PHI CD 146: A TIME OF FIRE Scenes from
A Comedy of Sorts by John Stuart Anderson Lyric drama with music
Music by Francis Jackson Drama by John Stuart Anderson
Speaker: John Stuart Anderson Organ: Francis Jackson St Peter's Singers - Simon Lindley, director
Recorded at Leeds Parish Church First Commercial Recording.
TWO CD SET - £15.00 inc. p & p (Add £1.50 for air mail)
Dr Jackson's score to John Stuart Anderson's evocative drama on the life and times of William Tyndale was completed on Easter Day 1967. Five years thus separate this, the second collaboration in a rare art-form, between actor/dramatist and composer., and the prototype work in this genre, Daniel in Babylon (already available on Amphion CD PHI 145) had been devised some half a decade earlier for the festival in celebration of the consecration of Coventry Cathedral. Like Daniel, A Time of Fire exists in more than one form. The stage play (J Garnet Miller, Publisher): Tyndale's Dream - A Comedy of Sorts needs no music and can be produced with a cast as small as one. The drama with music was produced, highly successfully, at a York Festival some years ago and there have also been semi-staged and concert performances of the musical score.
Originally entitled Tyndale, the work involves the Choir in a manner more integral to the narrative than in Daniel in Babylon where the choral motets fulfil very much the function of an intermezzo commenting on the main drama as unfolded between actor and organist. Indeed, the sub-title of A Time of Fire confirms this difference. Where as Daniel had been described as a Monodrama with Music, A Time of Fire is billed as a Lyric Drama. (In the play, the chorus can be spoken in the tradition established centuries ago by ancient civilisations).
Thus is lyricism at the very heart of A Time of Fire. The humour and wit in the verbal text is reflected by Dr Jackson in his vivid score. In particular, the sardonic irony in Scene VI with the Bishop of London being constantly interrupted by a sarcastic crowd is especially memorable. Here it is that Jackson quotes Elvey's famous tune St George (used universally for Come, ye thankful people, come at Harvest-time). The lines in Anderson's text begin with those self-same words (heard at their most sarcastic when they appear in unison at the parodied lines:
Come, ye thankful people, come, While your Prelate thumps the drum....)
Throughout the work the music makes important use of motifs, or special thematic material. In the opening bars is heard a striding motto which might be designated as a portent or menace theme. This is of ever-increasing importance as the work proceeds as is the extraordinary and very hauntingly subdued cry 'Tyndale!' with its four vocal parts (sometimes only two) in contrary motion left in magically suspended animation musically speaking. Some of the other material in the strong first scene is also re-used in a cyclic way later. The cadential valediction: 'Farewell to life! To love, farewell!' is of great impact at its every appearance.
Just as Anderson's text reflects the subtle changes in environment as the story proceeds, so the music mirrors these miniature portraits. Scene II is processionally pastoral and in two simple parts: the haunting 'Tyndale!' cry and 'Farewell to life'.... are both used. Scene III is a more boisterous affair, with the choral utterance occurring, rondo-fashion, between the focussed tongue-twisting of the vocal lines. Almost Britten-esque sea writing is deployed to great effect in Scene IV, while the mental haunting of the titular character is brilliantly done, verbally and musically, in this chilling number that follows.
Scene VI is among the most evocative in the work, and reference has already been made to the humour inherent in the appearance of the Bishop. As befits a work with strong roots in Reformation times, Jackson provides a convincingly quasi-Lutheran Chorale in the seventh scene. Here the lyricism of the verbal text is especially persuasive. There is much to notice in this lovely movement, but the hearer cannot miss the haunting reference to the Benedicite with its particular connection to the story of Daniel in the Den of Lions. The full emphasis of the political climate in which Tyndale's work was set is clearly evident in Scene VIII with its vivid tonal centre of B sustained even to the final recited lines of the choral writing.
Scene IX largely reprises music already heard, while Scene X speaks of the pathetic tragedy of betrayal, the consequences of which are devastatingly delivered in the words and music of the remarkable valedictory final scene. Here come cascading many of the musical ideas essayed earlier in the drama. The voices - as so often in Daniel - are used wordlessly to underscore the emotion of the narrative. At the climax of the work, the 'Tyndale!' motto is heard with full, terrifying intensity at the very summit of the drama. This portion of the score is introduced by the portent theme with which the piece had began. After a distant echo of 'Tyndale!', the main choir returns for an episode un-equalled in its exquisitely sensitive utterance affirming their important role here:
We are all of the voices of Life,
From Birth through to Death,
All the unseen threads of your Destiny.
Then, Gerontius-like, Tyndale's memorable final lines are placed against the pastel shades of the musical spectrum:
A thousand ages in my hand
Crumble to dust and disappear.
I walk through a strange familiar path,
My fingers touch the outward stars.....
At this point, Jackson presents, kaleidoscopically, miniature reprises of some of the principal themes: the Farewell theme and the Thousand Years theme being especially clear, before - arabesque-like - the magic of the unaccompanied final chorus. Here, Anderson's text ponders on the eternal Redemption through comprehension of Holy Scripture which is at the heart of the whole evocative libretto:
The Ploughboy that follows his team down the furrow
Shall sing as he goes the Psalms of King David,
Shall know in his heart the Word of Salvation,
The Word of Beginning...
It has been the ability of the co-creators of the work to evoke vividly in the minds of their fellow performers and of their listeners this important, eternal truth which has made the infrequency of performance of this score all the more remarkable. It is true that there have been notable accounts at the Norwich and Norfolk Triennial Festival - for which it had been originally intended - with the Broadland Singers and, appropriately, at the York Festival and Mystery Plays. A Time of Fire has also received several performances in Leeds Parish Church and Leeds Town Hall but, like Daniel in Babylon, surely deserves far greater recognition and more widespread performance.
© Simon Lindley, after discussions with the author and composer, 1999
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