• Michael Nyman
  • Prospero's Books (1991)

  • Chester Music Ltd (World)

Directed by Peter Greenaway

  • 2(pic)22(bcl)2/2210/pf/str
  • 25 min
    • 19th November 2021, Chapel Tonbridge, Tonbridge, United Kingdom
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Programme Note

As is appropriate for a cinematic reconceptualisation of a play set on an 'isle full of noises', Prospero's Books is full of music. However, having studied The Tempest for A-level many years ago, my memory played me false - I had remembered Caliban's line as referring to an island full of voices. By the time I had discovered this error (which had me initially down the path of creating the soundtrack entirely from sampled voices taken from a multitude of sources), the overall conception of the score had become essentially vocal, with settings of the majority of the song texts Shakespeare included in the play. I wrote the five Ariel songs (Where the bee sucks, Full fathom five, Come unto these yellow sands, While you here do snoring lie, and the perhaps unauthorised song text Before you can say, 'Come', and 'Go) specifically for Sarah Leonard's 'boy soprano' voice so that they could be mimed to by one of the three Ariels in the film, Paul Russell. The Masque (for the betrothal of Miranda and Ferdinand) presented the occasion to wrest an operatic scena out of Shakespeare's (?) rather feeble text, and to take the final sequence of The Cook, the Thief, his Wife and her Lover to its logical conclusion - music for film, performed by the singers involved, in vision, on film.
In The Tempest the Masque can be viewed as an interpolation, but it is central to the concept of Prospero's Books; and musically it is both differentiated from the rest of the score and also suitably celebratory. Vocal differentiation is richly of the essence: the individual timbres of the three singers, Marie Angel (Iris), Ute Lemper (Ceres) and Deborah Conway (Juno), each coming from a different vocal 'tradition', play a central role in the musical characterisation. (As did Dagmar Krause and Omar Ebrahim in my 1985 'operatic duet' The Kiss).
For the score as a whole stylistically the initial decision not to 'do a Draughtsman' was easy to adhere to: no music would be written or re-written which was remotely contemporary with Shakespeare's play (apart from one single decorous whiff of a Dowland song for the citation-hunters).
And formally the writing and use of the music for Prospero's Books is - without straining the analogy - akin to Prospero's employment of the twenty-four books that Gonzalo had stowed in Prospero's boat when he was banished to the island from Milan. Just as these books became, in Greenaway's words, the 'core of his authority' so the musical works, both new and archive, that I stowed in Peter Greenaway's cutting room became the core of his authority - organisational, illustrational and emotional.
© Michael Nyman