Thursday, October 20, 2016

The Symphonic Tragedy of the Nine Days Queen

I just happened to hear this symphony, composed by Arnold Rosner. According to the late composer's website:

In 1981 during dinner with a bridge partner, the discussion turned to theater. A full-time lawyer and part-time producer, he told me of the play The Chronicle of Nine, by one Florence Stevenson, concerning the life of Lady Jane Grey and her nine-day rule of England. Wine having been poured liberally that evening, I blurted out “that would make a nice opera,” and I actually followed this instinct despite no hope at all that point for a production.

Of course, the tradition of a suite or symphony taken from an opera is venerable. It was easy to compile such a piece, although it does somewhat alter the dramatic sequence. The first movement is the Act I prelude, and contrasts eerie string harmonies with angry, perhaps frightening, brass interpolations. The second movement appears in the opera as wedding music in Act I, and is something of a mini-suite in itself. The third movement is a la battaglia and corresponds to the prelude to Act III. If the ending (as in Strauss’s Don Juan) seems unexpectedly subdued, the skirmish described ends very badly for Queen Jane’s forces. The finale is actually the Act II prelude of the opera, where it serves as the preceding king’s funeral music. In this setting, however, it may be thought of as a dirge for Jane or the symbol of the English crown in general.

The Chronicle of Nine is based on a historical drama of the same name, written by Florence Stevenson, based on the life and nine-day reign of Lady Jane Grey as Queen of England in 1553.

The three acts begin with orchestral preludes, followed by introductory ballads sung by a minstrel. The first of these welcomes the audience and prepares them for a sad story. The action of Act I centers around Jane’s arranged wedding with Guildford Dudley. When her parents inform her of this plan she sings an aria of lament, to the passion text in the St. Luke gospel. A large-scale wedding ballet is followed by a discussion between Lord Dudley and John.

Act II concerns Jane’s coronation. The minstrel sings of her attendant crown and jewels.

Early in Act III, Jane, now deposed, is in prison, as is her husband, but he is allowed to visit her. Although married, they have not consummated their relationship and the scene, tentatively at first, is something of a love duet. At the end Jane sings of her hope that she is now pregnant with a son, and muses on Queen Mary’s kindness, while Guildford sings tenderly of the kindness of “this queen”. Act III culminates in Jane’s execution and the Minstrel’s ballad concerns the failure of the duke of Northumberland’s forces to achieve a military victory for Jane’s cause, and goes on to describe a bright sunlit Monday as the approaching day of the beheading. Scene 2 describes Mary’s visit to Jane’s cell. Jane’s father and uncles, under the leadership of one Wyatt have again attempted to proclaim Jane as ruler; their rebellion has failed. To protect the crown from further jeopardy, Mary contends that she cannot sign Jane’s pardon and the execution will proceed. She sings of her need to find Jane guilty of plots against her, and goes on as to the cruel deeds she now must perform. Mary will send her priest to say prayers for Jane, who answers that Mary has more need for these prayers than does she. The final scene begins with a version of the Cries of London and leads to Jane’s farewell and execution. (Notes by Arnold Rosner)

Here's a sample of the symphony.

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