The myth that England was the “land without music” has been
leaking like a sieve for years. Disparagers of the British product
could nonetheless cling to the dictum that this country produced
no viable opera between Dido and Aeneas and Peter
Grimes. It was, after all, vastly expensive to attempt
to prove otherwise. Operas have to be seen as well as heard,
so ultimately nothing but a flourishing opera house, regularly
presenting works such as Robin Hood in performances
and productions of the standard we take for granted in Weber,
Donizetti or Bizet, could prove the point definitely one way
or another. A costly exercise indeed if it only confirmed what
disparagers have always said, namely that the point was proved
over a century ago and the operas have enjoyed just oblivion
ever since. Or if the works simply don’t appeal to today’s public.
This latter could be an issue. Thanks to the efforts of Victorian
Opera and others, we now have available at least a glimpse of
this large but submerged repertoire (link).
It is becoming evident that the concept of opera dominant in
19th century Great Britain was one that gradually
lost out to the continental European preference for all-sung
opera. Of the English school, Macfarren was perhaps the most
radical and unrepentant, critical even of Balfe’s timid attempts
at eliminating spoken dialogue.
For today’s audiences, Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas is
his great operatic masterpiece. Though one of the earliest operas
in the general repertoire, it conforms to our idea of what opera
should be – as do the still earlier works of Monteverdi – because
it is all sung. But Macfarren, one of the editors of the Purcell
Edition, didn’t see it that way. For him King Arthur
was the great model. For most of us today, Purcell’s other operatic
works, in which the action itself is carried forward by spoken
dialogue, have to be explained away by inventing terms like
“semi-opera”, and arouse regret that so much great music should
be buried in problematic contexts. Macfarren, on the other hand,
held that Purcell, after the early Dido, had rejected
“the authority of Italy” and, rightly in Macfarren’s view, set
about creating an opera which was “a Drama of which Music formed
a necessary, frequent and integral part, but of which the dialogue
was spoken”. King Arthur was a model not only in this
but in its choice of an intensely national subject.
I should say, at this point, that I am indebted to David Chandler’s
note for much of the information in this review, but the reader
should not take the conclusions I draw from it as necessarily
So here we have Macfarren backing his own theories with an opera
on about as English a subject as can be imagined, its spoken
dialogue interspersed with songs and ensembles plus some fuller
musical development in the finales. Without being in any way
“folksy”, Macfarren’s musical language is easily recognizable
as “English”, drawing as it does on the fund of clear-cut melody,
bluff but not unfeeling, patriotic but not tub-thumping, that
had never run entirely dry during the “dark ages” stretching
from Arne and Boyce through Shield to Dibdin and Loder. It is
not a comic opera, since it is not “funny” in the Gilbert and
Sullivan manner, but the French would have called it an “opéra-comique”,
meaning that, while there is pathos and dramatic confrontation
along the way, it is not tragic and everything resolves very
nicely except for the scheming Sompnour who gets his just deserts.
For his Victorian contemporaries, Macfarren had it spot-on.
Robin Hood was an enormous success and was still playing
towards the end of the century. Nonetheless, the “authority
of Italy” was encroaching. Not to speak of the authority of
Germany which, in Wagner’s hands, abolished recitative and drew
the action into a continuous musical development. Macfarren,
not surprisingly, felt that Wagner was “working a great evil
on music”. When Stanford met Macfarren by chance in a Bond Street
music shop and unwisely mentioned his forthcoming trip to Bayreuth,
he was “roundly and loudly rated” in public, “ending with an
expression of contemptuous pity”. Learning that Parry also planned
to visit Bayreuth, Macfarren wrote to him that “An earthquake
would be good that would swallow up the spot and everybody on
Alas for Macfarren’s theories, today’s post-Wagnerian opera-goers
tend to be uneasy with operas – except actual comic ones – that
have spoken dialogue. Probably only two – Die Zauberflöte
and Fidelio – have been totally accepted, on the grounds
that their musical quality overrides all other considerations.
Not even the ur-Carmen – minus Guiraud’s recitatives
– has been universally adopted.
There seems no inherent reason why “English romantic opera”
– to use the term by which these pieces tend to be described
today – should not have survived at least on a local basis.
One might make a comparison with the Spanish zarzuela,
which is basically “Spanish romantic opera”, complete with dialogue.
Though this repertoire has travelled very little outside Spain
it has nevertheless remained an essential part of Spanish musical
Spanish zarzuelas, when we actually hear something
from one of them, seem to contain a lot of very attractive music.
So was the problem with “English romantic opera” that it just
wasn’t very good?
Restricting the discussion to the work in hand, there seems
little doubt that it’s pretty good. The tunes are attractive,
the ensemble pieces are well-wrought, the orchestration is colourful
with some beautiful writing for solo clarinet and cello. The
English quality described above gives it a distinctly individual
flavour. Today’s opera-goers will particularly appreciate the
final numbers, where the story-telling is drawn into the music
at last and Macfarren controls the pace in a way that makes
one regret that he never wrote the all-sung opera he could evidently
have handled very nicely. And, while Macfarren would presumably
have bridled if anyone suggested he was using leitmotifs,
tunes nevertheless do return in association with specific ideas.
In particular, the “true love” theme had got itself well and
truly fixed in my head by the end. British opera composers had
actually been using recurring motifs since well before Wagner’s,
or Macfarren’s, day – see Eric Blom: Bishop’s Theme Song
(in Blom: A Musical Postbag, Dent, 1941). Lastly, while
most of the vocal lines are of a ballad type, Macfarren does
expect big ranges from his singers and the leading soprano has
bursts of exuberant coloratura, not to speak of more than one
top D. This ruled out Robin Hood for the sort of amateur
companies that kept The Bohemian Girl and Maritana
alive long after the big opera houses had dropped them.
Thus far so good, but maybe more is needed. I’ve looked at,
and played through, quite a bit of Macfarren over the years.
My impression is that his music is usually resourceful and inventive
enough to hold the attention. He had a good fund of agreeable
melody. In spite of his professorial image, he wears his academic
robes lightly. What he doesn’t seem to have is something I would
call vision. If we make a comparison with Parry, whose music
shows a similar sturdy Englishness without being “folksy”, Parry
quite often goes beyond this with moments of real inspiration,
sublimity and, in a word, vision. I have yet to find any moments
of this kind in Macfarren.
The later stages of Robin Hood do take fire, however,
and the performers bring their best to them. Elsewhere things
are patchy. The first vocal contribution, from Allan, promises
– or threatens – a distinctly provincial standard of singing,
and the Sheriff and the Sompnour, while getting round their
notes neatly, lack the sort of Sesto Bruscantini-like ring that
is surely wanted. Nicky Spence sings very well as Robin Hood,
however, though a more heroic timbre would not have come amiss.
Best of all is Kay Jordan as Marian, seemingly unfazed by Macfarren’s
sometimes extreme coloratura demands and well in command of
her top Ds.
I realize that the costs of recording an unknown opera meant
that the performers had to keep going with a minimum of retakes
but it has to be said that ensemble is often awry and orchestral
raggedness is more the norm than the exception. The opening
of Marian’s aria with cello obbligato would surely have warranted
a retake in the interests of at least a minimum of coordination.
Perhaps this would have mattered little if there had been a
less cautious feeling to much of it. The allegros lilt along
quite nicely and the andantes amble along very pleasantly. Would
it have been worth pushing both to extremes, seeking a sense
of vital involvement in the former and bringing to the latter
the expressive weight that the lines look as if they could bear?
Not long ago I was listening to soprano Véronique Gens and conductor
Christophe Rousset using a wealth of imagination and interpretative
guile to bring life to operatic scenes by Méhul, Kreutzer, Gossec
and others that are probably not inherently finer music than
Macfarren’s, but were made to seem so. Only by making the experiment
could it be established if such an approach would be a vain
attempt to inject stature into a modest work or would reveal
potentialities in the music unrealized here.
And then there is the matter of the spoken dialogue. The booklet
hedges around the issue. We are told in a general way about
Macfarren’s preference for developing the action through spoken
dialogue, but when the discussion centres upon Robin Hood
no attempt is made to explain or justify the fact that there
is no dialogue here. I was recently complaining about the same
thing when discussing Wallace’s Maritana. Here, as
there, we can’t hear how the action proceeds and how the music
slots into it. We can therefore have no idea whether the opera
is dramatically and theatrically viable. We just listen to a
collection of single pieces, except in the finales, which give
the impression that Macfarren and his librettist John Oxenford
knew what they were doing. The libretto downloadable from the
Naxos site just gives what is sung, so there is not even the
option of stopping the disc and reading the dialogue.
Looking at the timings, it can be seen that including the dialogue,
even severely cut, would have meant three CDs. But is it a two-CD
opera anyway? It is now possible to download the vocal score
from the IMSLP-Petrucci library. Following the performance with
this it turns out that several numbers are very substantially
cut. In particular, we get little more than a whistle-stop tour
through the dances at the beginning of CD 2.
But before accusing these performers of hacking the score down
themselves, I get the impression that the manuscript they are
following – which I imagine is the only orchestral material
surviving – is a somewhat different version of the work to that
published in the vocal score. Apart from the cuts there are
many differences of notes – far more than could be accounted
for by occasional mistakes in performance that there was no
time to correct. At one point the order of the numbers is changed.
Significantly, towards the end a brief spot of accompanied recitative
sung here is replaced in the vocal score by a page of more developed
music, setting the same words. So I think the manuscript must
represent a first version, the vocal score a revision. The booklet
here actually reproduces the title page of the vocal score,
noting that it “contained text improvements made during the
opening run”. It would have been interesting to have been told
more. Does no orchestral material survive for these improvements?
Or were they not used because the first version, shorn of dialogue,
fitted neatly onto two CDs?
Whatever my reservations, it is clear that anyone even minimally
interested in opera in Victorian England needs to get this set.
It is also clear that the standards are infinitely higher than
those we used to have to put up with if we were to hear such
works at all. The 1970s Rare Recorded Edition set of Balfe’s
The Daughter of St. Mark (SRRE141-2), taken from an
amateur production, might be cited. But, for the reasons given
above, it still doesn’t tell us whether Robin Hood
is a viable opera or not.
A POSTSCRIPT TO “ROBIN HOOD”:
CLIFFORD BAX ON ENGLISH OPERA
Shortly after completing my review of Macfarren’s opera “Robin
Hood” I chanced upon an article by Clifford Bax, “The British
Composer in the Theatre”. Clifford Bax (1886-1962) was the brother
of the composer Arnold Bax and a leading playwright for at least
When discussing “Robin Hood” I explained how British operas
in the 19th century were based on the principle that
the action of the piece was carried forward by spoken dialogue,
illustrated and commented by the music. This type of opera –
except in actual operetta – tends to be problematic for a modern
public. I tried to make it clear, however, that British opera
composers of the day, and Macfarren in particular, were ideologically
committed to what the latter described as “a Drama of which
Music formed a necessary, frequent, and integral part, but of
which the dialogue was spoken”. Macfarren took a leading role
in the Purcell revival and edited both “Dido and Aeneas” and
“King Arthur” for the Musical Antiquarian Society. Contrary
to present-day thinking, Macfarren and the MAS held that “Dido”
was an early deviation towards the Italian style, while in “King
Arthur” Purcell had rejected “the authority of Italy”, creating
a blueprint for a genuine English style of opera.
All this has already been said in my review of “Robin Hood”,
but it seemed necessary to restate it as the premises for what
follows. As I understood the situation, by the end of the 19th
century the “authority of Italy”, as well as that of Germany,
had taken over. Verdi, Wagner and Puccini between them represented
the operatic models and spoken dialogue was relegated to operetta.
Bax’s article suggests that the matter was not quite so cut
The cutting is from the “Radio Times” of January 5th.
Unfortunately, in those days it seems there was no need to specify
the actual year. However, the cutting comes in a bundle of several
others, one of them dated 1933, and a personal letter dated
1931, all folded into a second-hand copy of Eaglefield Hull’s
biography of Cyril Scott which the original owner bought in
1931. Other references to contemporary events confirm a date
in the early 1930s.
The simple solution would have been to reproduce the article
as it stands, but Clifford Bax’s work is not yet in the public
domain so I prefer to play safe by quoting and commenting upon
his salient points.
Bax begins by dismissing Grand Opera altogether, “for although
there are people in this country who relish it, most of us find
it insufferably tedious; and our composers, knowing that no
English opera is likely to be performed anywhere, are seldom
willing to spend two years in the creation of an unwanted work”.
The reason, he claims, is “not that we are unmusical but, rather,
that we have more sense of literature than of any other art”,
and “most Englishmen like to experience their music and their
drama separately”. He concedes that some “musically-serious”
operas have been written in England, citing Smyth, Vaughan Williams,
Holst and Boughton: “but there it is – these operas have merely
proven again that we do not care for opera nearly so much as
we care for drama”.
Casting an eye for alternative forms, Bax looks at “revues and
musical comedies” and finds that “their musical appeal seems
to stop at the making of a cheerful noise”. Even further down
the slippery slope, American dance-music “seems content to achieve
an energetic cacophony”.
He finds, though, that the British certainly do respond to comic
or ballad opera, “largely because in these forms the story and
the drama, for what they may be worth, are not buried beneath
the music”. He notes that the Savoy operas of Gilbert and Sullivan
“somewhat surprisingly … retain their popularity” – he does
not explain why this is surprising. And “When these operas were
followed by the work of Edward German, a composer whom all other
composers praise, it looked as though light operas would become
a permanent part of our dramatic fare”. Alas, the type “degenerated
so quickly as very soon to become unrecognisable, and the serious
composer found himself again outside the theatre”.
Then, “during the reign of Sir Nigel Playfair at the Lyric,
Hammersmith, we discovered the charm of ballad-opera”.
Sir Nigel Playfair was certainly a notable figure in British
theatre. His 1919 production of Shakespeare’s “As You Like It”,
which opened in Stratford, was controversial at first, but later
described by Sylvan Barnett as “the play’s first modern production”.
He is said to have commissioned Richard Hughes’s “Danger” which,
on 15 January 1924, became the world’s first radio play.
Playfair had been considering “The Beggar’s Opera” since 1914
and it was with this that the Hammersmith adventure opened.
The music was “arranged and composed” – present-day musicologists
would describe the process less flatteringly – by Frederic Austin,
as was that for its sequel “Polly”. Other notable ballad operas
performed at the lyric and listed by Bax are “The Fountain of
Youth” and “Derby Day” by Alfred Reynolds, “La Vie Parisienne”
by Davies Adams (vaguely based on Offenbach’s operetta of that
name), “Tantivy Towers” by Dunhill and “Midsummer Madness” by
Armstrong Gibbs. Away from the Lyric, Martin Shaw is particularly
mentioned for “air after captivating air” in “Brer Rabbit”,
“Philomel” and “Mr. Pepys”. Bax also mentions Ernest Irving’s
“original and arresting music” for “The Circle of Chalk”; “and
a few may recall the austere beauty of the harp-and-flute music
which Alfred Reynolds wrote for a play about Socrates”.
It should come as no great surprise if the “few” referred to
included Bax himself, since he was the author of the play. Indeed,
it is difficult to decide whether he is being modest or subliminally
plugging his wares when he omits to mention that the play, libretto,
book or whatever you call it for about half the pieces he mentions
was written by himself: “Polly” (1922), “Midsummer Madness”
(1924), “Mr. Pepys” (1926) – “a ballad opera which, chiefly
by virtue of his [Martin Shaw’s] merry and winsome music, broke
all box office records at the Everyman Theatre” – and “Socrates”
(1930). “Philomel”, too, had lyrics by Bax, though the play
itself was by Jefferson Farjeon. Many of the other pieces had
the play written by A.P. Herbert, another major figure of the
At the time Bax was writing, Playfair had just withdrawn from
the scene, and “darkness fell upon the theatre-composer”. But
“our public had shown so lively an appreciation of ballad-opera
that it cannot be long, I think, before other managers experiment
with this light and engaging dramatic form”. This did not happen,
unless one is to seek it in the modern musical. But Bax meant,
I think, a form which, while “light” in one sense, nevertheless
offered full artistic scope for composers who operated in all
fields. The credentials of Dunhill, Armstrong Gibbs and Martin
Shaw to be considered serious all-round composers are not in
doubt. Nor, probably, are those of Frederic Austin and Alfred
Reynolds if we did but know them. There seems to be something
cyclical about the process: Gay and “The Beggars Opera” in the
18th century, Macfarren et al in the mid
19th century, Dunhill, Gibbs, Shaw et al
in the 1920s. Are we to expect another attempt soon?
Whether or not this happens, the fact remains that, several
decades after the attempt by Macfarren and others to establish
a true English opera based on spoken dialogue had been presumed
dead and buried, another attempt was in full fling, and apparently
drawing the crowds. So should we be rediscovering these works,
as we are timidly rediscovering Victorian romantic opera? If
we do, we might bear in mind Bax’s parting shot.
“There is, however, one serious drawback to ballad-opera – the
unbelievably atrocious diction of all but a very few singers.
… We are all familiar with the wobbling baritones, the tenors
who seem to be uttering sounds from the back of the neck, mooing
contraltos and ‘sopranos of the highest squeakery’, not one
of whom enables us to hear a word of the poem which he or she
is singing”. Their successors are still around.
Another question is, what to do with the spoken dialogue itself?
The recent recording of “Robin Hood” omitted it entirely, as
did a recording of “Maritana” that came my way recently. It
seems self-evident that, if the whole philosophy of the composer
aimed at creating an opera in which the action is carried forward
by spoken dialogue, we cannot judge his work properly unless
we hear just how words and music were combined. In the case
of the 1920s pieces, the experiment of recording them with the
full spoken text should be a fairly painless one, since the
authors – Bax himself, A.P. Herbert and others – were at least
as highly regarded in their day as the composers.