Saturday, December 10, 2005

The Immortal Hour

I thought the following assessment worthy of rescue from the wasteland of Sibelius Music:

Having so publicly announced my awakened interest in Rutland Boughton some weeks ago, I feel somewhat compelled to reveal (or is it mull over?) the results of my investigation. I have not heard the symphonies which are available (I think perhaps the 2nd and 3rd?), but I have listened to some of his instrumental music, such as the Flute Concerto, and other music for strings, such as "Aylesbury Games," and some other things. Paramount during the past few weeks, however, has been The Immortal Hour, and after repeated listenings and long musings, I have to say that I think it has been consigned to oblivion unfairly. Perhaps, with the renewed interest in all things heroic and/or archaic, as attested by the wave of Tolkien mania which seems to be sweeping the world just now, the time has come for this opera and its Celtic Revival roots to be reawakened.

I am not one who particularly favors the division of past composers into "major" and "minor" categories. Mr. Boughton's music easily stands comparison to that of his peers and contemporaries. What instrumental music I have heard is quite well-crafted, and can easily stand with that of Vaughan Williams, Finzi, Bridge, Bliss, Butterworth, Holst, Brian, etc., etc. I suspect that much of Boughton's later obscurity had more to do with his politics than his music, for the same socialist stance that ultimately separated him from the Glastonbury Festival (apparently the authorities did not like King Herod portrayed as an upper class, top-hatted English gentleman, among other things) probably condemned him to a more or less official shelving. But for those who insist that there are no English operas between Dido and Aeneas and Peter Grimes, I honestly believe that The Immortal Hour should be nothing less than a revelation. Of course, anyone who believes such is willfully overlooking such works as Savitri, The Wandering Scholar, and Sir John In Love, as well as innumerable others, but that is another discussion entirely.

This is not meant to be a proselytizing document, but rather a belated attempt to provide some impressions for others—something that few seemed able or willing to do for me when I began this inquiry. First, let me say that it appears the idea that Boughton got caught up in the Edwardian fairy fascination is quite mistaken. There is a distinct difference between "fairy" and "Faery," and there is no pigwiggery about Fiona MacLeod's realm of the Lordly Ones. Having mentioned Tolkien above, let me also say that I think this impulse to create or promote a British mythology was certainly in the air in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Fiona MacLeod (aka William Sharp) pursued a certain Celtic angle, whether Scottish or Irish, building her writings on existing legend and mythology, whereas Tolkien decided to strike out on his own (apparently around the time that The Immortal Hour (the opera) was written, as it turns out) and write a new mythology for England (as opposed to Britain, you understand), but some of the same ideas, sentiments, and language are common to both efforts. If you are familiar with The Silmarillion I think you will recognize much of the style of the original play. (Strange to think, isn't it, that while Tolkien has been lionized almost beyond belief, the authors of similar efforts have been thrown away as "old-fashioned." There is something rather sad in that.) But I digress.

Some interesting points:
1. Boughton does, indeed, use musical mottos or leitmotivs, but they seem distinctly un-Wagnerian. Owing to the relative brevity of the opera (and having read the original play, I think Boughton...or his librettist?...did an admirable job of compressing and editing, although what remains is still recognizably Ms. MacLeod's original language) the motives/mottoes are easier to remember, and on repeated listenings lend the utmost assistance to the drama and its subtexts. The manipulation of the motives, i.e., their use, distortion, introduction, variation, etc., is very subtle, and charms the listener's ear immeasurably.
2. The harmonic and melodic languages of the opera are of the same family as those of Boughton's peers, with an extra Celtic (i.e. Irish) influence distinctly palpable, probably owing to the subject matter. Other works of the composer that I have heard do not necessarily share the same language, so it does not appear that this was his habitual mode of expression.
3. The use of the pentatonic scale is common, and in this The Immortal Hour seems to share much with some American works of the same period, or the period just preceding, at least to my ear. An interesting side-note is the perceived resonance with many of the forgotten works of the Native American-inspired dramas and operas of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It would seem that this search for "roots" occurred on both sides of the Atlantic, but how strange that music inspired by Irish myth and Native American legend should end up sharing so many characteristics.
4. One thing that makes this work stand out is the liberal use of the chorus, much of the time unaccompanied or with a simple instrumental obbligato. The chorus is an overwhelmingly important part of the drama, and is given a prominent musical role, as well. In this, I believe, the work is tied even more firmly to English taste and tradition.

In conclusion, let me urge any readers to find and study the fine recording of this unjustly forgotten work. I would imagine it might not be easy to stage, but I believe The Immortal Hour deserves to regain its place in a list of highly regarded English operas. (Check the link at the title of this entry for a copy of the referenced recording.)


MaLj said...

Nice article, but I can't find a reference in it to the fine recording you mentioned? Even if this was not written as a cd review, it would be interesting to know more about the sound source.

Andrew Lowe-Watson said...

Interesting, Rod. I have not heard any of it but I do know that the opera and Boughton himself have become a bit of a 'cult' thing iin the past few years. I would imagine he has a similar style to Bax - no? I think tim may be able to help with this.

Surly Terrier said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
MaLj said...

You mean: this?

MaLj said...

Also found on Hyperion Records site.

tim ellis said...

The fame of The Immortal Hour is supposed to be behind Ravel's farce L'heure espagnole, which is somewhat better known.