• John McCabe
  • Arthur, Part I: Arthur Pendragon (1999)

  • Novello & Co Ltd (World)

Commissioned by Birmingham Royal Ballet

  • 2(pic).2.2.asx.2/4221/timp.2perc/hp.pf/str
  • 1 hr 53 min

Programme Note


The first ballet in John McCabe’s diptych based on the legend of Arthur. Part I traces Arthur’s life from his birth, through the momentous extraction of the sword Excalibur from the stone, his marriage to Guinevere, to his attempt to kill Mordred, born of the union between himself and his halfsister (and deadly enemy) Morgan.


Uther and the Tribes: Allegro deciso
Igraine and Uther: Adagio
The Tourney: Allegro vigoroso
The Lovers: Lento - Andante - Presto - Moderato, pesante - Molto Allegro

The legend of King Arthur is perhaps the greatest British myth (just as Beowulf is our national epic poem). It found ready echoes across Western Europe, and even further afield, in medieval times. Parsifal and the Holy Grail story are among the tales that have accumulated around the main legend, and testify to the widespread fascination of the myth for many famous writers from the Middle Ages onwards. In fact, Arthur was a real person, whatever the truth behind the legends that have grown up around him.

According to legend, Arthur's father was the tribal warlord Uther Pendragon, who was enabled to seduce Igraine, wife of a rival warlord Gorlois, by the wizard Merlin's magic powers, shape-changing him into a likeness of Gorlois. As part of his bargain with Uther, Merlin seized the baby Arthur when he was born as a result of this union, and left him with foster-parents, his identity kept secret. Merlin also seized the magic sword Caliburn (or Excalibur) and once Arthur grew up, his unique ability to pull the sword from the stone in which Merlin had placed it marked him out as the rightful heir to Uther's throne as King of Britain.

Merlin's use of magic to shape-change Uther is crucial - Gorlois's daughter Morgan LeFay, who also possessed magic powers and understood even as a child what was happening, became a deadly enemy of her (illegitimate) half-brother Arthur, and later she in turn seduced him before he learnt of his relationship to her. Mordred, the son born of this union, was raised by Morgan with the single aim of wreaking vengeance on Arthur's wife Guinevere and his closest friend and favourite knight Sir Lancelot, that brought about the eventual split in the company of knights assembled by Arthur at the Round Table in his palace at Camelot. At the close, after the battle of Camlann at which Mordred and Arthur gave each other mortal wounds, Arthur's body was rowed to the legendary land of Lyonesse.

Birmingham Royal Ballet commissioned two full-length ballets on this legend form the choreographer David Bintley and myself, for performance in the new Millennium, and Arthur, Part I (subtitled Arthur Pendragon) was premièred in January 2000. the music of this Suite is mostly taken form Act I, and begins with the Prologue and part of Scene I, depicting the fighting between the various tribes, and Uther's dominant personality. Igraine and Uther comes from the Scene 2 of Act I, the crucial pas de deux between Gorlois's wife and the man (Uther)( she believes to be her husband. In The Tourney, a tournament is held, with dances, jousting and much merriment among those attending it - it is during these festivities that Arthur discovers the sword and extracts it form the rock, though this music is not included in the Suite.

The final movement comes from Act 2, and compromises two pas de deux for Guinevere and Lancelot. The first is from Scene 2, in which they tentatively acknowledge their attraction towards each other, and the second is from later in the same scene, when they declare their love for each other knowing that Guinevere is to marry Arthur. This pas de deux leads straight into the fanfares heralding the arrival of the marriage party, and then the processional music for the wedding itself. However, superimposed on the wedding is the Slaughter of the Innocents, as a result of Arthur's decision that all babies should be slaughtered - he is aware that Morgan has born a child as a result of their incestuous union, and aware too that the child will be a threat to the kingdom in the future. The first ballet of this diptych ends with Arthur's one and only act of cruelty, and one, moreover, which fails. since Mordred survives the massacre. Arthur, basically a noble and good man, is brought down ultimately because of events beyond his control.

© 2000 by John McCabe