Writings

Sweeney Agonistes versus Black Roses

Article written by the composer for publicity in connection with the New York Production

I think it will generally be conceded that to compose music for an opera to a particular libretto, and to have the opera performed to an entirely different libretto is a rather unusual experience for any composer, past or present. Yet this, believe-it-or-not story is actually what will happen to me when Punch Opera produce my "Murder in Three Keys" at the Cherry Lane Theatre on July 6th 1954.

Here is the story. "Murder in Three Keys" was originally a triptych of three one-act Grand Guignol operas, using plays by O'Neill, Strindberg and Chaucer as libretti.

When I met Mr. Nelson Sykes, Artistic Director of Punch Opera in New York last December, he suggested to me that the impact of three such intense dramas might be somewhat overpowering and that the overall effect would probably be greater if one of the three operas were of a lighter character than the other two, citing as example the position of "Gianni Schicchi" in the Puccini triptych scheme. I agreed with this point of view, and we both looked around for a suitable text, which would fit into the general pattern of my "Murder" opera, and be on a par with the superlative literary quality of O'Neill and Strindberg. (By this time we had decided to drop the Chaucer "Pardoner's Tale"). The "Sweeney Agonistes" of T.S. Eliot appeared to both of us to be ideal for the purpose, and I immediately wrote to the distinguished author asking for the necessary permission to use his text as the basis of an opera. Efforts to contact Eliot in the United States and England were however, unsuccessful. I myself had a very full programme for the immediate future; first I had to finish my lecture tour of the States (which eventually took me to 43 Universities): then I had to cross to London for TV and broadcasts of an opera of mine, with concerts in Edinburgh and Glasgow, and finally to return to South Africa to resume my normal work at the University of Cape Town.

Punch Opera intended producing "Murder" only a few months ahead, and the time factor was all-important: probably on the assumption that as on the six occasions previously, when I had approached equally famous authors as Eliot for permission to use their plays as opera texts, permission had been granted, I "took a chance on it" and started composing music for "Sweeny" on the Queen Mary crossing the Atlantic, then at odd times between concerts in Britain, and then en voyage to Cape Town. On arriving in South Africa, I found to my surprise that the elusive T.S. Eliot was actually holidaying in Cape Town, and I very quickly established contact with him. It appeared that none of my letters had reached him, and to my distress he appeared most reluctant to allow his "Sweeny Agonistes" to be moulded into operatic form. He said, however, that on returning to London, and after having an opportunity of discussing the matter with his friends and publishers, he would send me his final decision. When an irrevocable "No" arrived about three weeks later, it was to find me with the musical score of "Sweeney" completed, and a non-performable opera on my hands.

Eliot's point of view, that his "Sweeney" consisted of two almost disconnected fragments the final outcome of which he had himself never really imagined, and that any permanent and conclusive version of them - necessary in any operatic treatment - would inevitably go beyond the intention and invention of his own "Sweeney" was a reasonable enough argument, but did not, of course, help me out of my present predicament.

Considering that the music of my "Sweeney" might turn out to be reasonably presentable and certainly provided just that right touch of comedy-with-a-twist which Mr. Sykes needed for his future production of my "Murder': I was reluctant to put the score away in the bottom drawer of my desk and forget about it.

'Would it be possible, I asked myself, to write an entirely new libretto, new story, new characters, new words to the existing music? It appeared at first thought to be a quite incredible feat. However, as they say in popular broadcasting, I decided to "give it a go".

The usual interpretation of the central character in Eliot's "Sweeney" is that of a naturally violent man, who, having murdered a girl, suffers from Orestian remorse of conscience. I started out by transforming the 1920s English Sweeney into a GI returning from Korea who after discovering her faithlessness strangles his wife. To my surprise an entirely new set of characters appeared on the scene, relating themselves to my murderer, Dusty Joe, and gun rattle speeds of Eliot's Doris, Klipstein and Krumpacher. In a remarkably short time, the new libretto re-wrote itself and fitted itself spontaneously into the music.

I was able to retain the original order of all the musical numbers, and practically the entire musical contents, although harmonies, orchestration and innumerable minute details had continually to be altered. My music to the famous lyric "Under the Bamboo Tree" now trips quite as daintily to the American folk-party-rhyme "Flies in the Buttermilk". The following comparison of a parallel passage may be of interest to those concerned with musical and literary oddities:

Original “Sweeney”Version (TSE) -Written in Waltz time

Well, that's life in a crocodile isle,
There's no telephones, There's no gramophones, There’s no motor cars, No two-seaters
No six-seaters,
No Citroen
No Rolls-Royce.
Nothing to eat but the fruit as it grows
Nothing to see but the palm trees one way
And the sea the other way.
Nothing to hear but the sound of the surf.

New Version (Black Roses) E.C.

Yes, I've lost my girl,
Now, what'll I do?
Get another one?
Get a better one?
Get a sweeter one?
Get a juicier one, a redheaded one?
Get a blonde or brunette?
Not on your life: I'm through with them all.
I've learnt my lesson this time, believe me!
If I ever go a-courtin' again, I’ll take a gun or a knife or a whip.

I must confess that starting off with a big grouse and no great goodwill, I found this one of the most fascinating and enjoyable tasks I have yet tackled. I was able to tie up all the threads of the story and substitute something more definite and sequentially convincing for the loose structure and inevitable formlessness which was all that "Sweeney" had to offer in this respect. I make no pretence to have touched, let alone equalled the literary heights of the Eliot version. I believe that it fulfils a function in this operatic triptych, offsetting the grim O’Neill "Dark Sonnet" and the exciting and frightening "Simoon" of Strindberg.