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WILLIAM LEWARNE HARRIS
AND MY TENTH OPERA THE PRISONER PAUL
We found there was a lovely music-drama on the subject of The Conversion of St Paul in the Fleury Book, which we would much like to perform, but there was nothing to go with it. It could only be performed by itself in a lunch-hour concert as we had given it in 1964 at St Dunstans-in-the-West in the City.
I felt there was plenty of drama in the later life of St Paul, so I set about writing another opera based on this subject, hoping that our Society would some day see fit to perform them together as they finally did at St Pauls, Covent Garden in 1970.
I took the story up from the moment when St Paul decided to go to Jerusalem, though his friends are trying to dissuade him, but he feels he must risk it and not shirk the danger. The prophet Agabus warns him that there is nothing but chains and fetters awaiting him, if he goes.
So his friends finally give him leave and help him on his way, though fearing the worst.
We next see him as already a captive of the Romans, asking to speak to the Jews and attempting to explain his position, but they howled him down as traitor to the Jewish cause.
We next see him in the Roman camp about to be flogged as a means of finding out why the Jews so hate him. We get the famous question: "Is it lawful for you to flog a man who is a Roman and uncondemned?"
An interlude occurs while the soldiers go to inform their commanding officer that Paul is a Roman. A hidden chorus intones the Greek word "Tharsei" (take comfort) and an angelic voice sings words of comfort to Paul, predicting that he is to give evidence in the Christian cause in Cesarea and in Rome.
The Roman centurion, Licius, decides to send Paul to Felix, the Governor, realising that there is a gang of extremists lying in wait for him, plans to send him guarded by night to Caesarea. This gave me two lovely operatic opportunities which I seized on with avidity. The first was to establish a chorus of Fanatics who were bent on destroying Paul at all costs.
What happened in the end to these Fanatics one does not enquire.
In contrast to this I saw that the description of a beautiful journey through the night would be extremely effective. It is one of the Four Daughters of Philip (who act as chorus in this opera) who makes the narration (It was Pamela Lewis in our performances.)
Pamela Lewis was singing and Edgar Gordon gave an impressive solo on the recorder.
The trial before Felix leads to a squabble between the Pharisees and Saducees. Paul had mentioned as one of the pillars of his faith the resurrection of the dead and this immediately brought a retort from the Saducees: "There is no resurrection of the dead" which is immediately countered by the Pharisees: "There is a resurrection of the dead." I saw that this would give me the chance of a double fugue and also an abrupt ending of the trial, for Felix would be sure to clamp down on anything that gave the Jews a chance of airing their pet theories. Paul is called before Felix and his wife, Drusilla, from time to time, and Felix clearly hopes for a bribe to let him go, but hoping to get posted to Rome Paul holds on until a new Governor, Festus is appointed. At an interview before Festus, Agrippa and Berenice, Paul gets the chance of telling the whole story of the Damascus Road, and Agrippa is almost converted, but the blunt Roman, Festus, says "Paul, you are mad. Too much thinking and dreaming has unhinged your brain."
So Paul fails to convert these influential people, but he is successful in winning one of his other objectives. They are almost letting him go free, but he makes the final appeal. "I appeal to Caesar!" This means the journey to Rome.
The Second Act is concerned with his journey to Rome and the fate that awaits him there.
Journeys in the Mediterranean were fraught with dangers in Biblical times. Pauls ship was shipwrecked off the coast of Malta. He had already been nearly cast into the sea by angry sailors who accused him of being a Jonah. But he had survived everything. And now Publius, the chief magistrate of the island took pity on the survivors and offers them a home for three days. He happens to mention that his old father is lying sick of a fever and dysentery, and Julius the centurion immediately tells him about Paul as one with the gift of healing. While Paul goes off to heal the old man, the crowd considers the situation. They had thought that Paul must be a murderer when he had been seen to be attacked by an adder, but when he had clearly survived this they begin to worship him as a god, Aesculapius, come down from heaven to work miracles.
Paul comes back from healing the old man to find himself worshipped as a deity he is shocked to the core and takes the opportunity of preaching a sermon of enlightenment to the heathen.
It is not known for how long Paul lived in Rome. There is even a tradition that he came to Britain and walked up Gospel Pass in the Black Mountains. But it is generally believed that he suffered final martyrdom in the persecution of the Christians under Nero.
I have taken my final scene from Pauls last moments surrounded by friends and have brought back the atmosphere of the opening of this opera where the friends try to persuade him not to go to Jerusalem.
"I have preached the Resurrection of the Dead from Asia to Europe, from Jerusalem to Rome and do you think that death can daunt me now or be more than the coming of the Lord Himself to take me by the hand? Behold, I tell you a mystery " (1 Corinthians, Ch. 15, v. 51) and before that we find the marvellous passage from 1 Corinthians Chapter 13, v. 1 so well known that it need not be given here. But it makes a wonderful ending to the opera as Paul goes finally to his end, and the friends are left too stunned for comment.
An unusual instrumental ensemble was chosen for The Prisoner Paul - a consort of recorders, a consort of brass (2 trumpets and 2 trombones), a string quartet and a harp. The trombones perhaps call for the biggest explanation. The old sackbut was always a solemn quiet instrument. It was not perhaps until the days of Wagner that the trombones became the great noise makers of the orchestra. The trombone was originally a quiet church instrument. It can even combine well with recorders.
Excerpts from The Prisoner Paul are recorded on SMDS 3 but unfortunately we had to do without the trombones when making the recording.
When our Society performed Geoffrey Bushs opera The Equation together with my opera The Three Wise Men at All Saints, Margaret Street I met again a cousin of mine, Gwen Gundry, whom I had not met since I was a boy, and it was she who suggested that we should come and give a performance in her church, St. Pauls, Covent Garden. So when we performed "The Conversion of St Paul" with my opera The Prisoner Paul we did so at St. Pauls, Covent Garden.
There was only one exit (the entrance). After we had been rehearsing for some time an official busy-body appeared on the scene, who pointed out that theatricals ought not to be performed in a building where there was only one exit. So our venture was nearly ruined at the last moment. Fortunately a side door was found which would open though it had never been used and this satisfied the interfering official and enabled us to go ahead at the last moment.
But our performance was fraught with difficulties until the end. The conductor who had taken all the rehearsals was Marcus Dods. But at the last moment he was unable to carry on. Fortunately I managed to persuade my good friend William Lewarne Harris to take the helm at the last moment and he gave two excellent performances. The second performance was at St. Saviours, Eastbourne.
Perhaps the second of the two performances was the better, when Thor Pierres, our excellent producer, was able to make best use of the spaciousness of the Eastbourne Church.
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