unattraktiv gewesen, die Rolle einer älteren Lehrerin hätte ihr gut zu Gesicht gestanden, sie sei eine Art Jean Brodie der äolischen Inseln gewesen. Die Bannkraft ihrer Erzählung ist so stark, daß sie allem, was dem vorbeiziehenden Betrachter allenfalls als unbedeutendes Ereignis vorgekommen sein mag, lebhafte Gestalt verleiht. Wie Joseph Addison bereits im Jahr 1711 bemerkte: ‘Sie fühlte die Leidenschaft in all ihrer Glut, und beschrieb sie mit all ihren Symptomen.’ So ruft sie im ersten Lied die Göttin der Liebe an, weil eine der Frauen sie verschmähte: die verdrießliche Reaktion einer Person, die abgelehnt wurde. Und dennoch könnte es sein, daß genau diese heftigen Gefühle diejenigen Sandkörner rieseln ließen, aus denen eine besondere Auster einen exquisiten Perlenfaden gesponnen hat. Auch im zweiten Lied erinnert sie sich an eine geliebte Gespielin vergangener Zeiten. Im sechsten Lied verzweifelt sie, weil genau diese Gespielin einem Mann schöne Augen gemacht hat.

Zu diesem Zeitpunkt seines Lebens erhielt Bantock zunehmend Anerkennung für seine großangelegten Orchester- und Chorwerke, Kompositionen, die zeitgleich mit Sappho durch die komplette Vertonung von Fitzgeralds Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, die geschlagene zweieinhalb Stunden dauert, gekrönt wurden. Dies ist eine faszinierende Gegenüberstellung, denn Helena Bantocks Rolle spiegelt sich in bemerkenswerter Weise in der viktorianischen Umsetzung von Fitzgeralds Persischen Versen wider. Moderne Experten mögen mit Sicherheit ähnlich gelagerte Vorbehalte gegenüber der Überführung beider Dichter in viktorianische Verse hegen, und dennoch stellen sie beide bemerkenswerte englischsprachige Werke von eigenem Rang und Namen dar.

Sappho wird mit der nach ihr benannten sapphischen Strophe assoziiert. Diese Strophenform können wir im ersten und im sechsten Lied hören. Durch die Art und Weise, in der Bantock Sapphos Texte behandelt, gibt er auch ihren musikalischen Charakterzug wider. Man sagt von Sappho, sie habe Harfe oder Laute gespielt und auch gesungen. Plutarch erwähnt Aristoxenus als denjenigen, der behauptet habe, Sappho hätte die mixolydische Tonleiter (von G nach G auf den weißen Tasten der Klaviatur) erfunden.

Es war Sir Thomas Beecham, der in der von ihm verfaßten Autobiographie A Mingled Chime Überlegungen anstellte zu Bantocks ‘schnellem Durchdringen zum wahrhaft lyrischen Schriftsteller dadurch, daß er bis zum Herzen eines Gedichtes vorrückt und es in seinen überaus passenden und beredten Melodieumschwüngen erneut kreiert … und wenn ich mich an Bantocks Sappho-Lieder zurückbesinne, dann kann ich nur noch glauben, daß seine Vertonungen auf lange Zeit unangefochten bleiben werden’.

aus dem Begleittext von Lewis Foreman © 1997
Deutsch: Inge Schneider


Bantock: Orchestral Music
CDS44281/66CDs Boxed set (at a special price)
Bantock: Sappho & Sapphic Poem
CDA66899Archive Service; also available on CDS44281/6


Beginning: Prelude
Track 1 on CDA66899 [10'40] Archive Service; also available on CDS44281/6
Track 1 on CDS44281/6 CD4 [10'40] 6CDs Boxed set (at a special price)
Fragment 1: Hymn to Aphrodite  Daugher of Zeus
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Track 2 on CDS44281/6 CD4 [7'16] 6CDs Boxed set (at a special price)
Fragment 2: I loved thee once, Atthis, long ago
Track 3 on CDA66899 [6'33] Archive Service; also available on CDS44281/6
Track 3 on CDS44281/6 CD4 [6'33] 6CDs Boxed set (at a special price)
Fragment 3: Evening Song  Evening, thou bringest all that bright morning scattered
Track 4 on CDA66899 [2'17] Archive Service; also available on CDS44281/6
Track 4 on CDS44281/6 CD4 [2'17] 6CDs Boxed set (at a special price)
Fragment 4: Stand face to face, friend
Track 5 on CDA66899 [8'06] Archive Service; also available on CDS44281/6
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Fragment 5: The moon has set
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Fragment 6: Peer of gods he seems
Track 7 on CDA66899 [4'13] Archive Service; also available on CDS44281/6
Track 7 on CDS44281/6 CD4 [4'13] 6CDs Boxed set (at a special price)
Fragment 7: In a dream, I spake
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Fragment 8: Bridal Song  O fair, O lovely, As the sweet apple
Track 9 on CDA66899 [4'40] Archive Service; also available on CDS44281/6
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Fragment 9: Muse of the golden throne
Track 10 on CDA66899 [5'28] Archive Service; also available on CDS44281/6
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