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It was at the Admiralty that I first heard, from Boyd Neel, of another opera composer, younger than myself, named Benjamin Britten. He had written an opera known as Peter Grimes which was due for performance at the end of the War, to celebrate the return of the Sadler’s Wells Company to their theatre.

When I first heard Peter Grimes I felt I had better shut up shop. I could not write anything as brilliant as that. But I’m glad I kept going for, as it turned out, Britten produced a series of operas after Peter Grimes that fell short of the first promise, and I began to feel confident in what I could do as something quite different.

Actually I had my first production of an opera not long after the advent of Peter Grimes. It was not on as grand a scale of course and was produced at the St. Pancras Town Hall rather than so fine a place as the Wells but it was a production of a new English opera none the less and one to which many distinguished people came, including Vaughan Williams.

Geoffrey Corbett
(drawing by  Ismantovich 1980)

Geoffrey Corbett had introduced me to the Workers Music Association, whose secretary, Will Sahnow, I got on with immediately. I was not a communist as most members of the Society were, and they seemed to want an opera for their WMA Opera Group which I think they had recently founded and Alan Bush who was their leading composer did not seem to want the opportunity. He did later write several operas. When Geoffrey suggested to Will Sahnow that I might be the man I did not think twice about it. A real opera production was being offered me. I fancy I suggested The Partisans, a subject, which was thrilling everybody at the time. I had often spent holidays in the mountains, although I was a man of the sea. We were all fascinated by Marshal Tito who managed to keep Serbs and Croats and Bosnians from killing each other. If only we had a Marshal Tito today! Our own forces seem quite unable to keep them apart. It was a marvellous opportunity at the time. So we were all agreed and I set to work to plan a libretto that I could show them.

We are with a Partisan group living rough in the mountains. The Chief has just received a message from the Marshal ordering them to derail a train and take control of its supplies and arms, that will be passing through a certain valley at a certain time. The Chorus leave on this expedition appearing to go downhill.

The Chief and a few look-outs remain behind. The Chief sings of his love of the mountains, whom he personifies.

"Mountain, you who are higher than I,

Mountain, you that have the further view,

What has become of the men that adorn us,

Where have they flown that are in our hollows?"

The Chief is a "man of the hills" and does not look forward to the time when the lads will want to go back to the "mangy plains"! He enjoys life high up in the mountains.

There is a sudden "Halt! Who goes there?" It is Michael with his girl, Tanya, who has come to join the partisans. He has come rather than be sent as a slave worker in an enemy factory. Tanya cannot stay although she would like to do so because she feels she cannot leave her old ailing Mother to the mercies of the enemy who are still in control of the plain. There is an impassioned duet between the two lovers in which Michael (the tenor), tries to persuade Tanya (the soprano) to join the band with him, but Tanya remains faithful to her old Mother and tears herself away from her lover.

When she has gone, the Chief puts Michael through the initiation ceremony into the ranks of the Partisans. "If you are wounded beyond recovery, will you accept death at the hands of your friends rather than fall into the hands of the enemy?" etc.

The Chorus are now heard returning jubilant at the success of their venture:

"Mountain violet, violet so white,

Flower of freedom, flower of delight,

Mountain violet, violet so blue,

Our strength we dedicate to you."

As they enter they form themselves into a crocodile and enact the scene of the derailment. They are expecting reprisals, but for the moment they are determined to celebrate their victory with dance and song. However at the height of their merriment Michael sees a red glow in the valley below and fears this may mean some reprisal to the village in the plain where his Tanya is living. He rushes to the rescue followed by the other Partisans when they realise what is happening.

The Second Scene is supposed to take place next morning. The Partisans are returning to their haunt in the mountains, depressed by what has been happening in the plain. Among them is Michael who has been wounded quite seriously. He has failed to find his Tanya and fears she may have been killed or violated in the attack on the village. Gradually he becomes more and more delirious and hears the voices of the mountains as in the Chief’s song at the beginning of the opera.

"Mountain, you that are higher than I,

Mountain, you that have the further view,

What has become of the men that adorned us?

Where have they gone that lived in our hollows?"

Tanya enters. She has escaped the burning of the village, through being too late on her way down and through stopping to gather some crab-apples that she found on her way the day before.

Michael is overjoyed to see her, but sadly she is too late to save him and he dies in her arms.

So the opera ends tragically for the individuals but in a great scene of triumph for the general cause. The allied army is arriving in the plain below, with reinforcements and with strong air support.

"In and out of the mists,

In and out of the haze

The silver shining bombers

And the midget fighters

Dancing among them …"

I remember how proud I was that I was the first composer (so far as I know) to suggest in musical form the effect of a great air lift arriving to support the beleaguered troops below. I remember being very proud of this air music, though I can’t remember any longer what form it took.

So the opera ends on a note of triumph and genuine applause from those who came to the first performance. Such was the triumph at the St. Pancras Town Hall that night that I remember everyone saying that it would soon be heard again - perhaps at the Sadlers Wells Theatre.

But such prognostications were never fulfilled. There were some follow-up performances, to which my faithful friend, Gladys Ritchie and myself went hopeful - one at Cross Hands, Llanelly, where hardy miners did their best, but a guiding hand, like that of Geoffrey Corbett was painfully lacking. The other performance was at Bourneville where it was done with Pagliacci. All I can remember is Dame Cadbury taking the stage at the end to distribute the prizes. Needless to say there was nothing for Leoncavallo or myself.

By that time the smudge had started - that it was a piece of communist propaganda, which was quite untrue. Agreed that most of the W.M.A. Singers were communists, and the W.M.A. had organised the whole production and Rutland Boughton and A.L. Lloyd had written in support of it, but I, who was the author of the libretto and the music, was so innocent that I did not even know when writing the words that the red star was the badge of the communist. When one of the chorus turned up on the stage (to the laughter of all the others) with an enormous red star covering his whole breast he cannot have realised what a lot of harm he was doing to the cause. The singer who took the part of Michael was my friend Aylwyn Best who had sung the part of Telemachus in The Return of Odysseus. It is doubtful whether Bruce Dargavel, who sang the Chief, was a communist. Moreover a number of people who swelled the chorus were friends of people that had taken part in recent week-end courses organised by the Admiralty. So long did the smudge last that a quarter of a century later my wife was told that she was marrying a communist!

So what was actually one of my greatest triumphs turned out to be one of my worst liabilities!

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