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Reviewed by:
  • King Arthur in Music
  • James L. Zychowicz (bio)
King Arthur in Music Edited by Richard BarberArthurian Studies 52Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2002198 pages, $75.00

In Robertson Davies's novel The Lyre of Orpheus, one of the characters criticizes out of hand the projected completion of an opera by E. T. A. Hoffmann about King Arthur: "Now listen: whoever wrote the bloody words [of the mythical Hoffmann opera], there has never been a good play or musical about King Arthur. Look at Camelot. A turkey. . . ."1 Granted, this arch comment is fictional, but many people nevertheless have such reservations about musical works based on the story of King Arthur. Given the breadth of the story and the expectations involved, criticism is inevitable, but that should not negate the attempts from generation to generation to draw inspiration for new works from the legend of King Arthur.

King Arthur in Music is a collection of nine articles and an extensive bibliography intended to address the need for a formal study of musical works inspired by the legend of King Arthur. The editor, Richard Barber, is known for his work on Arthurian matters, and the contributors to the volume are specialists in music or literature. The choice of contributors is indeed well suited to the topic of this book, which covers a range of works from the seventeenth century to the present and encompasses both serious and popular music.

The articles in this collection address various national traditions, opening with works by English composers. In the first essay ("Dryden and Purcell's King Arthur: Legend and Politics on the Restoration Stage"), Robert Shay offers a critical perspective about the place of this well-known 1691 work among Purcell's other dramatic music, as well its place among other operas of the day.

Other articles concern works that may be less familiar to modern audiences, such as Hubert Parry's Guenever, one of a projected trilogy of operas about King Arthur that the composer took up in the mid-1880s and left unfinished. In his essay on this work, Jeremy Dibble places Parry's efforts on the trilogy within the context of the composer's enthusiasm for the music of Richard Wagner. Without blaming the librettist for the failure of this work, Dibble's comments point to the need for a masterful libretto when presenting in a dramatic work such familiar material as the legend of King Arthur. Because Parry never completed [End Page 459] the trilogy, Dibble himself worked on scoring part of Guenever for a performance broadcast on the BBC in 1995 (p. 47).

Unlike Parry, Rutland Boughton completed his cycle of five music dramas based on the story of King Arthur, composed between 1908 and 1945: The Birth of Arthur (originally entitled Uther and Igraine), The Round Table, The Lily Maid, Galahad, and Avalon. Michael Hurd's essay on this Arthurian sequence is welcome for the detailed criticism that it offers on these relatively unfamiliar works, constituting perhaps the most complete treatment of King Arthur in music. Yet considered within the context of his other music, Boughton's cycle as a whole seems to fall short in the overall treatment of this ambitious theme.

A more successful work is Harrison Birtwistle's Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (1991, revised 1994), which Robert Adlington discusses at length in this volume. Based on the fourteenth-century romance about one of Arthur's knights, this impressive modern opera is another instance of Birtwistle's continuing fascination with medieval themes. Its highly rhythmic score offers a fresh interpretation of the source, which takes as its starting point an adventure of one of Arthur's important knights.

The inclusion of a work about Gawain in a book devoted to King Arthur suggests the breadth of characters associated with the story, which includes some of the more famous knights of the legendary court. (A list of characters discussed in the book is included on page 189.) It is not unusual to find various knights included in Arthurian discussions, but discussions of treatments of King Arthur in music are, as Barber comments in his introduction, dominated by the theme of Tristan and Isolde. Although the...


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