04.02.34, Barber, ed., King Arthur in Music

Main Article Content

John Haines

The Medieval Review baj9928.0402.034


Barber, Richard, ed.. King Arthur in Music. Series: Arthurian Studies. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2002. Pp. viii, 190. ISBN: 085991-767-3.

Reviewed by:
John Haines
University of Toronto

King Arthur in Music is a significant and original contribution to the fledgling field of medieval music reception. Some might argue that medieval music reception studies have always been with us. And it is true that medievalists, as creatures typically steeped in the secondary literature of their fields, have traditionally been quite aware of medieval studies' impact on such modern movements as antiquarianism or archeology. But it was not until recently that the reception of medieval music received more attention than insightful first-chapter surveys of previous scholarship. The new musicology of the 1990s coincided with musicological explorations of the construct of the Middle Ages and the impact of this construct on later music, including popular music whose study was emerging around the same time. It is not surprising that Germany, home of the influential Carl Dalhaus, has been innovative in this field. A good sample of German work is Ubersetzte Zeit: Das Mittelalter und die Musik der Gegenwart (Hofheim: Wolke, 2001), which features such contributors as Robert Lug and Martin Elste on recordings, Annette Kreutziger-Herr on post-modern receptions, and English guest Daniel Leech-Wilkinson. The latter's recent book, The Invention of Medieval Music (Cambridge University Press, 2002), may be considered the first major work in the field. By now, the alarm has been sounded: medieval music studies, whose once prestigious position is now endangered in the liberal arts curriculum, is undergoing, for better or for worse, a transformation.

Without explicitly entering into dialogue with the urgent debate I have just summarized, King Arthur in Music offers much novel and important material in the field of medieval music reception. That the editor understands the book's unique position is clear from his original selection of contributors; it is a risky choice, but one which, I think, only strengthens this volume. Rather than calling on scholars of medieval music, as one might expect, Barber has gathered specialists in the various periods in which medieval music was interpreted rather than specialists in medieval music itself. All but one of the contributors, Tony Hunt, are musicologists. The result is that this volume treats (re-envisioned) medieval music uncluttered by a medievalist's jargon of shelf marks and edition numbers.

The only drawback to this plan is that no one essay discusses medieval music connected with Arthur. In his introduction, Barber briefly cites the Prose Tristan and its musical interpolations, the so-called "Arthurian lais." It is worth pointing out that the manuscript of the Prose Tristan which gives music for seventeen of these lais (Vienna, Osterreischische Nationalbibliothek 2542), is a French book dating from the late thirteenth century, and not an English book dating from the late fifteenth century, as Barber assumes (1-2). The mistake is understandable and was only recently cleared up. As Laurence Harf-Lancner has made clear, the bulk of this manuscript dates from around 1300. Only on the final folio, number 500, does a new and later hand begin, remarkably similar to the first, and providing in its explicit (500v) a dedication to Jacques, duke of Nemours between 1462 and 1477. [[1]] There is one lai with music in this manuscript connected to Arthur here which might have been included in King Arthur in Music, a lai which an anonymous knight sings to Arthur: "A toi rois Artus" (fol. 355v). Although music does not survive for Arthur's lai entitled "A vous Tristan," space for its music was allocated on folio 188r of Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France, MS fonds francais 12599. The music of these Arthurian lais went back to the Breton lais and their legendary performances. To these medieval Arthurian readings one could add the famous fourteenth-century English motet Sub Arturo plebs. [[2]] Barber also mentions the fourteenth-century instrumental piece the Lamento di Tristano (1). To be sure, the sum total of medieval music related to Arthur is not enormous, but it is not negligible either, and the volume would have been strengthened by an essay on this music.

This negligible caveat aside, the contributions in this collection are impressive. I would like to distinguish the essays which deal with musical representations of King Arthur from those treating Arthurian material, such as the love stories of Tristan and Isolde--what Barber calls "Arthurian music" (1).

In the first category fall the essays by Robert Shay, Tony Hunt, Michael Hurd and William Everett. In his discussion of Henry Purcell's King Arthur (1691), Robert Shay makes the point that Purcell's Arthur was originally to stand for King Charles II in librettist John Dryden's original conception. But by the time the work premiered in 1691, Arthur's character had come to symbolize the recently crowned William III, and Dryden's own revisions attest to this adjustment. Purcell's music is suitably royal, with Act I's verse anthem structure suggesting a royal ceremony (18). Arthur is front and center in Ernest Chausson's Le Roi Arthus, treated by Tony Hunt. Arthur is a foil for Lancelot whose unbridled passion leads to his fall. In the earliest performances of Le Roi Arthus, the once and future King came to stand for Chausson who, having finished his opera in 1895, died four years short of seeing the work's much delayed premiC(re in 1903. As Hunt points out, this affinity was encouraged by music critics at the time, one of whom wrote of the deceased Chausson, like Arthur on stage, as grieving and "celebrating his final glory" (61). Hunt provides an ample summary of this lesser known work (pp. 76-88). Michael Hurd relates the lesser known English composer Rutland Boughton's five-opera Arthurian cycle: The Birth of Arthur (1920), The Round Table (1916), The Lily Maid(1934), Galahad (1945) and Avalon (1945). The latter two works especially are a fascinating musical reception of Arthur, as they mix Christian and communist themes. In the last opera, Arthur foresees the triumph of communism as he sings: "A new red star I see in the East...flashes of sickles in chariots I see...and the Red Star shines e'en to Avalon" (102).

William Everett's essay "King Arthur in Popular Musical Theatre and Film" presents repertoires not covered elsewhere in this volume. In fifteen short pages (pp. 145-160), Everett covers seven works in both musical theatre and film: in the former category, Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart's A Connecticut Yankee from 1927/1943 and Alan Jay Lerner and Frederich Loewe's Camelot from 1960; in the latter, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1949), Camelot (1967), The Sword in the Stone (1963), Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1974) and Quest for Camelot (1998). Everett discusses the different ways in which these works make Arthur accessible to modern audiences, such as Hart's mixture of archaic English and American slang or the introduction of Thomas Malory ("Tom of Warwick") in Lerner and Loewe's Camelot. The latter work imposes on Arthur a speech-song reminiscent of Schonberg's Sprechstimme, presumably to depict his emptiness or inability to attract Guenevere. The same musical technique is borrowed by the makers of Disney's Sword in the Stone (157).

The remaining essays by Derek Watson, Jeremy Dibble, Walter Clark, Nigel Simeone, and Robert Adlington deal primarily with Arthurian material, rather than musical representations of Arthur himself. Of special interest in all of these is the degree to which other manifestations of nineteenth-century medievalism shape the various works under consideration. Derek Watson's discussion of Richard Wagner's Tristan und Isolde (1865) and Parsifal (1882), among other things, points to how the German composer drew inspiration from philological editions which were just making these texts available. Drawing on records of Wagner's library, Watson shows how the composer drew on the then ground-breaking work of Karl Lachmann, the Grimm brothers, Friedrich Heinrich von der Hagen, and others, thereby illustrating the dialogue between philological study and artistic creation during the Second Reich. Jeremy Dibble's essay is devoted to Hubert Parry's Guenever (1884-6), the main subject of which are the two infamous lovers, although Arthur does appear; his motive, Dibble relates, is entirely reminiscent of the "Good Friday music" from Wagner's Parsifal (46). Dibble lists several other influential works, including Parry's own Guillem de Cabestahn (concert overture, 1878). Guillem de Cabestahn is indeed from the book by Francis Hueffer, as Dibble points out. It is worth adding here that, until his emigration in 1869 from Germany, Francis Hueffer (1845-1889) had been Franz Hueffer, the author of a dissertation in romance philology at Gottingen on the topic of the troubadour Guilhem de Cabestahn. The re-christened Hueffer would eventually disseminate in England the fruits of German philology in his bestseller The Troubadours (1878), also the title of his libretto for Henry MacKenzie's 1886 opera cited by Dibble (38). Thus German philology, and not just Wagnerism (which Dibble discusses on pp. 35-37), was in the air. As one might expect, Parry's work weds this German influence with more distinctively English sources, ranging from Alfred Lord Tennyson and Walter Scott, which Dibble also notes (38).

Other essays treating Arthurian material underline a point made elsewhere in the book: the enormous influence of Richard Wagner on musical depictions of the Middle Ages. Walter Clark exposes Wagner's impact on Isaac Albeniz' incomplete King Arthur trilogy, the operas Merlin, Launcelot and Guenevere. From his broader perspective as an Albeniz specialist, Clark presents much new material here, partly because of the obscurity of these operas. Albeniz only completed the third part of his trilogy, Merlin, and it was not premiered until long after his death, in 1998. Nigel Simeone (whose biography is unfortunately missing from the "Notes on Contributors," pp. vii-viii) discusses Olivier Messiaen's Turangalila-Symphonie, premiered in Boston in 1949, as an expression of the Tristan and Isolde love story. Robert Adlington describes English composer Harrison Birtwistle's opera Gawain (1991, revised 1994) based on the fourteenth-century romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Birtwistle took Wagner so seriously as to undertake an intensive study of the Ring prior to composing his own work (140).

Throughout these essays, Wagner's influence is clear from even negative responses to the German composer's work. For example, we see the typical francophone love-hate sentiment towards Wagner in Ernest Chausson's desire to "dewagnerise" himself (69), or in Olivier Messiaen's need to distance himself from Tristan und Isolde (105-106). Ironically, Messiaen's summary of his sprawling six-movement symphony simply as "un chant d'amour" is reminiscent of Wagner in its philosophical pithiness. It is clear from this volume that Wagner's medievalism and its musical consequences have much to offer to future researchers.

Certainly one of the most useful contributions is this volume's final essay, Jerome Reel's "Listing of Arthurian Music," which is drawn from a web database which gives "all known arrangements or excerpts from major works" (159) related to Arthur; fuller information can be found at http://www.lib.rochester.edu/camelot/acpbibs/reel.htm. From a perusal of the published list, it is clear that many works of Arthurian popular music exist, including classics such as Bill Haley's album Twistin' Knights of the Round Table (1962), Led Zeppelin's "Battle of Nevermore" (1971), and Rick Wakeman's Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knight of the Round Table (1974); most of these references are courtesy of Keir Howell. The presence of such works in Reel's list in turn signals a lacuna in the present volume, which might have included at least one essay on Arthur in popular song beyond William Everett's. There would have been no shortage of possibilities, as a growing secondary literature makes clear. A study of Led Zeppelin's "Battle of Nevermore," for example, would have nicely supplemented Susan Fast's landmark book on the band which nevertheless only briefly cites "Battle" and its "references to J. R. R. Tolkein's Lord of the Rings." [[3]] Any number of more recent interpretations, such as the efforts by Skyclad and Soil Bleeds Black, would certainly have yielded some fascinating discussions.

There is no question that, as Barber states, the influence of Arthur in music in modern times is great, and that the "present volume can only explore a few facets" of this reception (7). This book is timely, filling a scholarly lacuna and demonstrating the pertinence of medieval music to other fields. We can only applaud it and hope that the rich material uncovered here will inspire work of its kind in the very near future.


[[1]] Laurence Harf-Lancner, ed., Le Roman de Tristan en Prose, vol. 9, La fin des aventures de Tristan et de Galaad (Geneva: Droz, 1997), 12.

[[2]] On which, see most recently Andrew Wathey, "The Peace of 1360-1369 and Anglo-French Musical Relations" in Early Music History 9 (1990), 129-174, and the references provided there.

[[3]] Susan Fast, In the Houses of the Holy: Led Zeppelin and the Power of Rock Music (Oxford University Press, 2001), 59.

Article Details

Author Biography

John Haines

University of Toronto