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Michael Tippett's King Priam: Genesis, Achievement and Interpretation

By the time he came to write his second opera, King Priam, Sir Michael Tippett had adopted a specific creative routine. Prior to any composition, there would be a long period of gestation, in which the composer opened himself to many ideas, influences and possibilities. With a stage-work in prospect, he would make sketches and draft scenarios outlining the overall shape and contents; he also made jottings that would point him towards the sounds, musical ideas and techniques he might later utilise. Following this stage of exploration and accretion came a process of sifting and selection, during which the true nature of the creative project came gradually into focus. After that there would be the discipline of writing a definitive text (in the case of a vocal work for the stage or concert-hall) and finally sitting at the piano to compose the music from start to finish.

Tippett was encouraged to stick to such a method by the poet, T. S. Eliot, whom he came to know in the 1930s and later regarded as his "spiritual mentor". Eliot told him that in his own case as a poet, "the words came last". For Tippett, too, in his maturity, the notes came last. The advantage of such a process was that he could conceptualise and plan a composition in some detail before any of the music was written down. This in turn enabled him to determine how long it would take to complete each section of the work in sequence. As a result, with none of his five operas did Tippett ever have to make drastic revisions - extending, cutting or re-structuring a work during rehearsals or after the premiere. It was only after long preparation of this kind that King Priam emerged in 1958 as a viable entity: it was finished three years later and and first produced in 1962. Moreover, any cuts or modifications to the orchestration that were thought necessary by conductors and producers in the 1960s have now been restored to their original state. Such exactness of conception has come to be recognised as one of Tippettİs prime qualities as a composer for the musical theatre.

Immediately following the completion in 1952 of his first opera, The Midsummer Marriage, which had occupied him for over six years, Tippett felt too exhausted to contemplate another dramatic work. But this feeling soon passed. Ideas began to germinate in his mind for a choral ballet or dramatic cantata to which he gave the provisional title, Windrose. While engaged in preliminary discussions about this with the then administrator of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, Sir David Webster, Tippett received an invitation from the Koussevitsky Foundation to write a choral composition lasting 20-25 minutes. Webster suggested he should ask the Foundation to change their offer to an operatic commission, which he did, and in due course they agreed. Webster also recommended him to discuss his ideas first with the theatre director Peter Brook. Aware of the controversy surrounding the libretto of The Midsummer Marriage, which many at the time had found obscure, Brook (who had actually been Tippettİs own first choice to direct the opera) advised him that if he were once more to draw upon myth for his subject-matter, then he should at least use one that was familiar to audiences, so that they then had no difficulty in following the action. Brook also pointed out that in the theatre it was a long-standing practice to make use, for instance, of well-known epic material. To some extent, thus, he steered the composer away from symbolism and in the direction of realism.

Tippett had in any case already decided that in his second opera he would move from the lyric comedy of The Midsummer Marriage, into a different dramatic genre; tragedy. His decision crystallised when in 1955, he heard a BBC radio talk about the recently published book (which he then read) by the Marxist philosopher and critic, Lucien Goldmann entitled, Le dieu cachT (translated into English in 1964 as The Hidden God). "Goldmann," Tippett later wrote, through his acute analysis of tragedy in Racineİs work, determined the tragic nature of my opera King Priam".

Goldmannİs study of the "tragic vision" in Pascal and Racine not only provided detailed insights that he found valuable, but spurred him to demonstrate the opposite of what the author had asserted, which was that tragedy is a theatrical impossibility in the modern world. In Goldmann's view one either accepted Christianity or Marxism, and both propose optimistic views of life: Christianity offers its believers a happy after-life in heaven, while Marxists regard as their goal ultimate happiness on earth, even if it can only be achieved at some future date. Tippett dissented from both these creeds, feeling that whatever hopes we may have, whatever trust we place in religious or political solutions to our problems, the possibility for catastrophe, for the dark side of humanity to make itself evident, is always with us. It is perhaps an inescapable feature of the human condition, something we may not be able to control.

In Act III of The Midsummer Marriage, when the lovers Mark and Jenifer attain the illumination for which they have searched, the He-Ancient (in the final climactic Ritual Dance) sings:

Fate and Freedom are a paradox,
Choose the fate but yet the God
Speaks through whatever fate we choose.

This is Tippettİs point of departure in King Priam. In writing the opera, he defined his objective as to show "the absolute solitude of the tragic characters under the gaze of the hidden God" - that is, fate or destiny - thus making it relevant to any period and particularly the war-torn twentieth century.

Seeking the subject-matter that would enable him to situate his notion in a suitably wide context, Tippett began to re-read Homer's Iliad. The impulse to do so arose from a chance encounter with the classical historian, Gertrude Levy. She drew his attention to the fact that the main characters in Homer are all, to varying extents, part-god, part-human. This was useful to Tippett, for he discerned the theatrical potential for contrasting their god-like and human features. What transpired, as his work on the opera developed, was that this double-aspect of the characters had handed him the chance for a brilliant theatrical coup. In the third scene of Act I of King Priam. Paris is obliged to give the Golden Apple to one of the three goddesses, Athene (Goddess of the City) , Hera (Goddess of marriage) and Aphrodite (Goddess of desire). In Tippettİs opera, the goddesses are represented as prototypes of the three main women in his life, Hecuba (his mother), Andromache (his sister-in-law) and Helen (his wife-to-be). Their corresponding roles are taken by the same singers. Dramatically, too, this proved neat and concise.

Levy provided a further insight, making the composer aware that amongst the Trojans (though not the Greeks), there was a definable family, a set of close human relationships within which the core of the action could be centred. Tippett was not slow to recognise that "the abiding problems of personal human relationships within the family... make it the seed-bed for all drama". Some years later, in a broadcast talk, he quoted Eric Bentleyİs The Life of the Drama: "...the distinction we live with each day remains simply that between oneself and other people. And the primordial group of other people - our family - makes up the original cast of characters in the drama of ife, a drama that we keep on reviving later with more and more people cast for the same few parts..."

While considering how to make best use of the Iliad, Tippett met with the German producer Gunther Rennert, who urged him to select only those characters and incidents that were strictly relevant to the plot of his projected opera: and indeed, to refine the plot to such an extent that it could virtually be summarised on a postcard. They met twice subsequently and worked hard together to pare the dramatic action down to its essentials.

Now set on the right path towards a credible, concentrated and coherent plot, Tippett was quite clear in his mind that he was not attempting to re-tell the story of the Trojan War, or even consider aspects of the war as such. Instead, he focussed on the figure of Priam - to whom Homer devoted relatively space - and the family about him: his wife, Hecuba, his two sons, Hector and Paris, their wives Andromache and Helen.. Although important, the war became simply the backcloth to the action. The foreground Tippett defined as a kind of life-cycle from birth to death, what he called a sequence of "eight ages of man", presented originally in two Acts, each with four scenes. To these scenes Tippett gave provisional titles: Birth, Boyhood, Young Love, Warriors, Women, Judgement, Mercy and Death. Subsequently, the Warriors scene was greatly enlarged, becoming the centre-point of the final three-act format of the opera. Crucial to the eventual balance and shape of Act II, moreover, was Tippettİs decision, after much pruning of the text, not to delete the scene between Achilles and Patroclus, for he realised that it could provide an interlude of reflection between two war episodes, and had immense relevance to the action that followed.

What survived especially from Tippettİs original two-act draft was the overall birth-to-death trajectory of the work.. Just as PhFdre's first words in Racineİs play are also her last, so the music of the opening Prelude here - a culminative blaze of trumpet fanfares, off-stage and on-stage, supported by percussion and wordless choral cries (also off-stage) - signalling the birth of Paris, will return at the end of the opera, to signal the death of Priam. Throughout the opera there are constant reminders of this onward movement from birth to death. The very opening scene encapsulates this progress in microcosm. The composer described its five components thus:

1) Prelude: the child Paris in the cradle, dependent on, responsive to its parents
2) Hecuba troubled, Priam certain.
3) The moment that is totally unexpected, unforeseen (the dream-augury [fortelling the death of Priam at a consequence of his sonİs actions]), which brings reversal.
4) Hecuba certain ("Now I am mother no longer to this child"), Priam troubled ("A father and king").
5) The decision which ought to end the story. [i.e. the decision to have the child killed]

The essence of the opera is thus communicated in its first 15 minutes.

Tippett stated that his overall theme in the opera was "the mysterious nature of human choice", as exhibited in the relations between Priam, his wife, Hecuba, their sons, Hector and Paris, and their wives Andromache and Helen. These six protagonists, three male, three female, all become preoccupied with a series of choices that entail the need to distinguish between personal desire and the fulfilment of social and political duty - choices less amenable to easy solutions than might at first appear to be the case. The internal conflicts experienced by the principal characters are articulated within the monologues that are the dramatic and musical core of the work.

The first such monologue centres on the conflict within Priamİs own mind when faced with the prediction that Paris will ultimately cause his death. Priam has to choose whether or not to have the child killed. He is torn between the impulses of "A father and a king" - the key, recurrent words in the monologue. At this point, he orders the childİs death and indeed the story might end there. But Paris is saved, brought up by a shepherd and eventually reunited with his father in the hunting scene that follows. Now, in a second monologue, Priam reverses his decision and Paris is brought back into the family to become (as he hopes) a young hero. Subsequently, in a monologue in scene 3, Paris wrestles with the choice between the three Goddesses: Athene, whom he rejects because her promise to inspire him on the battlefield reminds him of his mother, Hecuba; Hera, whom he rejects, because her emphasis on the marriage bond mirrors the personality of Andromache, wife of his brother Hector; and Aphrodite whose seductive calls, identical to those of Helen, are to prove irresistible. The outcome, Parisİs abduction of Helen, provokes the war between Greece and Troy (Act II) and his fatherİs death at the hands of Achilles' son, Neoptolemus at the end of the opera.

While engaged in the selection of characters and incidents appropriate to his new opera, Tippett attended London performances of Bertolt Brechtİs plays by the Berliner Ensemble and a production of Paul Claudelİs Christophe Colomb (with music by Milhaud), given by the Jean-Louis Barrault company. He also attended a lecture Barrault gave on his collaboration with Claudel. While he could not accept the respective Marxist and Christian messages of these productions, Tippett was stimulated by their theatricality. Brechtian "alienation" technique he found particularly apposite to King Priam, enabling him to separate the scenes with commentaries - seven in all - that are detached from the action. Thus, for instance, immediately after the opening scene, the three subordinate characters - the Nurse, the Young Guard and the Old Man - are brought together to form a Chorus, who meditate on the situation and evaluate the responses of the main figures in the drama. Initially, they are like an extension of Priamİs own mind. Returning throughout the work, they also signal changes of time and place..

Tippett also seized quickly upon the potential of the messenger-figure, Hermes, to act as what he called a Vermittler, a mediator between the gods and the humans. Announcing himself as "Divine Go-Between" in Act I, his role is partly to bridge the inner world of human beings and the outside world of everyday actuality. In Act I, Hermes cajoles Paris into making the crucial choice of one of the Goddesses. In Act II, he constantly urges on the action, effecting the changes from one side to another in the war. But in Act III, the ironic side to his nature comes to the fore as he presages Priamİs imminent death. Interpreting the final scene for the audience, he steps outside the action to sing a hymn to"divine music": this contemplative, visionary moment in the opera precedes the death of Priam, who now can sing only of his awareness of the inner world:

I see mirrors
Myriad upon myriad moving
The dark forms
Of creation.

Having formulated the dramatic shape and character of the opera and its main methods of theatrical presentation, Tippett concurrently made the logical decision that the music would have to be radically different from that of The Midsummer Marriage: and indeed, his innovations were so radical as to have thereafter a lasting impact on his music in general. In the first place, he wanted the exact opposite of the lyrical effulgence of his previous opera. Hence, the vocal style in King Priam places far more emphasis on declamation. Tippett resisted the obvious temptation to compose a love-duet for Paris and Helen that would express their ardent passion for each other. It would have been out of place: of far greater importance here were the consequences of their passion. What lyricism there is in the opera tends to be tightly contained within the dramatic monologues the composer discerned as the perfect medium for his dramatic purposes: vocal set-pieces embracing a whole gamut of changing, often contradictory emotions. The necessary techniques he had learnt from the cantatas of Purcell (e.g. The Blessed Virginİs Expostulation and Mad Bess), which he had come to know in the 1940s, while Director of Music at Morley College in London. Purcellİs method entailed intermingling different types of vocal utterance - recitative, arioso and aria - in a fluctuating sequence of moods and tempi, thus providing psychological depth and veracity. Tippett had already tried his hand at a Purcell-ian cantata for the concert hall, Boyhoodİs End, in 1943. For the monologues in King Priam, Tippett found the umbrella-like functioning of the Purcell-ian cantata a valuable model.

Even more radical is Tippettİs treatment of the orchestra in this opera. Gone now is the homogeneous flow of orchestral sound that supports the voices in The Midsummer Marriage. In order to differentiate and clarify the characterisation in musical terms,Tippett decided to break up the orchestra into a number of discrete groups and solos, whose musical invention is never shared . What resulted from this was a much more rigorous deployment of Wagnerİs leitmotif method: a mosaic of instrumental gestures that are carefully related to the personalities and situations in the drama. Erik Satie once satirised Wagnerİs procedures in his music-dramas, saying that each character, when appearing on stage, presented his or her visiting-card. This is far more true of Tippettİs method in King Priam. Each character, each situation registers its individual impact musically by means of distinctive motifs and associated instrumentation. The cry of the child Paris in scene 1 is allotted to the oboe and this instrumental association is retained throughout the opera. Priamİs regal strength is made evident on his first entry by a motif for two horns set between high and low piano octaves. The Old Man interpreting Hecubaİs dream is given ominously murky music for bass-clarinet, bassoon and contrabassoon.

Tippettİs concept of orchestration here was much influenced by Stravinsky, notably by Agon, whose first London performance he heard in 1958 and whose mosaic-style presentation made a deep impact. The example of Stravinskyİs Symphony in Three Movements certainly lay behind the introduction of a piano into the orchestra for Tippettİs Symphony No.2 (1956/57) and the slow movement of this work, in particular, anticipates the kind of scoring Tippett was to push to extremes in King Priam. His opera now gave a prominent role to the piano, as an accompaniment to episodes of narration and as a hard-edged, percussive ingredient in the overall sound. For the next 25 years or so, the piano figured regularly in all Tippettİs orchestral writing, up until his last opera, New Year (1986-9), where once more he re-thought his approach to orchestration and decided the piano was redundant.

Whereas a coherent body of string sonority is dominant in the standard opera and symphony orchestras inherited from the nineteenth century, in King Priam, the strings are treated as a collection of independent instrumental personalities, rarely brought together en masse. This demotion of the strings - and indeed, the absence of any customary division of violins into first and second groups - accounts above all for the spare, abrasive quality of Tippettİs orchestration. No notes are wasted, no instrument is ever superfluous or replaceable; on the contrary, each has to play a lot of exposed technically music that can generate greate excitement. When the strings are used, they make a telling impact. Only wind and percussion are heard at the start of the opera, until Hecuba declaims her response to the interpretation of the dream -"Then am I no longer mother to this child": this she sings against a whirling background of fast-moving violins, whose sudden appearance is spine-tingling. While Priamİs first monologue is supported by sadly plodding violas and cellos, in the first interlude, the strings vigorously help the Chorus to accelerate the pace of the action.

Strings are in fact omitted altogether from Act II, though listeners fresh to the work will probably not notice their absence. At the centre of this Act, Tippett provides relief from the violence of the war-music for wind and percussion with an intimate solo song for Achilles, accompanied only by guitar. And indeed, the entry of the guitar after an interlude of war-music is a clever theatrical stroke. The nostalgic mood of Achillesİs song is enhanced by the sad tones of the cor anglais and two horns associated with Patroclus. Even then, in the final scene of the Act, back in the Trojan camp, it is the voices that are eventually dominant: Hector, having killed Patroclus, returns with the body and joins Priam and Paris in a trio of thanksgiving to Zeus, but their rhetorical jubilation is overwhelmed by the appearance of Achilles before their tent, shouting a war-cry whose barbaric ululations are repeatedly taken up by the chorus and bring the Act to a blood-curdling conclusion.

The strings come into their own at the start of Act III, where Tippett offers further different perspectives on the story, that of the female protagonists and their maids. A long solo cello melody introduces Andromache, still pinning her faith in the bond of marriage: in Tippettİs words, "she echoes down the centuries as the proud, passionate grieving widow". The violins that introduced Hecuba in Act I now support her admonitions to Andromache to think of the defence of Troy, not just the preservation of her home life. Helen, when she appears and has to face their accusations, is galvanised into singing the longest monologue allotted to a female character in the opera. She is the one character who is never forced into a position of choice. Fatal in her public and private involvements, she is faithful only to some mysterious and unavoidable passion. Insulted by Andromache, Helen shows her true colours, reminding us of her divine birth - "for I am Zeusİs daughter, conceived when the great wings beat above Leda". Her monologue is supported by an unusual combination of harp, violas and piano. Balancing the prayer to Zeus sung by the trio of male protagonists near the end of Act II, this scene ends with the three female protagonists collectively praying to their tutelary Goddesses (Athene, Hera and Aphrodite), as revealed in Act I: an ensemble of great beauty and intensity.

Now it is the turn of the Serving Women - slaves "to whom the fate of towered Troy is but a change of masters" - to act as Chorus. They comment pertinently that Hector's death will finally break Priamİs spirit. The scene that follows bears out their prediction. Priamİs ongoing monologue, his longest in the opera, dwells on the choice he could have made, to kill Paris in his cradle and avoid all that has since befallen; the chorus from Act I return, in Priamİs mind, like "phantoms from that fatal hour" and rehearse the pro's and con's of the choices open to him then and now. Responding to his call for Judgement, the Nurse sings, "Measure him time with mercy" and ushers in the one purely instrumental interlude in the opera, whose commentary on the action is enshrined in terse conflicts between dissonant wind assertions and tender string responses (a distillation process Tippett was to use again at the end of his Symphony No. 3).

Giving due attention to the standpoint of the women and how the war affected their situation is a special feature of King Priam. To achieve it involved the composer to some extent in departing from Homer and drawing upon other sources, most notably Euripidesİ The Women of Troy. The need for such a dramatic dimension was also suggested obliquely by Tippettİs acquaintance with the writings of Simone Weil. In a landmark essay, dating from the summer of 1940, and with the fall of France uppermost in her mind, she had depicted The Iliad as "The poem of force", in which there occurs "...the idea of a destiny before which executioner and victim stand equally innocent, before which conquered and conqueror are brothers in the same distress." But Homerİs female characters are hardly mentioned in Weilİs essay and Tippett felt the need to redress the balance.

At the same time, he realised that the most essentially human and thus moving scene in the opera would be that in which Priam comes to Achilles' tent to beg for the mutilated body of his son Hector. After the initial shock of recognition, here, a mutual understanding quickly ensues in which both, as humans, recognise the inevitability of their destined respective deaths. When, in the final scene, against the continuous noise of battle, Paris brings Hecuba, Andromache and Helen to see him, he refuses them all except Helen. Now only with her divinity doeshe feel able to make some conntection, as mean of contact with the world beyond his imminent death. The few bars of quiet music and silences that follow the violence orchestral outburst marking his death are meant to symbolise our inwards tears.


King Priam was first performed on 29 May, 1962, by the Covent Garden Opera Company, as part of a festival in Coventry organised to celebrate the re-building of that cityİs Cathedral, which had been destroyed during the Second World War. Tippett was very much in sympathy with the aims of the Fetsival, having previously known the Bishop of Coventry, Bishop Gorton and supported his plans for the re-building. He had allowed some of his music to be used to accompany a British Council film, featuring sequences showing the model for the new cathedral designed by Sir Basil Spence and shots of John Hutton and his assistants at work on the clear-engraved-glass panels of saints and angels in the great South window. Tippett thought the theme of his opera, now, though taken from an older war, "tolerably appropriate". The night after the premiere also saw the first performance of Brittenİs War Requiem which, dealing with "war, and the pity of war", polarised the Latin Requiem text against settings of poems by the First World War poet, Wilfred Owen.

It is perhaps because of this context that King Priam has sometimes been called a "pacifist opera", taking into account also Tippettİs own wartime record, which saw him incarcerated for three months at Wormwood Scrubbs Prison for refusing to accept the conditions for registration for non-combatant military duties and his close association with the Peace Movement during the rest of his life. The label is, however, inappropriate. Priam could not be called a conscientious objector and, in any case, Tippettİs intentions in using him as the protagonist for an opera, went wider. From his war-time oratorio, A Child of Our Time (1939/41), onwards, he consistently chose to stand back from the immediate present and the actualities of contemporary conflict to place human behaviour, collective and individual, in a more universalised, timeless setting. While Brittenİs War Requiem could end with an imagined, if uncertain reconciliation, Tippettİs opera envisaged nothing as conclusive, contemplating instead the possibility that catastrophe can occur over and over again: hence its "non-ending", from a musical standpoint. In his largest-scale work for the concert-hall, The Mask of Time (1980-82), he characterised the universe as a relentless, ongoing cycle of creation and destruction at many levels. Its climactic eighth movement unites images of Shivaİs dance of death and an atomic explosion, but follows this with a threnody for the many innocent victims of wanton destruction, setting words from Anna Akhmatova's Requiem and Poem without a Hero. As this threnody develops, the war-music for trumpets and drums in Act II of King Priam is quoted significantly as a backcloth to the voices.

The generally fast pace and clarity of purpose with which King Priam unfolds, its pointed characterisation by means of a mosaic of contrasted instrumental gestures, have always ensured its impact and amply justified the drastic decisions which the composer found essential to make to bring it to fruition. Tippett himself was soon aware that it marked a turning-point in his own work, promising many new creative avenues. The mosaic structures he deployed so rigorously manner in this opera became a regular feature of his music for the rest of his career: not just in the two pieces written immediately afterwards, Piano Sonata No. 2 (1962) and the Concerto for Orchestra (1962/63), both of which quote music from King Priam, but in later orchestral works like his Third Symphony (1970-1082, his Fourth Symphony (1976/77), Triple Concerto (1978/79) and his last work of all, The Rose Lake (1991/93), whose extended "song" episodes are like orchestral counterparts to the monologues in King Priam.

The discipline of composing within tightly formulated criteria in King Priam enabled him later also to widen his musical idiom to include vernacular references - jazz, rock, reggae - without destroying the coherence of the music: hence the rich new sound-worlds of his subsequent three operas, The Knot Garden (1965-70), The Ice Break (1975/76) and New Year (1985/88). Tippettİs earlier music had been dominated above all by the example of Beethoven and Beethovenian symphonic argument. But with King Priam he broke free to explore other exemplars, other forms of musical continuity. The techniques of juxtaposition and superimposition of musical "blocks" which he first utilised fully in the opera offered huge potential which he exploited eagerly in one work after another, sometimes risking (e.g. in the scherzo-like opening of Part 2 of his Third Symphony) the kind of controlled chaos that one might encounter in the music of Charles Ives. Eschewing Beethoven-ian thematic development also opened up the possibilities for more "non-endings" that follow the example (musically, if not dramatically) of the final bars of the opera: Tippettİs works thereafter are full of final throwaway gestures, some intended simply to detach the listenerİs mind from the music and send him out into the street. He had always resisted "Hollywood" endings - the kind that appeared to him bombastic or just empty rhetoric. In The Rose Lake, the final chord, marked "plop", is somewhat more typical, suddenly switching off the musical current and bringing us back to earth: and for that matter, also, an effective and amusing way to take his final bow as a composer.

Covent Gardenİs world premiere staging of King Priam, directed by Sam Wanamaker, with scenery and ocstumes by Sean Kenny and lighting by William Bundy, was accounted one of the companyİs most successful and innovative productions, and was revived several times. But apart from a production in Karlsruhe in 1963, the work took some time to find its way into the repertory elsewhere. In 1980, an award-winning recording by the London Sinfonietta, conducted by David Atherton, and still available on the Chandos label, began to generate fresh interest in the work. Nicholas Hytner directed a touring production for Kent Opera in 1984 which was eventually released on commercial video. Further productions followed in Nancy (1988), Battignano (1990) and at San Francisco Opera Center (1991). In the UK, a new production by Opera North in 1991 made a great impression and was toured to the Vlaamse Opera in Antwerp in 1992 and 1996; a revised version was given at English National Opera in 1995. Perhaps the most thrilling and magical performances of King Priam, however, were those that took place in the summer of 1985, when Covent Garden's production was presented at the Athens Festival in an adaptation for the Herod Atticus Theatre. It seemed at the time that the opera was back in home territory.

copyright Meirion Bowen (2003)