Creating the score for The Loves of Mars & Venus, by Evelyn Nallen

(This is a revised and expanded version of the talk that Evelyn gave before the 300th anniversary performance in Fitzwilliam College auditorium on 2nd March 2017).

All that remains of the 1717 production of The Loves of Mars and Venus is the scenario written by John Weaver to accompany the first performances of the ballet. However, there is a wealth of music and much choreography which has survived from this period and it seemed to me, and to Moira, that we actually had enough information to work with to recreate a good facsimile of the original performance.

Before any dancing could be recreated, we needed music. For many years I have had an interest in the music of Jacques Paisible, a French oboist and recorder player. He arrived in England from France with the composer Robert Cambert in 1673, along with three other wind players, bringing with him the newly-modelled oboe and recorder. They were quickly established at court and caused a sensation at the London theatres.  Of this group, Jacques Paisible, often called James Peasable, had the most notable success and the longest career, staying in England until his death in 1721. He was the most famous English recorder player of his day and a prolific theatre composer.  For over twenty years he wrote an annual birthday dance for Princess, later Queen, Anne.

So that is where I began looking for suitable music, trying to track down as much of the theatre music of Paisible as I could. The British Library is the most wonderful resource and the fact that Moira was head of British Printed Collections 1501-1800 when I was doing this work, was an enormous help to me. I used not only the music of Paisible but also Finger, Eccles, Croft and Clark from a variety of their theatre suites.

The Loves of Mars and Venus begins with an Overture. Well, there were plenty from this period to choose from, far more than helpful. Then it became really difficult. I had to find, as described by Weaver,  a ‘Pyrrhic Dance’, a ‘Warlike Prelude’, a ‘Simphony of Flutes’, a passacaille and a ‘Wild Rough Air’ and so on until the Finale — some 26 pieces in all.

The character of Mars was performed originally by Monsieur Dupré and I decided to give him the music of Lully. Choosing just one entrée was a huge task. I am not clever enough to be able to read the original notation with all its 17th century clefs and get any sense of the music. So I had to write out anything that looked promising, transposing appropriately, to try to find the right music for our project.

After the ‘entry’ dance for Mars, he joins his soldiers with his Sword and Buckler (a small round hand-held shield), ‘wherein he appears engaged sometimes with two at a time and sometimes with all four’. I chose a Canarie, a dance in 3/8 or 6/8 time, that I could imagine accompanying the lunge and parry of fencing. A fast jigg from Eccles’ The Mad Lover seemed ideal for Vulcan’s dance of triumph after he has caught Mars and Venus in his net.

And so I worked my way through the six scenes set variously in a military camp, a boudoir, a garden and a smithy, constantly being reminded of the wealth of lovely music of this period, written in London, and very rarely played.

The final number, a ‘Grand Dance’ proved really difficult to choose. It needed to be bright, cheerful, long enough to have some content, and something that would round-off the whole ballet. Inspiration finally struck: it had to be something by the greatest composer of them all, Henry Purcell.  ‘Pursue thy conquest love’, from Dido & Aeneas, is not only a terrific tune and surely fun to dance to, but also has a wonderfully ambiguous title as, at the end of the ballet, we are left with Venus, Mars and Vulcan all reasonably happily on stage together but it’s not clear who is with whom.

This process of going through scores and choosing pieces took me a couple of years! And that was only the first stage of producing the full ballet score. With our limited resources, I assembled a band comprising David Gordon, harpsichord, Frances Kelly, baroque harp and Jez Wiles, percussion, to join an amateur recorder group based in Cambridge, Zero Gravity. So, all the music had to be arranged for these forces. When orchestrating each piece, I attempted to enhance the dramatic effect; Venus was represented by a tenor recorder and Mars by solo harpsichord. When the gods appear at the end of the ballet, they were represented by solo harp, for example. Introducing the final scene is ‘A soft Symphony of Flutes [recorders]’ when Mars and Venus express ‘a pleas’d Tenderness which supposes past Embraces’ for which I chose a gentle saraband from She would and She Would Not by Paisible and I scored it for a little consort of four recorders.

The key of every piece has to be harmonious with its neighbour, as moving from say G major to A major would be jarring. However, simply transposing everything into C major for example, would quickly sound tedious. In addition I had to bear in mind the instrumentation before settling on the order of the keys. (For our dance-drama, which has just three musicians on stage throughout, I had to rearrange the whole score, changing the key of every piece but one for the performances in 2017. The music had to be arranged for one recorder, baroque guitar and baroque cello. But that came later.)

In order to achieve a recording of the music for use in the dance studio, I arranged a concert at the Fitzwilliam Auditorium, Fitzwilliam College Cambridge, which was recorded. This took place in 2012, and I designed surtitles to tell the story to the audience as we had no dancers of course. The resulting CD, which was produced with financial help from the Dolmetsch Historical Dance Society, was indeed taken into the dance studio and the drama studio and forms the basis of our dance-drama.

As we were preparing for our first performances earlier this year, Moira casually mentioned that Hester Santlow, the original Venus, was not only a dancer and an actress but also a singer. Our Venus, Chiara Vinci, is not only a dancer but also a singer (and she can act!). So I asked Emma Kirkby and Antony Rooley for help and they both gave me lots of songs that almost certainly had been sung on the Drury Lane stage in our period. When I saw ‘Venus running in to Mars’s Arms’ by John Eccles, I knew that was the one, not least because the words repeat ‘dance, dance and sing’ which suits Chiara perfectly.

On March 2nd, 2017, the exact 300th birthday of the premier of John Weaver’s The Loves of Mars and Venus, we again performed at the Fitzwilliam Auditorium, this time with our dance-drama and we are very grateful to the Master of the College, Nicola Padfield for welcoming us back.