MEIRION BOWEN - Articles & Publications
The Midsummer Marriage
In May the company celebrates Sir Michael Tippett's 80th birthday year with a new production of his joyful first opera. Here Meirion Bowen introduces the work which enabled Sir Michael 'to reach a peak of lyricism he would hardly equal again'.
The first thing Michael Tippett does when he embarks upon a major new work is to go out to Woolworth's and buy a school exercise book. This he will use for sketches, doodles and plans formulated over a long period, usually several years. Only later does he sit down at the piano and begin writing the music. This procedure crystallised for him when T. S. Eliot, describing his own poetic processes, said to him, 'The words come last'. Likewise, with Tippett, the notes come last.
In the case of The Midsummer Marriage, five such sketch-books exist. They indicate just how much hard effort went into the creation of an opera which, as it turned out, sounds unbelievably spontaneous and uninhibited: no burning of the midnight oil is ever apparent, in fact. The conception of the work dates back as early as 1941, while the writing of the text and music occupied the composer almost exclusively from 1946 to 1952. During this long period of gestation and creation, the opera underwent many changes, some incidental, some fundamental. At first it was to be called Octett; and his first sketch for it is a diagram suggesting its scope a cycle of human experience related to the sequence of the seasons (see illustration). This sketch also contains references to the I-Ching or Book of Changes - the oldest book in the world, whose circular, self-repeating set of divinatory messages enable anyone to understand how change can occur in a world based (paradoxically) on immutable laws. But the opera is not based on the I-Ching. All that we should note is that Tippett's study of it confirmed an existing intuition - and it is the latter that is significant and which survives. Much later, reading a poem by W. B. Yeats, The Four Ages of Man, validated even more strongly his immediate intuition as to the contents and shape of the work. Tippett's creative methods always entail following up hunches: sometimes they lead somewhere, other times they are discarded. What we learn from this first sketch is that Tippett had an idea which proved fruitful: it led him to shape the opera so that its action took place within the space of a single day; the individual ingredients in the action and music are recurrent, outlined almost like a series of concentric - circles; and the seasonal metaphor is evident most of all in the Ritual Dances in Acts 2 and 3.
We also discover from Tippett's sketch-books that other titles for the opera were later considered. The original plan was for a two-act opera, with an interlude in between: this was later expanded into the Ritual Dances that occupy most of Act 2. Names of characters also got changed. Indeed, all manner of possibilities had to be sieved away in order that an opera of the utmost clarity and richness might come into being.
When he began planning the opera, Tippett aimed to relate it in style to the contemporary theatre, which meant at that time the verse-drama of Auden, Eliot and Christopher Fry. Moreover, he wished the stage presentation to include dimensions that seemed to have been missing in the 'actuality' or verismo operas of Puccini and others. Tippett wanted 'a stage of depth, by which I mean that we sense, especially at certain designed moments, another world within or behind the world of the stage-set'. His chief model in trying to obtain such 'depth' was Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. Shakespeare built his play around the interaction of ordinary mortals with supernatural figures - fairies - who inhabit a special realm of experience. Tippett does likewise in The Midsummer Marriage. His cast contains a singing chorus and five individuals who are the mortals: and against them are set the 'ancients' - inhabitants of a mysterious temple, consisting of a group of dancers led by Strephon, and the He-Ancient and She-Ancient, who can be regarded as Priest and Priestess of the Temple.
The first confrontation between the two sets of characters occurs right at the opening of Act 1. The music, moreover, tells us that they inhabit separate worlds: the chorus that rushes on sings rapturous, lyrical music - culminating in a hymn to the sun on midsummer morning; as the mist rises in the wood, to reveal the temple, music of a different character, mysterious and hieratic, signals the entry of the Ancients (listen for a little motif for celesta and flutes; and then a little march that bring the Ancients on stage). Tippett recalls that at the first rehearsal he attended in the 1955 Covent Garden production this distinction was emphasised, unwit- tingly, by the sheer physical appearance of the two sets of characters: the shapely forms of the young ballet dancers suddenly appearing on stage contrasted sharply with the not-so-shapely outlines of the veteran chorus members! (Perhaps only in the 1982 Stockholm production, cast exclusively with young people and with the chorus moving everywhere on roller-skates, was this contrast eroded.)
The need for a dimension to the staging that is beyond the actuality of a story pure and simple arises from Tippett's handling of characterisation. In the opera there are two pairs of lovers, both on the brink of marriage. One pair has problems, the other does not. In presenting them all in the opera, Tippett is exposing their ability (or inability) to cope with their dreams, their sub-conscious fantasy life which can obtrude disconcertingly into their dealings with each other. The temple and its inhabitants are merely a device for showing that sub-conscious dream world on stage. As it happens, the idea for it came to the composer in a dream:
'... I saw a stage picture (as opposed to hearing a musical sound) of a wooded hilltop with a temple, where a warm and soft young man was being rebuffed by a cold and hard young woman... to such a degree that the collective, magical archetypes take charge - Jung's anima and animus - the girl, inflated by the latter, rises through the stage-flies to heaven, and the man, overwhelmed by the former, descends through the stage floor to hell. But it was clear they would soon return. For I saw the girl later descend- ing in a costume reminiscent of the goddess Athena ... and the man ascending in one reminiscent of the god Dionysus...' (Moving into Aquarius, p.54).
Tippett's operas are full of the kind of techniques that we accept quite readily in the context of film, television and even 'straight' theatre, but which cause us to blink our eyes rather in the opera house. Here, above all, is a particular instance. And when fantasy takes over, we must not level a charge of illogicality.
What becomes'evident as the opera progresses is that in the situation described above we have the beginnings of a journey towards self-understanding and illumination undertaken by the two principal lovers. When they meet on their wedding-day, they cannot communicate, and go off in different directions. Although they return later in Act 1, they are strangely transformed: they have left the actual world altogether, and now even more at loggerheads, they disappear off again. By the time they return at the climax of Act 3, their differences are resolved. Just as Tamino and Pamina in Mozart's The Magic Flute have to pass through fire and water before they can be married, so there are ordeals to be undergone by Mark and Jenifer. But these are represented symbolically in a series of ritual dances (three in Act 2, one in Act 3).
Meanwhile, the other pair of lovers, Jack and Bella, are looking forward to a life of cosy domesticity. They are charmingly portrayed in Act 2. The dances begin as they go off for a kiss and cuddle in the corner of the wood. These dances, it should be stresed, are no mere divertissement, like the ballets interpolated into so many 19th-century operas. They are integral to the action. The first three symbolise the love- chase. Drawing upon material from Robert Graves's The White Goddess, especially the Romance of Taliesin, Tippett concentrates the action on the pursuit of a male by a female, each time entailing animal transformations: the hound chases the hare; the otter hunts the fish; the hawk hunts the bird. Bella, returning from her canoodling with Jack, sees the hawk strike down the bird and, 'not knowing if what she sees is real or her own dreams', screams and interrupts the dance.
Another dramatic technique important to The Midsummer Marriage is the agon or contest typical of Greek classic drama. Each act of the opera is centred around a sequence of such contests. The most important involve Jenifer's father, King Fisher, who has come to the wood in search of his daughter and is more baffled than anyone by the temple and its strange inhabitants. His attempts to communi- cate with the Ancients (using his secretary, Bella) and invade the temple (assisted by Jack, who is a mechanic, and the chorus) engender some wry comedy. But in Act 3, his climactic challenge to the Ancients results in his own death; whereupon his character acquires more mythological significance than hitherto, for it is now possible for the final ritual fire-dance to begin, wherein Mark and Jenifer can attain an idealised rapture, both divine and sexual. After the dawn chorus that ushers in another day, Mark and Jenifer reappear (to exactly the same music as marked their meeting in Act 1) and celebrate their union.
One character in the opera stands out from the rest: the mysterious figure of Madame Sosostris, who is a kind of divine go-between, mediating between the Ancients and the mortals and singing Erda-like warnings to King Fisher when he assumes a threatening pose. But she comes to represent the creative spirit of the artist him or herself, as her great aria in Act 3 makes clear: for the artist, too, is (in Tippett's view) very largely a mediator between the world of fact and the world of dreams and fantasy.
Despite such a variegated plot and characterisation, The Midsummer Marriage is disarmingly easy to digest. For its music is luminous and radiant, and readily articulates and enhances what is happening on stage. Its vocal style is a natural descendant of the Purcellian method of setting English, rhyth- mically vital and dramatically trenchant. Mark's florid invocation to the lark (Act 1), Jenifer's coloratura aria (with trumpet obbligato) when she returns later in the same Act, the lullaby duet of Jack and Bella in Act 2, Sosostris's aria: these are but a few of the vocal highlights. As for the choral and orchestral writing, it seems to be one continuous bustle of counterpoint, yet it is always well focused: the madrigal music that opens and closes Act 2 is notably felicitous: while the stylised recurrent motifs of the ritual dances (involving preparation, trans- formation, etc.) give it all coherence. The orchestra- tion often seems opulent, yet the scoring requires overall an orchestra hardly larger than that used by Beethoven in Fidelio. In Tippett's major works, one tends to feel, by the end, that one had enjoyed and suffered an entire gamut of experience. The Midsummer Marriage is no exception: a work in which marvels constantly unfold before us.
Tippett himself learnt a lot from writing the work. For instance, he feels he introduced too many explicit stage directions into his libretto; he also found himself (as many composers before him have found) being required to cut the Ritual Dances, because there were more repetitions of the music than any choreographer could ever cope with; and his views on the contents of an opera quite naturally changed as he tackled other genres. Nowadays, he leaves most of the staging details to the producer, as long as he can consult well in advance of rehearsals.
All the same, The Midsummer Marriage retains a special place in the composer's affections. Not only does he feel that the strain and effort that it cost him was worthwhile; but it enabled him to reach a peak of lyricism which he would hardly equal again.