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Home CDE84668 The Lady Of Satis House
The Lady Of Satis House, When the Bough Breaks, From Behind Glass - Jacques Cohen
Marie Vassiliou - Soprano
John Mills - Violin
Jeremy Isaac - Violin
Lydia Lowndes-Northcott - Viola
Bozidar Vukotic - Cello
The Lady of Satis House Operatic Monodrama in Nine Scenes by Jacques Cohen Text adapted from Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations Following a workshop performance of my opera Magic Potions in 2010, I was invited by Bill Bankes Jones in June 2012 to write a new piece for the Tête-à-tête opera festival in London in August. Bill wanted a piece that would be practical and economically viable to perform that year, and I was excited by the challenge of writing a music-theatre piece that could produce the most powerful results with the small means and budget available.
Since 2012 was the bicentenary of Charles Dickens' birth, and because Miss Havisham from Great Expectations has always struck me as so innately operatic – has there ever been a literary character who seems more destined to sing? – she presented herself to me as the ideal subject. This woman who, abandoned on her wedding day, resolved to lock herself away retaining all her wedding paraphernalia while she plans her revenge on the male sex seems so absurdly melodramatic, yet at the same time she is like so many of us in that she is her own worst enemy and subsequently the ultimate author of her own tragedy.
Looking back, it now seems reckless to have agreed so readily to write a brand new piece in less than six weeks when I did not even have a text – especially since I was engaged to conduct several concerts in that period as well. Fortunately, I was able to adapt the words directly from Dickens, finding it necessary to change only very little. When you are lucky enough to collaborate with a literary genius it is important to let him do the work!
I was also fortunate to get the relatively new Piatti String Quartet on board and Bill paired me up with a brilliant young director, Joe Austin, and a talented young designer, Emily Harwood. Soprano Marie Vassiliou was the obvious choice for Miss Havisham – we had been students together at the RCM, had worked together many times and I knew her voice very well. Moreover, her exceptional presence and acting talent proved to be ideally suited to the role. She had a ridiculously short time to learn the part but I knew she was a quick learner and I sent each scene to her as soon as it was finished.
The choice of string quartet accompaniment was made for a number of reasons. Although there are surprisingly few pieces for voice and string quartet, the quartet provides a wonderful support for the voice and can be tremendously expressive. It is flexible and because of its associations can subtly evoke the 19th century and other music of the past whilst at the same time playing music that is unmistakably 21st century. The quartet musicians could also be enlisted to play occasional percussion, hum and, right at the end, chant. Joe Austin suggested that dramatically the quartet could be the group of musicians engaged to play at the original wedding in the story who, like Miss Havisham, had unfortunately somehow got stuck there! (He also came up with the brilliant notion of using a doll's house with dolls to represent young Pip and Estella.)
This being a one-woman show, the next challenge was to work out how to convey the other characters in the story. The simple solution was that in contrast to Miss Havisham who nearly always sings, they would all speak (albeit in a clearly prescribed manner) and be characterised in various ways: the icy Estella for example is represented by high harmonics and a theme suggestive of childish taunting. I also thought it would be fun to pepper the score with references (some more subtle than others) to other composers including Purcell, Mendelssohn and Handel as well as some folk tunes in order to evoke, consciously or unconsciously, the appropriate association in the listener. Whilst this is ultimately a tragic story, like so much Dickens, humour is an important element as well.
The piece is divided into nine scenes each conveying a new step in the path towards Miss Havisham's ultimate tragedy. The scenes are also, musically speaking, all variations on a theme that eventually appears as an interlude before the finale. This interlude is probably the emotional heart of the piece, appearing at a crucial turning point in the drama, perhaps representing a naïve ideal of love (Pip's as well as Miss Havisham's) corrupted by the bitterness of experience. This is all proceeded by an atmospheric introduction so the basic shape is as follows:
Introduction Scene/Variation I Miss Havisham bemoans her fate and resolves on revenge. Scene/Variation II Young Pip comes to play with Estella and is mocked by her. Scene/Variation III Miss Havisham is visited by her avaricious relations. Scene/Variation IV Pip is apprenticed to the Blacksmith. Scene/Variation V Pip visits and hopes to see Estella but she is abroad. Scene/Variation VI Pip has been made a gentleman. Scene/Variation VII Miss Havisham instructs Pip on how to love Estella. Scene/Variation VIII Miss Havisham fears what Estella has become. Interlude/Theme Scene/Variation IX & Finale Pip discovers who his benefactor is. Miss Havisham expresses regret.
The Lady of Satis House met with a uniformly enthusiastic reception at its première in August 2012 and it was the first piece to be highlighted by Mark Pappenheim in the Independent as “Opera of the Week.”
When the Bough Breaks - Three Lullabies for String Quartet The first of these three lullabies was originally a simple little piano piece I wrote when I was an undergraduate. It was Tony Gilbert's suggestion at the time that I write two more pieces to make a suite. It was my intention to do this, but the second evolved into an orchestral piece (Quiet Music), and I did not get around to completing the set until I realised some years later that this album could probably do with another piece. So there are two versions, one for piano, the other for quartet, the latter being completed especially for the Tippett Quartet to play on this disc. Whilst we had originally considered including the more life affirming piece commissioned in 2014 for the Fitzwilliam Quartet, Nun danket alle Gott, the more darkly humorous, sinister yet playful piece included here (Danger in the Nursery was suggested by one friend as a possible title!) seems more in keeping with the atmosphere of the rest of the disc. Moreover, I had long thought that a suite of three short new pieces that were not too technically demanding could prove to be a useful addition to the repertoire.
From Behind Glass - Tone Poem for String Quartet This piece was inspired by a visit to the Palacio Real (Royal Palace) in Madrid in 2013. Among the treasures on display is a quartet of Stradivarius instruments, but it was rather sad to see these magnificent instruments locked away in glass cabinets instead of being played – reminiscent of seeing beautiful birds trapped in cages, helplessly fluttering, unable to fly and too dispirited to sing. It was my wife Michelle's suggestion that this could be the subject of a tone-poem for string quartet.
So the piece describes an imaginary scenario in which the 4 instruments come to life but, finding themselves trapped in separate glass cages, they initially struggle to play together or even in the same key. (For the first part of the piece the sense of being trapped is also evoked by dissonant harmonies and by the musicians playing with mutes and near the bridge.) The instruments' frustration at their plight increases until eventually, with a dramatic flourish of pizzicatos, the glass shatters, they break out and are at last able to play a tune in its true form together as a quartet. Moreover, they are at last able to sing and soar like the birds they wish to emulate.
It may therefore come as no surprise that the theme which the quartet at first attempts, and eventually succeeds, in playing turns out to be based on The Song of the Birds. This traditional, Catalan folk-song was made famous in a version played by the legendary cellist, Pablo Casals, in whose hands it came to symbolise the Spanish struggle for freedom during the Franco era.
From Behind Glass was originally commissioned by the Piatti Quartet who toured it in 2014-2016. I am delighted to hear the new revised version now played by the Tippett Quartet.