(This the text of the talk Stephen gave before the 300th anniversary performance in Fitzwilliam College auditorium on 2nd March 2017).
I have always loved music but I’m not a musician. Nobody has ever enjoyed my piano-playing except me. Perhaps the appeal for me is that music represents something mysterious, something unreachable – although that hasn’t stopped me tackling over the years a number of plays about composers’ lives for BBC Radio 3 and 4. An early one The Organgrinder’s Monkey was about Rossini stuck in Naples in 1820 during a political coup d’etat trying to compose an opera about a city under siege in a city under siege. Another about Purcell and Dryden writing King Arthur again and again under changing political circumstances. More recently, I did a short play about the last days of Haydn, called inevitably Farewell Symphony, and a longer play for the 150th anniversary of the birth of Jean Sibelius about why he never got round to writing that eighth symphony.
It was through one of my radio plays that I first got involved in this project. Evelyn Nallen and I had both been attracted to the same subject, she for a recital programme, me for a radio play. I called mine The Organist’s Daughter and it was about the fact that in the early 1700s the highly regarded composer and organist, Dietrich Buxtehude, held an eminently desirable post attached to the main church in Lubeck. Among those who went up for the job to replace him were the young Georg Friedrich Händel and the young Johann Sebastian Bach. But there was a condition attached, the successful applicant had to marry Buxtehude’s eldest daughter, Anna Margreta and, for whatever reasons, Händel and Bach didn’t get or didn’t want the job. It went in the end to Johann Christian Schieferdecker, not a name to conjure with today – but actually quite a successful composer.
Part of the problem of writing about historical figures, composers or not, is that just because they’re called Isambard Kingdom Brunel or Carl Maria von Weber does not make the character intrinsically interesting. If anything, you have to work harder to bring a historical character to life than one you’ve imagined for yourself. In the Organist’s Daughter, the challenge was to find a way of catching Händel (as he then was) and Bach aged 20 before they were the iconic figures they later became. Bach was particularly interesting. He was in continuous dispute with his religious employers in Amstadt and he’d bunked off for a far longer research and development time than agreed, He’d also nearly had a punch-up in the town square in Amstadt with a bassoonist whose playing he’d rubbished. For me, details like that meant the young Bach began to come alive as a pugnacious and rather difficult young man, very unlike the saintly icon he’s now sometimes presented as being.
Anyway, Evelyn contacted me and we started – some years ago now – discussions about how text might be combined with music and dance to tell the story of The Loves of Mars and Venus, the first English ballet. As the main achievement of Weaver’s ballet was to tell a story in dance, music and mime without words, it was not always obvious what a playwright could bring to the project.
One of our first notions was to precede a full performance of the full ballet, some forty minutes long, with a one act play abut Hester Santlow, who played Venus, and was also known for her Harlequin Woman dance, of which a famous portrait exists. Moira Goff’s excellent biography assembles all the known information about Hester and her fascinating theatre career. But there was a snag from a dramatist’s point of view. Hester comes across a sane, untemperamental hard-working professional who ended her life comfortably off, surrounded by adoring grandchildren. I’m sorry but nice people like that don’t make good drama. If only she stabbed a rival to death on the stage or caused a constitutional crisis by secretly marrying the Prince of Wales we might have been in business.
But in any case, the project had moved on. It became clear that the resources would not be there to recreate the full ballet with its chorus of attendants on Mars, attendants on Venus and chorus of Cyclopses working in Vulcan’s forge. So we had only three actor/ dancers to tell the story and perform the ballet. There was also another aspect about which I felt strongly. If like me, you’re not accustomed to the conventions of baroque dance then forty minutes of it without explanation or introduction might be a tough call. So I wanted to include in the piece scenes in which dances and gestures were worked on by the dancers and choreographer so we would get some insight into how the conventions worked, gradually learning about them as the piece progressed. I also felt it would be helpful to evoke in some way, the boisterous atmosphere of Drury Lane Theatre in 1717 when nobody sat in polite silence.
It all lead to the structure we have in the piece you’re seeing today. Our narrator is John Weaver, the creator of the ballet and the story is the story of how the ballet came into being, drawing on his writings on the subject, It’s not a piece about his life as such although John Weaver was hardly a dull man. He was clearly feisty and determined and he lived to a ripe old age with the last of his four wives, all of them having been considerably younger than him. He must have had something.
Well, there’s a point in the play, however, when the words must cease and the performance of the ballet must take over. Which, I think, is a good cue for me to stop talking.