I’m sorely tempted, I really am. The wicked little
demon sitting on my left shoulder is doing its little tank because I’m
not going make this CD an excuse to launch a tirade against the wilder
excesses of Political Correctness. Oh, I could if I wanted to - after
all, it’s arguable that PC was born out of women’s suffrage, and this
cantata is about Emmeline Pankhurst and her two daughters, Christabel
and Sylvia - but I won’t because they were "then", and PC
came much later. I can’t resist one sly little dig, though. You’d have
thought that, by now, one of today’s growing legion of women composers
would have grabbed this subject with both hands. How come, then, it’s
actually (dare I say?) a mere man who is first out of the blocks?
According to the account given in the booklet (which
appears to have been written by the composer), in the beginning was
the word, and the word was that "all women should have the vote",
a precept which inspired and united mother and daughters. I suppose
that it would have been easy enough for David Bedford to celebrate this:
small beginning, mighty struggle, and triumphant conclusion. However,
he opted instead to focus on the developing divergences that eroded
and finally sundered the women’s initially close bond, and in so doing
found a far more fruitful musical pasture.
The opening March of the W.S.P.U. (Women’s Social
and Political Union), sounding more than a little like that Choral-Society-For-All-Causes
in the Gershwins’ Strike Up The Band, sets the scene in a blaze
of untrammelled affirmation, Emmeline (Jacqueline Barron) proclaiming
her daughters as ideal leaders of the Cause, and elder daughter Christabel
(Mary Wiegold) dedicating herself unswervingly thereto. Such is the
fervour of the moment that full import of the words of Sylvia (Evelyn
Tubb) almost eludes the listener - she is just as fervent, but sings
of "justice" momentarily in rather more general terms, a very
neat bit of work by lyricist Allison Powell.
In the second scene, Sylvia Visits Christabel in
Paris, the sheen comes off the daughters’ relationship in a big
way. Christabel had scuttled off to Paris to avoid arrest and imprisonment,
which was supposed to be one of the Cause’s main weapons. Christabel
counters Sylvia’s indignation by arguing that she "cannot lead
from a prison cell", holding that the disgusting conditions and
force-feeding of hunger strikers are for martyrs and the common soldiery
rather than the officer class (who clearly can lead the battle just
as effectively from the comfort and safety of a Paris dress-shop). Bedford
underpins the rift by counterposing a dizzy waltz for "Christabel
in Paris" with righteous operatic recitative for "Sylvia from
London", contrasted materials which nevertheless fit together like
glove and hand when the moment comes.
Violent loud chords burst in, solemnising the march
theme (a leitmotif for The Cause): over a churning abyss of sound,
Lament for the Martyrs lists the sufferings of several women,
a grim reminder of how extraordinarily brave they were, regardless of
whether you agree with their methods (I’ll tell you what, though, these
days the authorities would never get away with what they did.
back then!). Significantly, the list ends with Emmeline and Sylvia,
but no mention of Christabel, the general who leads from the rear.
The Letter Trio illuminates the serious rift
developing between her mother, her sister and Sylvia, who is diversifying
into the rights of the disadvantaged. Her elders disapproved, ostensibly
because they thought it diluted Sylvia’s dedication to The Cause - and
after what we learnt in the previous two scenes, we can understand the
friction this must have wrought! However, it’s worse than that. The
patter-song of those who might be petitioned reveals them all to be
influential dignitaries, whilst Sylvia’s desperate song reveals her
commitment to the plight of the poor: the divide is also between political
Right and Left.
The Outbreak of the Great War drives a terminal
wedge into the damaged relationship. Counterposing the protagonists
in the same way as the Letter Trio, this brief scene shows Emmeline
and Christabel right up there with the "Your Country Needs YOU!"
brigade, and Sylvia appalled at the prospect, not only of the unimaginable
suffering it will bring, but also because now it seems that the others
are "diversifying". The nevertheless regretful severance leads
directly into the final scene, Sylvia Looks Back on the Past.
Her sad soliloquy veers from bitter realisation that, for her right-wing
mother and sister, "Votes for Women really meant Votes for Ladies",
to aching regret at the loss of what they originally shared: the words
"Something so good should never end" are repeated endlessly,
receding into the distance.
The music - which is tonal, tuneful, tough and tender
- and the words - which pack a lot, in terms of poetry, import and punch
- together forge an image of powerful and impressive immediacy. The
libretto is not printed in the CD booklet, which I for one found unfortunate
as, while I can hear most of the words, some phrases are totally opaque
to my ears. Maybe your ears will fare rather better, but it seems a
bit penny-pinching and you have to listen to the work a couple of times
to be sure who’s saying what!
Regarding the music, the composer says, though regrettably
again not in the CD booklet, "For the accompanying tape, I created
an 'orchestra' containing various sounds which I imagined might have
been common at the time: a mixture of Salvation Army, brass band and
music hall elements. This was the popular music of the day and as an
analogue to that the accompanying music also contains elements of modern
popular music". This brings tumbling in head over heels several
problems which I can sum up in one word: why?
Why, for instance, is there any need for that "analogue"?
Sure, this might elicit a feeling of "relevance to today".
Or, rather, it might for you, but it doesn’t for me - all I get is a
feeling of anachronism, disrupting a narrative which is very, very much
of its time. Why did the composer feel the need to "create an ‘orchestra’"
using a synthesiser, another anachronistic element? I wouldn’t have
minded so much if it had been particularly convincing but, and here
I’m being fairly generous, the Paris waltz and some trumpety sounds
apart it all sounds like nothing more than an electronic organ and a
drum-kit. While we’re at it, why not actually use an electronic organ
and a drum-kit, played "live" so to speak? More to the point,
why not go for a degree of authenticity demanded by the subject matter,
use some real instruments, something on the lines of a beefed-up palm
court orchestra? Above all, why do I get this impression of a ha’porth
of tar being saved: surely a composer of David Bedford’s standing could
have rustled up a few mates to make a real band for the recording?
The recording, ah, yes! Well, it sounds OK, as far
as it goes. The ladies’ voices (let’s be thankful that they weren’t
synthesised!) come across admirably, but there is no acoustic space
around them. I get the feeling that the "backing track" has
never seen the light of day, that it went straight from the tape machine
to the mixer, and from there straight to the singers’ headphones. In
the music, by which I mean the substance of the music, Bedford
seems to some slight degree to be drawing on the model of Mahler’s Das
Lied von der Erde, certainly as far as the aggression of the opening
song and the lingering fading away of the last song are concerned. However,
where Mahler engineered his effect through subtle manipulation of his
forces, here it’s more like an electronic version of that door closing
at the end of Holst’s Planets Suite, or the faded fag ends of
countless "pop" ditties since the late 1950s. When the music
and the voice fade towards the horizon, we aren’t left in an empty room,
but in a blank one.
Which brings me to those three ladies. I have but one
(more?) cavil. Actually, it’s two, but they happen at the same time!
In the closing repetitions of "Something so good should never end",
Evelyn Tubb keeps putting in some of those little yodellings that seem
to pass for ad lib grace notes in the world of the modern pop
diva. Bad move? I think so, as it interrupts the (surely intended) mesmeric
effect. The other possible bad move is a rare slip of the pen by Allison
Powell, putting the words "never" and "end" together.
Either they come out as "neve - Rend", or (as here) they come
out sounding like the singer is trying to avoid singing "neve-Rend"!
But, I said these were cavils, and they are cavils. All three of them
have lovely voices, dig into their roles like troopers, and deliver
utterly convincing performances alive to every last nuance of both words
and music - no emotional stone (and there are plenty of those here!)
is left unturned. Let me tell you something else: too many female singers
turn me right off with their wobbly tops (vocally speaking, at any rate!),
but here the dreaded vibrato is kept entirely within reasonable
You might have noticed the running time: 26 minutes
is hardly packing in the binary digits, is it? This is very much a recording
of a piece of music, rather than a CD that contains a programme. You
would (well, I would!) expect it to be priced accordingly. Go
to amazon.com, and they’ll quote you £11.99, which pans out at, as near
as dammit, full price. For that sort of money, they could probably
have hired a band, and a wonderful piece of musical drama could
have also been a wonderful piece of music.