Alfred

Arne

Information

Cast

Alfred, King of England Michael Powell
Eltruda, Queen of England Amanda Pitt
Prince Edward Michelle Harris
Corin, a shepherd Geoffrey Huntingford
Emma, his wife Anne-Marie Keaney
Edith Gillian French
Spirit Katja Vanessa Hipp
Dancers Kate Elliott, Jennifer French
   
Chorus Morag Crowther, Lucy Fiennes, Wendy Guest, Annabel Molyneaux soprano; Jennifer French, Jackie Huntingford, Esther King, Vanessa Woodward alto; Anthony Bucknall, David Hackett, Geoffrey Huntingford tenor; James Goddard, Andrew Hichens, Damian Riddle bass; Laura Elliott, James Elliott, Rosa French children; Alan Allinson, Pat Smith, John Smith actors.
   
Conductor Guy Hopkins
Director Jeremy Gray

 

Synopsis

Part 1
The scene is set in the year 878, in "the isle of Athelney, in Somersetshire, a wild country", with a "shepherd's cot", the fabled refuge of Alfred during his wanderings of self-imposed exile and flight from the heathen Danish enemy. A simple shepherd Corin and his wife Emma wonder at the pensive fugitive who has appeared in their land, taking comfort in their poverty and honesty, far removed from the "snares of ambition" which beset the powerful (Though to a desert isle confin'd, and the duet, The shepherd's plain life). Alfred, in deep anguish at the ruined state of his people and the "red war" which afflicts his nation, prays to the Genius of Britannia's isle for protection and direction. At first he is oblivious of two further refugees who appear, a mother with her son; they hope that Calm content should revisit them to bring comfort. As the mother gently pleads for knowledge of her lost husband (Sweet valley, say where pensive lying the best of mortals leans his head) Alfred recognises the distinctive voice as that of his queen, Eltruda. The boy, Prince Edward, is overcome to meet his father safe (Why beats my heart with such devotion?) and the royal family celebrate their mutual love and joy (trio Let not those who love complain). Emma reappears, still contentedly praising the wholesomeness of the simple state (If those who live in shepherd's bower) and calls her friends to dance at the close of day (Nymphs and shepherds come away).

In the opening scene of Act II, Edith, "a nymph, is discover'd pensively reclin'd on a bank". Comfortless, she has lost her love in the wars (Love's the tyrant of the heart; O fatal love of fame!; A youth adorn'd with ev'ry art). She is observed by Emma and the Queen: moved by Edith's inconsolable suffering, Eltruda meditates on the human torment which war inflicts on all estates of mankind, and calls on Peace thou fairest child of heav'n to bring comfort.

Part 2
The second scene is set by moonlight in "the cot" where the royalty are now lodged: Eltruda is watchful and eager for vengeance against the enemy (Gracious heav'n, O hear me!). Alfred is awakened by her restlessness and, praising her virtue and beauty, promises to protect her (From the dawn of early morning). Suddenly Edward brings dramatic news: twelve hundred loyal Britons are nearby, armed and awaiting royal command. For the first time, there is hope of victory and peace (As calms succeed when storms are past). An unexpected "flourish of instruments in the air" announces a supernatural visitation: the Spirit warns Alfred against despair (Hear, Alfred, hear), and his message is reinforced by the magical vision of the king's royal successors (Now all the air shall ring), demonstrating the future endurance of British civilisation and true religion. Making plans with his father for a surprise attack on the enemy, Edward begs that Vengeance, O come, inspire me! Alfred anticipates the ultimate passing of darkness (Though storms awhile the sun obscure). As preparations are made for a surprise attack on the enemy, the Spirit and his attendants sing an extended "Funeral dirge, in honour of the heroes who die in the service of their country".

Corin only realises the true identity of the fugitives at the start of the final act. With jubilation, Emma praises the union of Mars and Venus in the royal couple (Safe beneath this lowly dwelling). The queen, however, is anxious for her husband, and prays for his preservation (Ah me! What fears oppress my throbbing heart; Guardian angels, O descend). Her fears are quickly dispelled by Corin's news of Alfred's triumph; Emma's response is less elevated - she anticipates a celebratory holiday (Arise, sweet messenger of morn). A March with a Side Drum announces the return of the victorious troops and their leaders (O how glorious 'tis to see). Edward joyfully praises the reappearance of the great British values (See liberty, virtue and honour appearing). Alfred, traditionally founder of the British navy, solemnly charges his people: "Britons, proceed, the subject deep command, awe with your navies ev'ry hostile land", and all tell of the nation's glory in A grand ode in honour of Great Britain.

Programme notes

Alfred

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Alfred

A stranger celebration for a little girl's third birthday can scarcely be imagined. It is not, of course, recorded what the infant Augusta, Princess of Brunswick, made of the first performance of Arne's Masque of Alfred, given in the open air at her father's country refuge at Cliveden, Buckinghamshire, in 1740. Her father, Frederick, Prince of Wales, was however well pleased with the assembled efforts of his talented entrepreneurial composer and his Scottish librettists, James Thomson and David Mallet: the Masque, though ostensibly set in the distant twilight of ninth-century England, an England ravaged by the barbaric assaults of godless Danes, painted a flattering allegory of a paternalistic and scholarly ruler, and its true meaning would have been very apparent to the civilised and cultured minds of the royal patron, his family and court. Just as Alfred sought refuge in a 'country cot' from whence he launched the freeing of his nation, returning his people to 'liberty, virtue and honour', so the patriot Frederick waited in rural retreat, estranged from his father George II, and preparing for the certain day when he would at last restore his country to its liberal and liberated birthright. Thomson and Mallet's play presented an image of ideal contemporary kingship, thinly veiled in the romantic form of embryonic medieval revivalism.

The 1740 masque was very different from the version we hear tonight, although in essence the theme and narrative were the same. Performed by some of the finest talents of the day, including Arne's wife Cecilia Young (who sang in the first performances of major works by Handel) and Kitty Clive (who later took part in the London premiere of Messiah), there was little music to break up the solemn politicising of the text - only seven numbers in all. Of these, only one, the air "When Britain first at heavn's command" with its rousing refrain, was to remain a constant in all the subsequent revisions of the work, even though its original proponent, an old, blind bard, was later expunged. Ultimately this one number assumed immortality when its parent was long forgotten, and was pressed and pummelled into the multifarious service of British colonialism. Its popularity encouraged even the dour Beethoven to compose a set of piano variations on the theme.

It was in fact the music, not the text, which attracted attention and ensured success for the work, the view being generally held that the play itself could only be read "with great labour of the brain". Although a public performance was planned for 1741, with substantial musical and textual adjustments, it was not however until 1744 that Alfred was presented to a wider audience, firstly in Dublin, and subsequently in 1745 (perhaps with further revisions) at the Drury Lane Theatre, London, where it was given "after the manner of an Oratorio", apparently with little public success. Six years later, a much modified version at the same theatre was greeted with "great and universal applause" and appears to have benefited from an abundance of stagecraft; promoted by Mallet, and starring the great actor David Garrick, the music was modified to such an extent by one of Arne's pupils, Charles Burney, that Arne felt obliged to insert a notice in the General Advertiser to explain that only two numbers (including, of course, Rule, Britannia!) were authentically his. Perhaps to reassert his authorship as well as to cash in on the reputation which the piece newly enjoyed, Arne went on in 1753 to create a quite distinct edition: the dialogue was reduced to the barest minimum, and a considerable amount of new music was composed. A number of major Handelian singers were employed - John Beard, Giulia Frasi, Gaetano Gudagni and Caterina Galli - and many of the new numbers were of a florid Italianate character. Alfred had become, in effect, an opera.

The 1753 version was performed in the afternoon of 11 May for the 'Benefit of the Charitable Hospital for the Lying-In Women, in Jermyn St., St. James" and "Ladies were not expected to come dress'd". It was by no means the most significant and certainly not the final version of the piece, as Arne gave further revisions in 1754, 1755, 1759, 1760 and 1762 (the last in his lifetime), and a further production by Garrick was given in 1773 with spectacular settings by Philippe Jacques de Loutherbourg and a score drastically rewritten by the little-known Theodore Smith. In all, Arne himself must have composed about seventy numbers through the various revisions. However, it is the 1753 edition which survives in the fullest form and which provides the essential basis of tonight's performance. Twenty-eight numbers relevant to this edition were published by Walsh during the 1750s; these include all the solo songs and the single trio, but unfortunately only one of the accompanied recitatives, and of course "Rule, Britannia!". The other choruses and recitatives required by the libretto were not included, and have not come to light in manuscript. Given the lack of any definitive published version, it is hardly surprising that Alfred did not survive into the last quarter of the century and became a mere scholarly relic.

A new edition in 1981 by Stainer and Bell of the surviving 1753 music helped to create greater interest in the piece, but did not solve the problems of how to make the opera work on the stage. In February 1997, a concert performance directed by Eric Cross was given as part of the Newcastle Early Music Festival, and in June, an outstanding recording of highlights featured as the cover CD with the BBC Music Magazine - the only recording of the work. In June this year, the scholarly interests of Dr Michael Burden of New College, Oxford, led to a performance by New Chamber Opera. Bampton Classical Opera's production, with music newly composed and arranged by Simon Heighes, is however believed to be the first fully staged version since the eighteenth century. We hope that you enjoy this resurrection of an eccentric but masterly work of the late English Baroque .


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Restoring Alfred
Simon Heighes

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Restoring Alfred

Music is essentially a recreative art – no two performances ever sound exactly alike – which is something we tend to forget when music is so often fed to us through recordings which repeat a single fixed interpretation of a piece. Things were very different in the 18th century when it was not just interpretations which varied with each performance. The structure and content of entire operas and oratorios might change radically as the composer adapted his score to suit the singers available for, and the circumstances of, each new performance. So it was with Alfred.

Thomas Arne was a pragmatist: a businessman first and a composer second. Alfred (both text and music) was in a constant state of flux as Arne added to and subtracted from the score to try to make a commercial success of it. A great deal of the music which he composed over the course of thirty years has been lost. What survives is mostly contained in John Walsh’s published highlights issued in 1756 and 57, apparently based on Arne’s performances at the King’s Theatre and Drury Lane in 1753 and 4. It is this version of Alfred that we are performing.

But 18th century traditions of large-scale works customarily omitted most of the choruses, the narrative recitatives and instrumental movements. Given what we know of Arne’s own attitude to the work, however, he would surely have understood the practical necessity of supplying these missing ingredients where they were essential to make the opera dramatically viable once more.

Missing choruses are particularly difficult to replace. So the bring the first act to a spirited close the original danced chorus has been replaced simply by a Country Dance from Arne’s opera Thomas and Sally. In Acts II and III, where the lost choruses are integral to the action, ‘God save the King’ and ‘O how glorious’ have been adapted from movements in Arne’s Fairy Prince and the Judgement of Paris. ‘How sleep the brave’, which is heard three times at the end of the second act, retains the original words, but since no music by Arne was suitable for the purpose, it draws instead on a chorus from the Oxford masque Telemachus by Philip Hayes (Heather Professor of Music). Where the surviving libretto calls for a ‘Flourish of instruments’ or a ‘Slow Symphony’ these have been supplied from Arne’s Fairy Prince.

As for the narrative thread, Alfred began life as a spoken drama with incidental music and ended up as an all-sung opera. We take a middle position. The dialogue is spoken except at moments of high tension and at the beginning of Acts Ii and III. The powerful accompanied recitative for Alfred’s wife in Act III, ‘Ah me! what fears’ is Arne’s only surviving recitative; the others have been specially composed for this production (staying as close to the spirit of Arne as possible).

Simon Heighes
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The Alfred Jewel and Arne’s ‘Spirit’
Jeremy Gray

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The Alfred Jewel and Arne’s ‘Spirit’

The most enigmatic artefact to survive from late ninth-century Anglo-Saxon England is undoubtedly the exquisite Alfred Jewel (just 6.4cm in length), discovered in 1693 in Somerset, only four miles from Athelney, where Alfred took refuge in 878 and the nominal setting for tonight’s opera; it is now one of the greatest treasures of the Ashmolean Musuem in Oxford. Underneath a bedevilled pear-shaped slab of rock crystal, set in a gold frame, is a curious male figure in cloisonné enamel, holding a floral branch in each hand. The figure is depicted with white flesh and a green tunic, set against a dark blue background. The elaborate frame has an openwork inscription with the evocative inscription +AELFRED MEC HEHT GEVVYRCAN (Alfred ordered me to be made). At the apex of the jewel is a splendid barbaric animal head in gold, with a socketed mouth, which perhaps contained a rod of ivory or wood.

The function and origin of the jewel are perplexing, but a direct association with King Alfred (871-99) is very appealing. Most scholars agree that the jewel could be an example of the mysterious aestel – probably an elaborate type of bookmark or pointer for reading – which Alfred himself mentions in Gregory the Great’s Pastoral Care: he writes how he will send a manuscript copy of his translation to every bishop in his kingdom, together with an aestel worth fifty mancuses, with the command that no man should remove the aestel from the book. A rather simpler but similarly socketed jewel, probably of the same function, was found at Minster Lovell, only a few miles from Bampton, and is also now in the Ashmolean Museum.

A number of identities for the strange enamelled figure on the jewel have been proposed, including Christ, the Wisdom of God, and Alfred himself. However comparison of the figure with its flowering branches with that on the contemporary silver Fuller brooch (British Museum) make it likely that it personifies Sight, an appropriate theme for an aestel. In Arne’s opera the role of the spirit is also a form of Sight, for he strengthens the depressed monarch not only by reminding him of kingly virtues, but also by revealing a vision of his future royal lineage. The fact that ‘Alfred ordered me to be made’ could, in the context of the opera, be taken to indicate the power of auto-suggestion.

Jeremy Gray
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Kingship and Liberty
Richard Sharp

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Kingship and Liberty

Politics and literature, always related, were particularly so in the first half of the eighteenth century. The polarization of the Queen Anne period (Swift and Defoe) was followed in the 1720s by the growth of opposition to Walpole. In literature, as elsewhere, this had as much to do with failure to secure patronage as it did to principled opposition: Swift, Gay and Pope all resented the promotion of talentless figures such as Colley Cibber. However, by the 1730s, a more coherent focus of opposition was worried by what were seen as the real threats to liberty posed by the Walpolean oligarchy, based on an immense patronage system which had been boosted by the maintenance of a standing army (ostensibly to defend Hanoverian interests on the continent, but actually a burden on English taxpayers and a threat to English liberties). Mounting resentment of Spain, fuelled by trading tensions in the Caribbean, Florida, Minorca and Gibralter, stimulated alternative demands for a strong navy, and eventually precipitated war in 1739.

Fears for liberty inspired a variety of artistic works, and the departure of Frederick, Prince of Wales, into opposition in 1737 provided an alternative patronage structure, both through the prince himself, and through his followers, notably Richard Temple, first Viscount Cobham, and his nephew George, first Baron Lyttelton. The idealization of the Prince of Wales is seen best in Viscount Bolingbroke's The Idea of a Patriot King, (1738):

"A Patriot King is the most powerful of all reformers, for he is himself a sort of standing miracle... A new people will seem to arise with a new king."

This ideal attracted a circle of able writers to work on the themes of 'patriotism' and 'liberty', despite Walpole's attempt to censor the stage with the passing in 1737 of a Licensing Act. These included Richard Glover, whose Leonidas, a paean to Liberty, was praised by Lyttelton, and whose Ballad Hosier's Ghost did much to inflame anti-Spanish feeling in 1739. Henry Brooke, who was patronised both by Lyttelton and by the Prince of Wales, was author of Gustavus Vasa, banned from the London stage in 1739. David Mallet wrote a similar study of freedom and tyranny, Mustapha, which he dedicated to the Prince of Wales. Mallet was, of course, a close friend of James Thomson, whose Liberty, dedicated to the Prince of Wales, had subsequently secured him a pension from that source through Lyttelton's influence. Thomson's Liberty includes a nostalgic retrospective view of a mythical English Golden Age, when Magna Carta had thrown off the yoke of 'Norman tyranny'.

Such works provide a context for the Mallet/Thomson collaboration that Arne took as the basis for the Masque of Alfred, with its overtones of a patriot king delivering his country from the enslavement of a foreign tyrant. Alfred's reputation as founder of the British navy will also have had attractions in the context of war with Spain. The theme throughout Alfred is that of native liberty: "Britons never will be slaves". The words of "Rule, Britannia!" find echo in those of a near-contemporary version of God Save the King which portrays the shackles of a corrupt and slavish power:

"Church, King and Liberty,
Honour and property,
All are betrayed.
Foreigners rule the land,
Our blood and wealth command,
Obstruct with lawless hand
Justice and trade."

In a poignant aria sung by the Spirit in Alfred, the patriot heroes who "die in the service of their country" are mourned by the "pilgrim grey", Honour, and the "weeping hermit", Freedom. And Prince Edward's final aria ecstatically celebrates the reappearance of "our national right when liberty, virtue and honour unite".

The curious Temple of the British Worthies constructed at Lord Cobham's seat at Stowe in 1735 provides an interesting postscript. Here, the revered figures whose busts adorn the monument include enemies of Spain and champions of British naval power (Raleigh and Drake) as well as of liberty (Queen Elizabeth, John Hampden, John Locke and William III). And, of course, there is also one who was a patriot, a naval champion, and a defender of English liberty - King Alfred: "the mildest, justest and most beneficient of kings, who drove out the Danes, secured the seas, protected learning, established juries, crushed corruption, guarded liberty, and was the Founder of the English Constitution."

Richard Sharp
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Bampton in the time of King Alfred
John Blair

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Bampton in the time of King Alfred

By 849, when Alfred was born at Wantage only eleven miles south of Bampton, the West Saxon kingdom was steadily growing in power under his father Æthelwulf. The boundary between Wessex and Mercia had long fluctuated around the area of the middle Thames and the Berkshire Downs, but the presence of Alfred's mother at Wantage suggests that the vale of the White Horse was now firmly under West Saxon control: it is likely that the Thames already divided the kingdoms, as it did in the tenth century. Bampton was thus on a frontier, just outside the still independent but increasingly subordinate kingdom of Mercia.

The Viking raids of the 870s can hardly have failed to affect the Bampton region, and the battle of 871 in which Alfred and his elder brother defeated a Viking army was fought close at hand on the Downs. In the 880s western Mercia re-emerged from Viking domination as a still-independent state, though ruled by Alfred's daughter Æthelflead and her husband and closely bound to Wessex. It was probably Æthelflead who, in the 890s, first laid out the planned town of Oxford around the old minster church of St. Frideswide.

Further up-river, on the Mercian bank, other well-established minsters stood at Bampton and Eynsham. These religious communities had probably all been founded in the late seventh and eighth centuries, when kings poured huge resources into the establishment of religion, learning and pastoral care at a local level. By Alfred's time they had suffered several generations of disruption and decline, exacerbated but certainly not started by the Viking raids. In the case of Bampton, archaeological evidence and general historical considerations suggest that the community of clergy housing the relics of St. Beornwald, first recorded in the 950s, almost certainly existed in Alfred's time. Then as later, the minster would have been the chief social as well as religious focus of the region, and it is possible that proto-urban growth had already begun around Church View, outside its south gate.

What would the area around the church have looked like in 898? In the first place a line of Bronze Age barrows, running eastwards from a large ring-barrow surrounding the present Deanery, would have remained at least partly visible. There is some likelihood that a chapel or other religious focus already stood on the Deanery site. Further east, a smaller barrow had been the focus of a developing graveyard for a century or more. The main church probably stood on the north side of this barrow, in the area of the present nave or north aisle. The monastic precinct was a large oval enclosure, bounded by a substantial ditch, which included the churchyard and Manor House grounds but left the Deanery outside. We have no evidence that Alfred and his entourage ever visited Bampton, but if they did they would almost certainly have availed themselves of the minster's hospitality. The opera is being staged on a site which was undoubtedly of importance eleven centuries ago.

John Blair
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