‘The Immortal Hour’- Avalon, Opera & Faerie

Immortal-Hour

‘The Immortal Hour’

My consideration of the period of the First World War and its impact on visions of faery continues with this posting on the work of Rutland Boughton.  He may be unknown to almost all readers, but he’s a fascinating subject for many reasons- for his fae operas, for his radical political views and as the founder of the original Glastonbury Festival.

He’s been described as a “socialist, patriot, musician and domestic genius, an agnostic of deep religious feeling and a man of many contradictory characteristics.”

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The young Boughton by Christina Walshe

Boughton was born in Aylesbury in 1878.  His family ran a grocer’s shop which was not particularly successful, meaning that his schooling and prospects were limited.  However, through luck and hard work, he managed to establish the musical career he had aspired to and, by the early 1900s, he was developing a reputation as a teacher and composer.  He was working in Birmingham and his experience there with choirs convinced him of “the immense civilising influence of music and he began to feel that music, and art generally, might one day succeed where religion had failed.”  He pursued these thoughts in a book, Music Drama of the Future, in 1911.  He had become aware of:

“the truly popular nature of all the greatest art and of the fact that the greatest artists acquire their superhuman power by acting as the expression of the ‘oversoul’ of a people.”

Boughton was a great admirer of Wagner and argued that he had chosen folk subjects for his operas (such as the Rheingold) because these myths had been produced by this ‘oversoul.’

British legend and British drama

Music Drama of the Future formed a sort of manifesto for Boughton.  He wanted to produce heroic music dramas based upon the British ‘national scriptures’- stories like the legends of King Arthur which were the birth right of the British people.  In addition, he wanted to create a national theatre where this might be done and which might lie at the heart of a larger community.  He argued that previous attempts at communes had failed because they lacked a religious centre- a function that this new theatre could perform.  He realised that he needed to find a “civically conscious” place where he could co-operate with the inhabitants to develop a “new city” focused on the drama venue.

Around this time too, Boughton began to collaborate with writer Reginald Buckley.  They shared a mutual love of Wagner, Ruskin, Milton, Dante and Tennyson and each wanted to write ‘music drama.’  Buckley had already written a text called Arthur of Britain and had been searching for a composer.  Boughton had already identified the Arthurian myths as a subject. He saw them as the “best tap into the mystical heart of Great Britain.”

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A social experiment

There were various false starts in the plan for establishing the national theatre.  Boughton proposed a summer school at Hindhead in 1912 and then went on to consider Letchworth Garden City as a possible setting for his experiment.  By 1913, however, he’d chosen Glastonbury in Somerset as the best location in which to found his “English Bayreuth” and moved into a large house called Chalice Well where he also opened a school of music and drama.  The aim of this was to train local singers, instrumentalists and dancers so that they could perform in the festivals, which would take place four times a year, at Easter, Whitsuntide, August and at Christmas. His plans were ambitious and unusual: he envisaged a festival linked to a commune for artists who preferred a country life and who felt that they should earn their livings through art combined with running a co-operative farm.  In 1916 he wrote that “the whole business is for me as much a sociological as an aesthetic thing.”  He and Buckley wanted to control the performances of their works completely, but they also wanted to involve the local community actively in all aspects of the festivals- performing, designing clothes and scenery and choreographing dances.

Boughton was evidently ahead of his time- a fact demonstrated by his unconventional love life.  He had married in 1903 but the marriage had not been wise or successful.  Whilst in Birmingham he had formed a relationship with a music lover called Christine Walshe and in 1911 he left his wife and moved in with Christina.

The first Glastonbury Festival of Music Drama and Mystic Drama opened on August 5th 1914- the day after Britain entered the First World War.  It featured performances of ‘A chapel in Lyonesse’ based on a poem by William Morris and the Immortal Hour, based on the faery play of that name by Scottish poet Fiona Macleod (real name, William Sharp).  We’ll discuss this opera in more detail later, but it proved extremely popular and has been called “England’s greatest fairy opera.”  The Immortal Hour was performed again at Easter 1915 and again in August 1916.  That summer saw the first performance too of Boughton and Buckley’s opera The Round Table.

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 ‘Music of the duration’

Just as the 1916 Festival ended, Boughton received his call-up papers from the Army.  He appealed this to a tribunal, on the grounds that his work in Glastonbury was “of national importance.”  In this he may have found encouragement from Lloyd George who, in 1916, had asked “Why should we not sing during the war?” He had been speaking in support for the annual eisteddfod but Boughton might well have drawn a parallel with his own English venture.

The authorities did not accept Boughton’s case- even though he argued that the Glastonbury festivals could draw money away from Bayreuth and Oberammergau- and for the next two years the festival was suspended whilst he served King and country.  It has to be admitted, though, that whilst other artists like Tolkien, Ledwidge or Graves served on the front line, Boughton never did.  He was bandmaster of a succession of regiments. Nevertheless, when in December 1918 The Times newspaper reviewed the music composed during the war it recognised Boughton’s contribution to the ‘artistic war effort’.

 

Morris, Carey Boynes, 1882-1968; Rutland Boughton (1878-1960)

The older Boughton

Return to Avalon

As soon as the war was over, Boughton began planning the revival of the festival.  He moved to a new and larger house called Mount Avalon which served as a school and hostel and at the first post-war festival, in August 1920, he presented The Immortal Hour, The Round Table and the new opera written with Buckley, The Birth of Arthur. 

 The revived festival as an idea, and the individual performances, attracted great praise and encouragement, but there was too a universal feeling that it could not grow as it should so long as it was staged in the cramped Assembly Rooms in Glastonbury High Street, in which there was neither space for larger audiences nor for the performers.  Nonetheless, there were great hopes for the future and admiration for the way all the performers were able to contribute- as well as to develop their skills.  The Times had, for example, been impressed how the school’s teachers had “discovered the children of the town to be fairies, nymphs, water sprites and elves.”

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The festival continued until 1927 but steadily declined, despite successful national tours.  A major contributing factor was Boughton’s ‘adulterous’ circumstances combined with his left-wing opinions.  In 1923 he separated from Christina and moved in with one of his local pupils, a woman called Kathleen.  This was scandalous in the Glastonbury of the 1920s- pupils were withdrawn from the schools and money was withheld for developing a dedicated theatre in the town.  Money, too, had always been a problem: the festival launched with appeals for funds and always made a loss.  Eventually the festival company went into liquidation; nevertheless, it had presented 350 stage performances and 100 concerts during its existence and permanently had an effect on the little town of Glastonbury.  As many readers will know, the town itself is now a centre for alternative spirituality and lifestyles- a place where today Boughton’s love life would scarcely raise an eyebrow; secondly, as all readers will surely know, there is the modern Glastonbury Festival; organiser Michael Eavis must have derived some inspiration for this from the 1920s forerunner (even though the present day event is not, strictly, in Glastonbury at all, but several miles east).

In November 1927 Boughton moved to a smallholding at Kilcot on the edge of the Forest of Dean in Gloucestershire, where he and Kathleen raised a family, kept pigs, goats and hens and grew vegetables and cider apples.  From this point on, his career also sank steadily into obscurity- something he ascribed (perhaps with a hint of paranoia) to his political views.

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Rutland & Kathleen in later life

Politics

The early 1920s Boughton was involved with the London Labour Choral Union.  Along with Herbert Morrison, he believed that “working class music making could be an invigorating element in Socialist politics and culture.”   The choral union was indeed a vital part of Labour Party culture until it was cut as an unaffordable luxury.

Before then, though, Boughton had joined the Communist Party, expressing his belief in organised control by the workers.  He identified personally with this because he felt that, as a composer, he had very little control over the fruits of his labour.  Boughton resigned from the Party in 1929 because he felt he had been undervalued and underused, but rejoined in 1945, only to quit again in 1956 over the invasion of Hungary.

It was only very late in his life that Boughton returned to the Arthurian Cycle, which he had largely abandoned after the death of Buckley in 1919.  He wrote the final two operas, Galahad and Avalon, in the mid-1940s.  The final scene of Avalon shows his continuing belief in Socialist principles: the Lady of the Lake reveals three visions of the past, present and future to the dying King Arthur.  These are the star of Bethlehem, the white star of hope shining over his own land and, finally, a red star that will rise in the east.  At the outset, the composer had seen Arthur as “an essentially British fount of inspiration” but clearly over the decades it changed from Wagnerian epic to a political tract with strong religious overtones.  The cycle as a whole may not be a success, but it has been described as “an extraordinary demonstration of artistic courage and determination- a ruin perhaps, but undeniably impressive.”  Certainly, the cycle to many seemed to represent the raison d’etre of a national festival founded in Avalon; the dramas were the source of the festival’s vitality and its justification.

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William Sharp- the artist formerly known as Fiona Macleod

Faeryland

“I have gone out and seen the lands of Faery/ And have found sorrow and peace and beauty there.” (Dreams within dreams, Fiona Macleod)

Myth and faerie magic suffuse much of Boughton’s work.  They are of course present in the Arthurian cycle, but he also wrote a range of other songs and operas based on fairy poems.  These include Faery people, based on a poem by Mary Webb, and a large number of poems by Fiona Macleod, amongst which are Dalua and Avalon, part of Boughton’s Six Celtic Choruses. 

The most important of these latter works is The Immortal Hour.  Christina Walshe was very influential in developing Boughton’s taste for Irish and Scottish mythology; she was half Irish and was a great supporter of the ‘Celtic revival.’ Boughton studied Hebridean folk songs before writing the music for The Hour and, whilst he was absent in the army in September 1918, she arranged performances of W. B. Yeats’ play The land of heart’s desire and of The Immortal Hour.

Fiona Macleod was the secret pseudonym of William Sharp (1855-1905), something kept secret during his lifetime. Sharp was a Scottish author, a prolific writer of poetry, plays and literary biography.  He was much involved in the ‘Celtic revival’ in Scotland and became familiar with W. B. Yeats.  Like Yeats, he was a member of Alistair Crowley’s Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.  Consonant with these occult interests, Macleod/ Sharp wrote a great deal of mystical and mythical verse, amongst which are small a number with an explicit fairy theme, including The bugles of dreamland, The hills of Ruel, The moon child, The lords of shadow, Dreams within dreams and The last fay.  Sharp was plainly very familiar with the key elements of Gaelic fairy belief and with the overall mood of magic and sadness that pervades Celtic legend.  These are powerful elements in the Immortal Hour,  which is a verse drama of some seventy pages concerned with Celtic myths of the sidh folk and based on the Irish story Tochmarc Étaíne, the ‘Wooing of Etain.’

Macleod’s Immortal Hour has been described as being ideal for Boughton as it was “a legend only half told, with meanings hinted at, never spoken out.”  This left him free to mould the work into any musical shape that appealed.  He did so, but still left much to the audience’s imaginations.  As The Times acknowledged in 1919, “the vague imagery of Fiona Macleod was easy to catch in music- and easy to dissipate.” Boughton had captured it effectively.  Whilst the original play was “visionary and vague” the opera was visionary but not vague- full of tunes that haunt you.

Macleod’s play is very short- only two brief acts- and not a great deal happens in it.  In the first act fairy princess Etain and High King of Ireland, Eochaid, are brought together by fairy trickster Dalua.  In the second act Etain’s former lover, Midir, comes from faery in search of her.  She remembers her former life and departs with him and Dalua casts a spell of death over Eochaid.  The drama is perhaps best known for the recurring ‘fairy song’:

“How beautiful they are, the lordly ones, who dwell in the hills, in the hollow hills.”

Mary Webb’s poem ‘Fairy led’ was used as the basis for Boughton’s ‘Fairy song:’

“The fairy people flouted me,
Mocked me, shouted me–
They chased me down the dreamy hill and beat me with a wand.
Within the wood they found me, put spells on me and bound me
And left me at the edge of day in John the Miller’s pond.

Beneath the eerie starlight
Their hair shone curd-white;
Their bodies were all twisted like a lichened apple-tree;
Feather-light and swift they moved,
And never one the other loved,
For all were full of ancient dreams and dark designs on me.

With noise of leafy singing
And white wands swinging,
They marched away amid the grass that swayed to let them through.
Between the yellow tansies
Their eyes, like purple pansies,
Peered back on me before they passed all trackless in the dew.”

Final thoughts

Boughton combined many intriguing characteristics- he was a social radical, he was interested in self sufficiency and communal living, he had an intense spirituality without being conventionally religious and he recognised the potential power of music, poetry and myth in our lives.  Boughton reasserted the place of the Arthurian legends and of Avalon in British culture in the twentieth century and, significantly for us here, he is a notable example of the power of Faery in art.

Further reading

I’ve written more about the impact of the fairy faith on British music, on the composers Arnold Bax and John Ireland.  This essay should be read in conjunction with my discussions of Tolkien, Bernard Sleigh and his map of faery and the role of the arts during the Great War.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“With white wands swinging”- fairy queens and magic wands

hester margetson

Magic wands

Wands have been symbols of power for millennia.  They denote civic office and, since at least the 1300s, they have symbolised and conveyed magic power.  In the grimoire The Oathbound book of Honorius, hazel and laurel staffs are used for magical operations such as summoning demons.  They are four sided with names and figures written upon them.  In the fourteenth century Italian text, The Key of Solomon, demons are conjured and lost items are found with procedures which involve the use of wands and staffs.  The former are made from hazel or other nut wood, the staffs from elder, cane or rosewood.  They must be of one year’s growth only and must be cut with a single stroke on a propitious day at sunrise.  They should be inscribed with figures on a similarly suitable day and at an auspicious time.  The text recommends that wands should be long enough for a person to draw a circle around themselves.

In the ballad of the same name, the witch Allison Gross makes her magic with a conjurer’s staff:

“Then out she has taken a silver wand
She’s turned her three times round and round
She muttered such words till my strength it did fail
And she’s turned me into an ugly worm.”

In the ballad The Laily Worm and the Mackerel of the Sea, a silver wand is used to reverse the spell and to turn the worm back into a gentle knight.

Both William Lilly and Elias Ashmole, whose rituals for conjuring fairies have been preserved for us, make ample reference to the use of wands in their ceremonies.  Reginald Scot records similar practices in Discourse on witches.

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Ida Rentoul Outhwaite, A fairy flies through the night sky.

Fairy wands

Given these magical associations, it was inevitable that those fairies being summoned should acquire their own wands too and this image has certainly become embedded in our iconography and therefore, so it would seem, in our visions of them.

Wands are not mentioned very much in traditional British folklore, but Evans Wentz mentions a Breton tale in which a white fairy wand is used to enter Faery: it is struck twice against a rock in a cross shape in order to open the portal to fairyland. Wentz also suggests that the faes’ wands may be derived from those believed to have been used by druids.  (Fairy faith pp.202 & 343-4; Luzel, Contes popularies, vol.1, p.3 ‘La fille qui se maria un mort’)

The fairy wand makes a central appearance in the traditional story ‘Kate Crackernuts’ which is from Orkney.  Princess Kate was victim of a jealous stepmother, who used magic to cover her good looks with a sheep’s head.  Her stepsister, also called Kate, was angry at what her mother had done; together the two escape from their palace and go to live in another kingdom.   There stepsister Kate discovers that the prince of the realm lies sick in his bed because he goes to dance under the hill with the fairies every night and, even more importantly, that a fairy child in the knoll possesses a wand which will cure her sister.  By rolling hazelnuts, she is able to distract the little boy and seize the wand, enabling her to free her sister of the sheep’s head.  Faithful Kate then cures the elf-addled prince and everyone (of course) then marries and lives happily ever after.

However, Marjorie Johnson’s Seeing fairies provides us with a dozen modern examples of faes wielding wands.  The wand is often the attribute of an individual fairy identified as a fairy queen by witnesses, a distinguished person who will often wear a crown or coronet as well- though in one sighting in a Nottingham dentist’s surgery, a group of ballet dancing fairies each waved a wand.  It should be remarked that the crowns and tiaras seen on the brows of these faery queens may be another human interpolation: as with wands, there’s no necessary reason why the fays should imitate our indicators of rank- nor that these regalia should signify the same things to them, even if they do.

The wands seen by Johnson’s witnesses are noted as being made of silver, gold or crystal; a couple emit light; a quarter of them have stars on the end.  In one case, the wand produces magic- a twist of it by the fairy queen fills a room with other dancing fairies.

The wand seems to have become inseparable from the fairy in the minds of many.  Literature, art and supernatural experiences all reinforce each other.  We perhaps expect to see a wand, meaning that- whatever the fae may actually be holding- there’s a tendency for it to be labelled as a wand regardless.

Here’s Fairy led by English poet Mary Webb (1881-1927) as a closing example of what has shaped our perceptions so powerfully:

“The fairy people flouted me,
Mocked me, shouted me–
They chased me down the dreamy hill and beat me with a wand.
Within the wood they found me, put spells on me and bound me
And left me at the edge of day in John the miller’s pond.

Beneath the eerie starlight
Their hair shone curd-white;
Their bodies were all twisted like a lichened apple-tree;
Feather-light and swift they moved,
And never one the other loved,
For all were full of ancient dreams and dark designs on me.

With noise of leafy singing
And white wands swinging,
They marched away amid the grass that swayed to let them through.
Between the yellow tansies
Their eyes, like purple pansies,
Peered back on me before they passed all trackless in the dew.”

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There’s more on faery magic and its deployment (and a great deal less about pretty girls in lip gloss and eye shadow wielding wands) in my Darker Side of Faery (2021):

darker side