At the end of May the Brighton Festival is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the reconsecration of Coventry Cathedral with a concert performance of Tippett’s masterpiece, the opera King Priam. This reflects the key themes of the festival – the artistic depiction of war and peace and the legacy of classical Greece. As an introduction to the opera, I’ve written an essay for Opera Magazine and this is how it begins:
When I think of King Priam, one image forms in my mind. It’s not from the opera or even from the Trojan War. It comes in the first half of Pasolini’s masterly movie Edipo Re and it recurs like a nagging ostinato. After the Sibyl’s prophesy that Oedipus will murder his father and marry his mother, he traverses a barren landscape punctuated by crossroads. Every time he arrives at a junction he covers his face with his hands and spins around. Then he opens his eyes and walks straight ahead. Time and again, as he clears frame, the film cuts to a signpost bearing the single word “Thebes”. It is the most vivid filmic demonstration I know of implacable fate overwhelming personal choice. Pasolini uses a single shot to signify the conflict between decision and destiny. In his second and arguably his greatest opera, Michael Tippett achieves a similar effect with a few fractured bitonal chords. They punctuate every choice made by Priam from his son’s birth to his own death. Like Pasolini’s cinematography, they do not just illustrate the story. They are the story.
Although Tippett insisted that the subject of King Priam was choice it is still regarded as a work about war. It’s a natural reaction. Priam was first performed as a piece d’occasion in Coventry in May 196 2 in a festival celebrating the re-consecration of the city’s bomb-struck cathedral. The impression that Tippett had composed a meditation on the consequences of war was reinforced by the premiere in Coventry the following day of Britten’s War Requiem. In a single week we were offered two works by pacifist composers, both dealing – in the words of the poet Wilfred Owen – with “the pity of war, the pity of war, the pity war distilled.” And they were both unveiled in a space which still carried the scars of saturation bombing. However, what may be true of the War Requiem is certainly not the case with Priam. Tippett began to sketch its libretto five years earlier. It was commissioned not by Coventry or even Covent Garden (who produced it the following month) but by the Koussevitsky Foundation. So it was not a response to the destruction of the cathedral and it is not really an opera about war.
Tippett made this clear in a BBC broadcast a few weeks after the premiere. In it he said that “there is no description of the war. There are just the necessary formal musical gestures. It is the persons within the war that matter.” If we read his letters and sketchbooks from 1958, written while the work was gestating, we can see that the theme of Priam is not war but the decisions which provoke it. What drew Tippett to classical myth was not the military conflict or its Trojan setting but his personal search for “a sense of the timeless in time”. In his essay on Troy in Music of the Angels Tippett explains that “although the story is from the past, the sense of our performing this story in our own present….is consciously underlined.” So his choice of the Trojan War as a subject was not a retreat from the 20th Century into distant legend. By presenting war not as something which we suffer but as something we choose, he makes Priam a figure as modern as Magnus the psychotherapist in The Knot Garden or the Russian dissidents in The Ice Break or Jo-Ann the social worker in New Year………
You can read the full essay in the May issue of Opera Magazine