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ROBIN HOOD IN MUSIC

by Philip L. Scowcroft

Historians will argue when, where and even whether, Robin Hood actually existed. To link him in the legend with Richard Coeur de Lion suggests an existence in the late 12th century, but the evidence for an historical Robin is strongest during the first half of the 14th century. The legends were current in medieval England before 1400, though certain aspects including Maid Marian, were accretions from the Tudor and even later periods. Sherwood Forest is inextricably linked with him in the legends, but there are as many references to the area of Yorkshire just north of Doncaster and others to other parts of England. Songs about Robin dated back to medieval times and include Ah Robin (Cornyshe), Robin Hood and the Stranger, Bonny Sweet Robin, Robin Hood and Allan-a-Dale and others to be found even in Scottish sources. Robin Hood and the Curtall Fryer is in Parthenia (1611). It is scarcely surprising that such a major figure in English folklore should appear widely in British music, and especially in opera, or what passed for it in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

The first of these "operas" entitled simply Robin Hood, was produced in 1730, a ballad opera in three acts, one of the first wave of such effusions, which appeared in the wake of The Beggars' Opera. The compiler/arranger is not known. This was followed just twenty years later by Charles Burney's two-act Robin Hood, described as a "new musical entertainment", which took the stage at Drury lane on 13 December 1750. That inveterate compiler of late 18th Century "pasticcio" opera, William Shield produced his Robin Hood, or Sherwood Forest, in 3 acts, at Covent Garden on 17 April 1784, though it seems that, as was usual at that time, some of the music was by hands other than Shield. (It is not clear whether Shield's Marian, premiered at Covent Garden in 1788, represented a return by him to the Sherwood Forest legend). Shield's Robin Hood was performed at least three times in my home town of Doncaster in the late 18th century, appropriately, in view of the local Robin Hood connections mentioned above, and other "operas" on the same theme, compiled by Henry Bishop (Maid Marian, or The Huntress of Arlingford, based on a novel by Thomas Love Peacock and first produced in December 1822: Bishop's glee Bold Robin Hood, popular up to mid-century, may come from this) and by G A Macfarren (Robin Hood, 3 acts, first produced at Her Majesty's Theatre on 11 October 1860) were also seen in Doncaster quite soon after their respective London premieres. Macfarren's opera's popularity is reflected by the dance arrangements Robin Hood Quadrille and Robin Hood Waltz - made from it soon after by the prolific Charles d'Albert.

I know nothing of C M Campbell's (1890-1953) Maid Marian (published 1938), but mention should be made of Robin Hood (1890) and Maid Marian (1901), two operettas by Reginald de Koven (1859-1920). Confusingly, his Robin Hood was entitled Maid Marian when it was first produced in England in 1891. De Koven was an American, but he spent time in England and took a degree at Oxford. He wrote many operettas. Robin Hood, like many of the Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, draws on and parodies grand opera composers such as Rossini and Verdi and includes the popular number O Promise Me which was favoured as a "wedding anthem" for many years; I once had a recording of this on a piano roll, played by the composer. The Merrie Men of Sherwood Forest, by W H Birch, was described as a "pastoral operetta" but when it was performed in Doncaster in 1871 it was in a concert version. A contemporary critic described it as "suggestive of others", but this did not deter the then Doncaster Musical Society from reviving it the following year. It was being rehearsed in Doncaster yet again in 1883 but there is no record of a performance, staged or concert, then. More recently the young Michael Tippett put together in the early 1930s a ballad opera on Robin Hood and in 1938, Robert Chignell (1882-1939) wrote the score for a musical play on Robin Hood which was broadcast. Herbert Bunning (1863-1937) wrote incidental music for a play entitled Robin Hood, produced at the Lyric in 1906, and a concert suite was later extracted from this. Most recently of all (1993), Robin Hood - Prince of Sherwood musical with a score by Lionel Bart, has been staged, though not too successfully, in London.

Robin Hood has been linked with the Ivanhoe Legend. A number of stage presentations, like John Parry's Ivanhoe, or the Knight Templar (1820) came out in the wake of Sir Walter Scott's novel. I have been unable to determine whether any of Robin Hood's band appear in this, but Friar Tuck undoubtedly makes an appearance in Sullivan's Ivanhoe (1891) and is given what is for many of us that opera's best remembered air, the rousing drinking song, Ho Jolly Jenkin.

There are many cantatas and individual songs about Robin Hood. The earliest cantata appeared to be Robin Hood by J L Hatton (1808-1886), performed with success at the Bradford Festival of August 1856, for which it was specially composed, and elsewhere. We may also point to Sherwood's Queen, for SATB voices, by T Mee Pattison, popular among small choral societies early this century (as were Pattison's other cantatas such as The Ancient Mariner and The Gipsy Queen); and to Sherwood (1922), for children's voices by one C M Edmunds (born 1899). Robin Hood appears in Sterndale Bennett's The May Queen, very popular in its day, which lasted until around 1914. Many of the individual Robin Hood songs are folk ballads, unsurprisingly in view of the folk hero style of the legend. Several of these have distinguished arrangers, like Robin Hood and the Bishop of Hereford and Robin Hood and the Pedlar (Ralph Vaughan Williams). Robin Hood Borne on His Bier, for SATB, by E J Moeran and, from the last century, Edward Loder's Robin Hood is Lying Dead and Charles Harford Lloyd's Allan-a-Dale, both solos, appear to be "art songs" rather than folk settings.

I have found comparatively few instrumental items inspired by Robin Hood. Pride of place must be given to Alan Bush's Symphony No 2, sub-titled Nottingham and composed in 1949. One might expect the character of Robin Hood to appeal to Bush's well-advertised sympathies and the first movement of this Symphony is headed Sherwood Forest. It is based on folk songs dating from Robin's time (whichever that was) and the composer has admitted that he had the legends in mind when he wrote the movement. Various films about Robin Hood during the "talkies" era (i.e. after 1928) have all had incidental music, and among them we must pick out the 1938 film with Errol Flynn as Robin Hood - the very first film I ever saw, at the age of five - which had a score by Erich Korngold, the subject of an Academy Award. A Suite from this is available on ASV CD WHL 2069, recorded in 1992. We must also mention Frederic Curzon's Robin Hood Suite, for full or small orchestra, of which at least the stirring March of the Bowmen, its finale, earned a more than passing popularity and may still be heard, sometimes, even today. in concert. During 1992-3 two CD recordings of the whole suite became available, on ASV (number above) and Marco Polo (8.223425), so belated justice is being done to this attractive piece. I find it surprising that Eric Coates, Nottinghamshire born, did not write, for example, a Sherwood Forest Suite. Turning to the brass band world, the British Open Championships have three times used a test piece about Robin Hood; in 1907 this was a selection from Macfarren's 47 year old opera and in 1936 and 1941 it was Henry Geehl's tone poem Robin Hood. This has survived in concert rather less well than Geehl's other major brass band works, Oliver Cromwell and On The Cornish Coast; I have never heard it (as I have the other two), though I live in hopes.

© PLS

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