Commissioned by Netherlands Radio, Hilversum, for their Jubilee year. First performed on 22 August 1980 by Felicity Lott, Sarah Walker, Anthony Rolfe-Johnson, Norman Welsby, the Festival Chorus and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by John Sanders at the Three Choirs Festival, Gloucester Cathedral.
Opera-cantata in two acts
An allegorical tale. Lady Meed laments the difficulties and tyranny of love. The King declares that Meed and Conscience shall be wed. Piers Plowman is the worker in the fields who protects his flock from the storm. In the vision of Will (the dreamer), he challenges the Devil to joust.
The text of this opera-cantata is a dramatized narrative derived from some of the central incidents and arguments in William Langland’s great poem The Vision of Piers the Plowman, which is also a kind of allegorical guidebook to the troubles of 14th-century England. Historically, the poem covers the latter part of the reign of Edward II and the succession of 10-year-old Richard II under the regency of the Duke of Lancaster, John of Gaunt. However, Langland concerns himself essentially with the prevailing moral issues rather than political history. It was a violent, bewildered, suffering and disintegrating age and the phenomenal parallels with our own time have prompted the American writer Barbara W Tuchman to call her recently published history of medieval Europe in the 14th century ‘A Distant Mirror’.
In order to point-up the image of the absent protagonist Piers Plowman and distil the sense of the underlying ambiguities, I have borrowed freely from Langland and sporadically from other sources. With regard to the character of Lady Meed, it is important to know that apart from being an obvious love-object, voluptuous, desirable and gorgeously attired, she stands for reward (earned reward) as well as inordinate love of money, leading to bribery and corruption. Lady Meed, Will (the dreamer) and the King – the three worldly figures – are played off against characterisations of Conscience and Faith.
Whereas the first act ends on a note of optimism with the idea that man should look to nature for the true meaning of life, Act Two opens despairingly with the fulfilment of Faith’s earlier warning and prophesy. Langland’s setting of a tournament for the subsequent turn of events is unique and I have withheld the full revelation of the identity of Piers Plowman until the final line.
Programme note © 1980 Gerard Schurmann