Music Webmaster: L.Mullenger@coventry.ac.uk Mullenger
THE LONDON-CORNISH, HARRY POWELL LLOYD AND MY SIXTH OPERA
THE TINNERS OF CORNWALL
When I was a boy I remember noticing in my fathers library an old book by Borlase which had a glossary of Cornish words at the end. I remember making a note of this and returning to it whenever I needed something exotic in the way of vocabulary. I little realised that at this very time the Cornish language was being revived or that I myself would one day take part in this revival. My father who represented the Cornish side in our family had been so hostile to music (not because he was unmusical, but because he wanted me to follow a legal career) that I had grown up thinking of Cornwall as an enemy. Now I was going to be undeceived. This and my friendship with Peter Crossley-Holland for whom everything Celtic was sacred, leading me towards Cornwall for my next opera subject. I read a book called "The Cornish Miner" and went on a walking tour down the North coast from Devon, ending at Carbis Bay where I stayed with the Leaches. Elizabeth, the youngest sister of my Oxford friend, Sam Facey, had married David Leach, the potter son of the great Bernard Leach, who I had the pleasure of meeting on this occasion. They also introduced me to Morton Nance, who was then Grand Bard of Cornwall and it was through him that I myself became a bard of Cornwall.
I had already become a member of the London-Cornish, and when I approached them for assistance in the production of my Cornish opera they responded most generously, not only with financial assistance but with personnel. Some helped on the stage, others gave valuable assistance in the organisation. I had never had such valuable assistance in my opera productions before.
I had engaged Harry Powell Lloyd to act as producer, and he wanted to do the setting as was his custom, but he had never been to Cornwall although he was very much Celt, being half Welsh and half Irish.
Realising that I could help him by showing him the contours of a Cornish engine-house gave me the excuse to give way to an urge I had long wanted to follow. My mother who had been an artist, had left a beautiful box of pastels practically unused which I had looked at enviously but often pushed aside, as I was afraid I was trying to do too many different things. Now there was an excuse and I could not resist the chance of using these pastels to help Harry design his set for my opera. It was my undoing. Henceforth I was to become not only a writer and composer but a pastel-painter as well.
I brought back to Harry some pastels of Cornish engine-houses which helped him to finish his designs. I still have a little toy theatre which is his design for the production of my opera. How beautiful it looked up in the Rudolf Steiner Hall. But Harry is a perfectionist and realised that it still needed some black tabs in the background to show up the whole picture. He could not help moaning about these black tabs whenever he looked at the setting when rehearsing. Two friends of his who were really helping with another production that they were all working on at the same time nearby decided to borrow some black tabs from this other production and put them up when Harry was out lunching. They succeeded in doing this before Harry could return and closed the curtains.
When Harry returned, with his usual bored look, they suddenly drew the curtain to display the black tabs in their place as he had wanted. The smile on his face was as beautiful as the moan was tragic. Where these black tabs came from I never discovered. Nor did we seem to have to pay for them. But they certainly seemed to make a great difference to the setting.
Production photographs here
The Tinners takes place at the end of the Eighteenth Century when tin-mining in Cornwall was at the height of its prosperity but always subject to sudden upheavals and misfortunes. We are at Wheal Fortune ("Wheal" being the Cornish for "works") and there is a chorus of "bal-maidens" ("bal" being the Cornish for "mine"), with their attractive aprons and bonnets. A new engine drawing up water from the depths of the earth (so that the mining can be carried on unimpeded) is being "christened" and Capn Bry (whose job it is to do the "christening") doesnt see why a bottle of real port wine should be wasted when a bottle of coloured water would suit the purpose equally well. The engine-house is at the back of stage and in the right foreground is a farm gate where David Curnow, a young tinner, is anxiously awaiting his Clovina Tonkin to appear with her father, Farmer Tonkin who, he knows, is bringing her to witness the ceremony. Old Mr. Curnow and Mrs. Curnow, Davids father and mother have come and the Chorus are assembling. But when all is ready for the ceremony and the crowd have gathered in excited anticipation the new engine suddenly falters and comes to a halt. A talkative busybody tinner, whose name is Buzza knows, of course, what the trouble is. He has been on his hands and knees and licked up some of the liquor which was only coloured water. He reminds the crowd of what has happened at another mine, Wheal Talek, where the same had happened.
Capn Bry, though regretting what he had done, enjoys telling Buzza that red ink is poison.
"Poison? I do begin to feel fine an weak!"
Take a medick, man." Capn Bry shouts after him.
The stage is left to Clovina and David. David thinks it is perhaps a good moment to approach Farmer Tonkin, But Clovina who knows her father better, does not agree. David feels in his pocket for a beautiful Cornish diamond that he has found in the mine and gives it to Clovina.
But when in his enthusiasm David asks for Clovinas hand from her father who appears in conversation with Capn Bry he finds himself roughly rejected. "My daughters marryan no tinner. That I can truly say." This leads to a quartet, at the end of which the two tinners are completely distracted by the engine starting up again. Tonkin seizes Clovina by the hand and carries her off through the farm gate, and by the time David has looked for her has completely disappeared. The crowd returns, all smiles, and the celebration continues.
Scene Two is in the early morning several days later. Bells are ringing denoting the change of coor (shift). Clovina comes to the farm gate, on the look-out for her lover. She sings of the beauty of the morning.
Soon her lover joins her on his way to work.
"Cheel vean" he replies in a voluptuous song.
"Cheel vean", literally "little child" is a term of endearment. He also uses the Manx expression "ben-ma-chree" which is known in Cornwall.
Tonkin comes after her. "Get this boy from your mind."
She asks him why he is so against the tinner, even now when he has become one of the venturers himself.
He tells her. They are always polluting the rivers and the springs, even turning the blue sea red as wine. Has she noticed their children looking so wisht and ragged? They are old men at forty. Has she noticed David Curnows father "Why, hes younger than me. But hes an uld man at 43." When she was at school, did they make her go round Britain naming the islands? Was there one just north of Wales? Ah, Anglesey. Well, the Lord planted any amount of copper there, which has only just been discovered. He is on his way to a meeting of the Venturers and chief persons of the mine to discuss its future in view of this discovery of mass copper in Anglesey.
He goes off joined by several others including Capn Bry. Clovina also disappears. The Bal-maidens come to do their surface work on the stage armed with sieves and other implements of sifting:
Before the Bal-maidens have finished, Capn Bry and Tonkin come down stage. "I tell ee, close the mine." - "Knack the bal?" answers Capn Bry in dismay. "Have ee no thought for the tinners?" Tonkin goes. All the patriotism floods out from Capn Bry:
Some tinners bring in a slab of white tin shining like silver and hoist it like a banner
So Act I ends in triumph and enthusiasm. The toe of Britain - Cornwall was supplying the rest of the world with tin while the rest of Britain was still wild and savage.
But Act II reveals the tragic side as well as the triumphant. It starts in the depths of the earth where David and his father are working.
"Touch pipe," says the old man, meaning to take a moment off.
David asks his father whether he ever saw "the knackers", meaning the spirits of the old Jews who were said to work the mines centuries ago and are still haunting the mines.
Curnow describes how he once saw them and how they led him to a particularly rich discovery.
Capn Bry visits them on his rounds and Curnow feels that he cant do more, so joins the Capn as he passes on., but points out a possible fall of ground as they leave and the Capn says he will send the binder down in the morning.
David volunteers to continue working to show that wretched farmer that a tinner can "cut rich."
So David continues working alone for a while, but before long the possible fall of land that his father had foreseen occurs trapping David in the place where he is working, with nothing but a few candles left. He tries to call out but there is no answer.
Scene 2 is in the Curnows home. Curnow is resting on a bed. Mrs. Curnow is worried that her son has not returned, and Clovina, who now appears, is also worried, but Curnow tries to put their minds at rest.
Capn Bry, who also turns up, tries to reassure them. -
But Curnow suddenly remembers the likely fall of ground. Still Capn Bry reassures them. He has sent Buzza down the mine to report back if there is any fall of ground, which Buzza soon does.
Capn Bry immediately leaves them and Curnow tries to follow him, pushing his way past his wife, who tries to stop him.
"Ill not trust anyone else to dig my son out dead or alive, even if I do it with my last breath. Make way!"
The two women are left alone. It becomes evident that there is no love lost between them.
"Tell your father that he was right. You see now what it is like to be the wife of a tinner!"
Scene 3 starts in a very eerie way, being largely in darkness. We are back in the mine where David had been trapped. He had asked his father about the "knackers", and now we see him groping his way among the "knackers" who answer him every now and then with their "Tee-hee-hee". It is not clear whether this is real or only a dream, for when rescue comes David is found lying asleep.
At last lights are seen descending one after the other, with Capn Bry and Curnow in the forefront.
"He is here - alive and asleep." - "Thank God" "Give un air!" they shout in succession as they pass him up the channel of lights.
There is a kind of vocal interlude between scenes 3 and 4, in which the Tinners sing their triumph in bringing David back alive to his Mother and Clovina.
But just as they do so, the sad sound of the burying tune is heard behind scene and Capn Bry enters with the dead Curnow on a stretcher.
Act III which is several months later starts with a meeting of the Owners in the engine-house with Buzza snooping at the key-hole. The Bal-maidens and Mrs. Curnow have come to do their washing at the mine. Where else should they find hot water?
As the Bal-maidens leave, Mrs. Curnow stays behind, seeing Buzza snooping at the key-hole of the engine-house.
"Well, Elisha Buzza? No good news, I suppose, for youre a Jeremiah."
Youre a prophet of evil days."
"That s right. Blame poor Buzza who only lets you down. The price of tin has fallen again, fallen so low But heres another bit of news. The engine-makers, Boulton and Watt, are claiman their premiums. Got to be paid up. "
At this point, David rushes in triumphantly, fresh from the mine.
"Mother, Ive made a sturt. Seean the "knackers" was no dream. Theyve led me to a voog, and now Im cuttan rich. Our ships come home at last "
But the purser and the venturers emerge from the engine house, and the tinners gather to hear the news.
"It grieves me much to tell you
The Tinners are stunned by the news, Gradually their reactions surface.
Clovina comes to tell David what she thinks is good news. Her father will give him work on the farm. But she has forgotten that "the tinner was a freeman when the ploughboy was a serf." It is "infra dig" for a tinner to accept work from a farmer. However, David bottles his pride.
The other tinners have already formed themselves into gangs to watch movements on the farm.
Aware of this, to Clovinas dismay, Tonkin gives David his first job to cry "A wreck!" and lure the tinners down to the cove while the farmer can get his corn on the road to export.
"But they will kill David," exclaims Clovina in dismay.
Tonkin takes no notice of her, and to her surprise David appears to agree. But it is only to turn the ruse on the farmer. David gives the cry "A wreck!" which breaks up the picket, but David takes his friends into hiding, ready to turn on the farmer as soon as he opens his barn-door.
However a dangerous situation is saved by the timely arrival of Capn Bry with the mens last wages, which he thrusts into the farmers hands. Tonkin accepts the money with some demur as it means taking a much lower price for his corn than he might have got from export.
However it solves the immediate problem and the tinners are saved from immediate starvation.
There is a kind of happy coda to the tragedy of the closing mine, which I remember Rutland Boughton thought was a mistake. But I could not bear to leave my characters like that. One comes to love the people one invents, as if they were real friends so I had to leave them in the Cornwall I know so well. Clovina is disgusted with her father for trying to play such a dirty trick on the tinners and gravitates to David in spite of his troubles.
And at that time anyone could mark out a little place on the moors, which might be cultivated, also there were other ways of keeping starvation from the door, for instance by taking to the sea. And so, as Capn Bry reminds them: "The tide do never go out so far, twill never come back again".
A personal trouble came to me at the end of the "Tinners". The wife of one of the artists taking part had volunteered to copy the orchestral parts but at the last moment told me she was unable to do it so I had to sit down and work for hours missing several important rehearsals in order to get the orchestral parts ready in time for the first orchestral rehearsal. It may have been the strain on my eyes on this occasion that led me to suffer from the glaucoma that has dogged me ever since. It was certainly soon after this time that I had to have operations for glaucoma.
|Return to Chapter 14||
Music Front Page