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To Sir Donald Francis Tovey (1875–1940) by Peter R. Shore
Tovey's 'The Bride of Dionysus'
A dream come true - Peter R. Shore

Synopsis with musical examples

The orchestra quietly begins the solemn prelude (Andante maestoso) in the key of D major in the cellos and Violas on a ground bass. Ex. 1. Much of the music of the prelude is later to be heard in act III. For example the ground bass at the opening of the prelude is harmonized when set to the words 'That God whom unknown so long' in act III.

The music of the prelude anticipates the final hymn to Dionysus in act III, where it is used without harmonies at the moment Dionysus sets his thyrsus in Ariadne's hand. A variation in the minor will later be important in the major in act III. Later manipulations allude to the sound of the pan pipes, and to the tangle of ivy and vine which entrap Ariadne in her dream the night she is deserted. Ariadne 's own first theme (see example 10) joins the polyphony of the prelude and foreshadows the setting of 'Blessed art thou, 0 bride divine' at the end of the opera. The prelude reaches a climax in three fortissimo chords which thunder out from the whole orchestra. A Coda follows in which the last four notes of the ground bass are harmonized with chords (Figure b) which mark the moment when Dionysus guides events. 'With thee, 0 Dionysus, thee the world's life, the world's glory' (Figure c).

The remaining notes of the ground bass (Figure a) are compressed in to a theme, here played by a solo violin, to be associated with justice as divine and living in the pure and gentle heart.

(Figure a) Yet art thou, too divine.
(Figure d) Where, where is thy dwelling.
The music of the prelude quietens to almost a whisper and moves into a minor key (F sharp minor), and a drum rolls ominously as the curtain rises on the stage action.

On a royal ship outside the harbour of Knossus, King Minos (Bass) waits with his daughters Ariadne (Soprano) and Phaedra (Contralto), heralds, warriors and courtiers the arrival of the black ship from Athens bearing the yearly sacrifice of six young men and seven maidens for the Minotaur (the body of a man but with the head of a bull). The song of the Athenian victims (Ex. 4) is heard faintly bemoaning their fate accompanied by low tremulo strings and low woodwind. The chorus in different forms (Athenians, Cretans, Nereids,. Satyrs etc.) play almost as important a role as the main characters in the opera, The chorus is not only an important part of the action but comments on it in the style of a chorus in an ancient Greek drama.

Their only hope is in the pain of death (Ex.5) which is followed by a motive, played in the brass section which introduces Minos and is associated with his lust for revenge.

Minos sings of the ship of doom bringing the Athenian victims, the retribution for the killing of his son Adrogeos by Athens. He is accompanied in the orchestra by Ex. 6. Tovey's technique under much of the singing by the main characters is to keep the dynamics of the orchestra lower than the singers or use reduced orchestral forces. Tovey brings the orchestra to the forefront between the singing to add an emotional or dramatic point. He even uses sections of his orchestra as a continuo in recitative passages which are reminiscent of an opera tradition which precedes Wagner. But Tovey puts his drama on a similar timescale as Wagner using recapitulation and the development of his themes in order for them to grow into fixed relation with dramatic elements, personal, psychological and accidental.

The Cretan Heralds depart for the Athenian ship as a trumpet call sounds.

The chorus of the Athenian victims is heard, now much nearer. (Ex. 8 & 9)

Ariadne is touched by the Athenian's song and begs Minos to spare them. Example 10 has already been heard in the Prelude.

Minos angrily reminds Ariadne that the Athenians had murdered her brother.

Ariadne is aware of the fear on board the Athenian ship. The tempo changes from Andante to Vivace, ma non troppo Presto and Ariadne is accompanied in the bass by the captives theme 'Hope only thy death's pain' from Ex. 5. She sees that one man, Theseus (Tenor) is standing fearless and proud.

When the ships close, Theseus kills one of the Cretan guards, then with a bloody sword in his hand he leads his fellow Athenians to Minos. Theseus entry is announced by the whole orchestra in a loud fanfare (Ex.12) which rapidly subsides into a low unison tone in the clarinets and bassoons which is then accompanied by low tremulo strings. Minos demands to know who he is. Theseus replies that he is the son of Poseidon the God of the Sea (Ex. 13, 14 & 15).

In a chorus, the Athenian victims appeal for justice of which EX. 16 is a central theme.

Minos calls upon his father Zeus to support his kinship with a thunderbolt. Phaedra and Theseus gaze at one another, and Theseus seems lost to his surroundings. The counterpoint in Example 17 underlines the growing attraction between them and the magic spell that Phaedra will cast in order to make Theseus hers in act III.

There is a flash of thunder and lightning and Theseus drops his sword. Minos takes a gold ring from. his finger and flings it in the sea, saying that if Theseus is really the son of Poseidon he must retreive it. Theseus leaps into the water. The Athenian victims curse the gods with music which as the opera proceeds will represent injustice (Ex. 18, 19 & 20).

Minos orders his ship's sails to be set for home and the victims bound. The Athenians continue to pray that they, as comrades of 'glad birds of the sea', may find peace and tranquility, 'lazily gliding over the blue calms of the sea' (Ex. 21)

Ariadne and Phaedra point excitedly towards the sea. Theseus is disclosed dressed in a rich purple mantle, and crowned with a wreath of gold entwined with dark roses (Ex. 22).

The Athenians are filled with wild excitement and a running motif ~x. 23) is heard that will be used several times later in the opera.

A chorus of Nereids, the marine nymphs of the Mediterranean, escort Theseus and bid him farewell (Ex. 24).

Minos is unmoved by appeals from Ariadne and Phaedra. The ship has reached the landing place. Minos points out the labyrinth where death from the Minotaur awaits Theseus and the Athenians. The music is derived from Ex. 25. As all leave the ship in procession Ex. 5 thunders out from the orchestra followed by Ex. 6 as the curtain falls.


The Prelude (Andante).begins with a dirge-like theme (Ex. 26) played in the flutes accompanied by the bassoons and joined by tremulo muted strings, through which a drum beats a slow fitful rhythm.

This music leads to a passage related to Phaedra as a weaver of spells (Ex. 27).

The curtain rises on a room in Minos palace. The strings introduce the scene with a theme reminiscent of the first bar of example 3 (a). The dirge (Ex 26) with the second note as a D natural is heard as Theseus paces restlessly, wearing his purple mantle and crowned with a wreath. He sings of his love for Phaedra and his purpose in coming to Knossus.

Ariadne and Phaedra enter.
A motif (Ex. 31), which is a transformation of example 10, suggests Ariadne's dignity and embarrassment about her mission.

Ariadne tells Theseus that Minos does not wish to harm him because he is the son of Poseidon, but his compatriots must be sacrificed to the Minotaur. Theseus vigorously refuses the offer. The Athenians cry out off stage and Ariadne goes to them briefly to comfort them. Theseus gives his wreath to Phaedra. Ariadne returns and she and her sister sing of their love for Theseus before leaving. Theseus sleeps and wakes to find one of the sisters has returned. He mistakes Ariadne initially for Phaedra. She offers help in guiding him in the labyrinth, and will provide him with a sword. The orchestra plays example 32.

The curtain falls.

There is now a superb orchestral interlude (allegro energico) in sonata form using heroic themes. First there is Ex. 22 (in E flat), followed by a considerable development of the running figure Ex. 23. A fortissimo counterstatement leads, in classical sonata style to the dominant. The very extensive group which m sonata form would be called the 'second subject' begins (in B flat) with a version of the Nereids chorus, Ex.24. As in the original
Nereid's chorus the figure of divine justice (Ex. 3 (a)) is present. It also accompanies a new theme (Ex. 33) which will afterwards form (without that accompaniment) the music associated with Theseus attraction to Ariadne.

A theme (Ex. 34) associated with the Nereids and the forces of nature is introduced.

Other material includes the theme of Ariadne's innocence (Ex. 35)

And evoking her distress and agitation (Ex. 36).

The curtain rises on the labyrinth with a distant trumpet call (Ex. 7) in Andante maestoso tempo. The tempo changes to Allegro and example 37 is heard in the cellos and basses.

Watched by Mimos, the Athenian captives, dressed in black, are forced into the labyrinth. Minos reminds Theseus of his fate. Theseus mocks him. Minos startled withdraws. The Athenians begin to cry out in terror. Ariadne brings Theseus a sword and leads the Athenians out by the secret way she entered.

An orchestral interlude opening with example 23 describes the killing of the Minotaur
By Theseus. The body of the Minotaur is discovered by appalled Cretan warriors while
Theseus makes his escape through the labyrinth accompanied by Ex. 37, Ex. 22 and Ex. 32.
The scene changes to a cavern looking out to a background of moonlit sea and shore. Phaedra, opening with a transformation of example 19, calls on Aphrodite to cast a spell on the heart of Theseus. The Atheneians are still fearful of what has happened in the labyrinth. A triumphant Theseus orders them to embark for home. Ariadne and Theseus sing of their love. Phaedra, who has been hiding in a dark recess of the cavern, appears and appeals to them not to leave her in Crete as she fears she will. be slain by Minos when their escape is discovered. All three set sail for Athens as Cretan trumpets sound the alarm from within. the labyrinth.


The seashore of Naxos. Phaedra wears the wreath Theseus gave her. She is occupied with casting a spell to make Theseus hers accompanied by example 27. The orchestra opens passionately in Allegretto tempo with a theme built from the first three notes of example 28. A flickering fire in a small brazier is illustrated by harp glissandos. Theseus enters, as if in a trance.
The Nereids try to waken Theseus from his trance (Ex.38)

But Phaedra's hold on Theseus is so complete that she leads him off to the Athenian ship. Maenads (frenzied Bacchantes) dance wildly on the stage (Ex. 39)

Their bacchanal is arrested by the voice of Dionysus (Bass) calling them. They follow the voice. In the distance Theseus' ship is glimpsed in the twilight. The Athenians sing as in example 21. There is the echo of the lament of the Nereids (Ex. 24) and the curtain falls on a brief orchestral interlude (Poco Allegreto) which forshadows later music (Ex. 40)

The curtain rises and the orchestra imitates the pan pipes played by the Satyr Chromis (Tenor) (Ex. 41).

Ariadne appears looking for Theseus, the music weaves themes Ex. 34 and 35. Her feet are entangled and she is frightened. A serpent stings her (Ex. 42).

The sting fills Ariadne with a strange rapture (Ex. 43).

She catches sight of the departing Athenian ship and realizes that she has been abandoned by Theseus. In despair, she prepares to throw herself over the clifftop into the sea.
Dionysus calls to her. He claims her as a Maenad. The light increases and satyrs and maenads fill the stage. Dionysus sings and Ariadne is revealed in the dress of a Bacchante. Dionysus takes Ariadne for his bride. The chorus sings a fugue to the words 'Child of earth and starry heaven, for thee his wine Dionysus poureth forth from life's true vine'.

The opera ends with transformations of Ariadne's music Ex. 35 and 42 then of Ex.2 and 1. The curtain falls on quiet music the theme (Ex. 3) played on a solo violin. The final chord is D major which is the same key in which the opera started.

Peter Shore 2010

See also

Sir Donald Francis Tovey (1875–1940) by Peter R. Shore

Tovey's 'The Bride of Dionysus' A dream come true - Peter R. Shore



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