Music Monday: Lutyens: Présages

Looking up biographical information for these posts can sometimes be a bit dull. Most professional bios of the sort that get slipped into program notes and album reviews are long on education and awards but short on personalizing details — it's hard to get a sense of who a composer was as a person by reading a list of ensembles that have played their works. Such was emphatically not the case with today's composer, Elisabeth Lutyens (1906 - 83).

Until the 1940s, Lutyens followed a pretty typical life trajectory for a composer. Born to the famous architect Sir Edwin Lutyens in London, Elisabeth already aspired to be a composer at the age of nine. She pursued this interest at the École Normale de Musique in Paris, and subsequently at the Royal College of Music, graduating from the latter in 1930. Her second husband, Edward Clark, had been a producer at the BBC, but he left in 1936 under extremely rancorous circumstances (there was a libel suit involved), and had considerable difficulty finding subsequent employment. In 1945, in dire need of additional income, Lutyens asked her friend and fellow composer William Walton to help her pick up some work scoring films.

There are some composers who look down on some work, and do it grudgingly or not at all. Lutyens took to it with gleeful enthusiasm. She entered film scoring just as the Hammer horror films were beginning to take off, and she scored many of their efforts over the coming decades, along with films from their rival production company, Amicus Productions. Her first score, for Penny and the Pownall Case in 1948, made her the first female British composer to score a feature film, and she was also the first composer to use the cimbalom in a film score (in The Skull in 1965, despite the credit for this often going to John Barry). She became known colloquially as the Horror Queen, and would paint her nails a lurid green to further the association. While it's certainly true that she didn't hold her film scores in the same regard that she did her concert works — she was infamous for asking producers "Do you want it good, or do you want it Wednesday?" — but she was genuinely proud of her ability to score a 50-minute film in as little as five days. Many of these scores pushed conventional boundaries, both in terms of the harmonic language and in terms of the tight-knit relation between dialogue, score, and sound effects. (In this, she essentially was working as a sound designer before that was fully established as a separate role.) 

Yet, despite all this camp glory, we're going to be sticking with her concert music today. Specifically, today we feature her 1963 Présages (Premonitions, or, given the subject matter, perhaps Forebodings) for solo oboe. According to a footnote in a Google Book — which is, frustratingly, pretty much the only information I've been able to find online about this piece — this work grew out of incidental music that she wrote for a production of Aiskhulos's* Oresteia, specifically from a lament for Kassandra* in the first play of the trilogy. In the play, Kassandra, who has been cursed to know the future but never be believed when she tells it, has been brought back as a captive from Troy by the Greek king Agamemnon, only to have a ghastly vision of both his death and her own at the hands of Agamemnon's wife Klutemnestra* shortly before said murders transpire. It's a gut-wrenching scene, ranging from the wordless agony of prophetic possession thru stark terror at the immanent bloodshed to a resigned acceptance of the inevitability of fate.

Even armed with this barest of contextual information, the piece becomes much more approachable. The whole work is structured as a theme and variations, with the theme being cast in the form of a searching recitative. It is plaintive and uncomfortable, suggesting the prophet far from home and full of dread. The first variation bursts into a whirl of frenetic activity, representing, perhaps, the fit of the prophetic vision. The motion ebbs in the next variation, but there is a searching, tentative quality, as tho trying to feel out the precise contours of a future only vaguely glimpsed. As it comes into focus, a subsequent outbreak of terror ensues, a frantic reaction to the specter of corpses.

Next comes another slow interlude, this time full of yawning gaps between registers. There is a gap in the vision, a respite from the first wave of the future flashing before her eyes. It doesn't last for long. The fifth variation stirs to life with ominous undulations, the tendrils of prophetic fire beginning to rekindle. Panic returns in the next variation, corresponding to Kassandra's sudden knowledge that her life is almost over. A freer interlude ensues, as she tries to reconcile herself to her fate. The piece concludes with a coda that condenses the material of the opening recitative. It ends quietly, and almost tranquilly. If there is a note of bleakness here, that is well understandable. The seer, after all, is going not to a quiet rest, but a violent death.

*More familiarly spelled Aeschylus, Cassandra, and Clytemnestra, respectively.