Grażyna Bacewicz

Works in detail

The Adventure of King Arthur (radio opera)

Radio opera is a genre which flourished briefly in the 1950s and 1960s. Developments in radio technology made people realise the creative possibilities of the medium, which, in addition to performing an informative function, also began to play an important role in culture. Some even spoke of “radio art” as a new creative industry. It was no coincidence that the first studios of concrete and electronic music were established at radio stations. This was where artists could experiment with sound, create hitherto unknown “sound objects”, which were an essential elements of autonomous musical works as well as many radio programmes and “theatre of the imagination”. Authors of such programmes did not limit themselves only to recorded “natural” effects like sounds of the storm, singing of birds or croaking of frogs, but also tried to speak through sound to the imagination of the listeners, not necessarily directly – sometimes they used a sound metaphor for the purpose.

The Polish Radio commissioned several radio operas in the mid-twentieth century, to mention Tomasz Sikorski’s The Adventures of Sinbad the Sailor, Zbigniew Wiszniewski’s Neffru, Zbigniew Penherski’s Judgement of Samson or Romuald Twardowski’s The Fall of Father Suryn. The composers who accepted a commission from the radio included Grażyna Bacewicz. The libretto to her opera The Adventure of King Arthur was written by Edward Fiszer, who used Sigrid Undset’s The Legend of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table published in 1956 by PAX in a translation by Beata Hłasko.

Of the seven books in which the Norwegian writer collected and paraphrased the numerous stories of the legendary King Arthur and his knights, the author of the libretto chose three chapters of Book Five. They make up a certain whole, autonomous enough in comparison with other threads of the Arthurian story to be treated as a kind of parable with a strong point. However, there is an ideological connection between this episode and the whole story – through a reference to the medieval chivalric canon. In this fable-like story it is personified by Arthur’s faithful knight Gavein, who sacrifices his knightly pride to save the king and – as will turn out at the end – is generously rewarded for it. Yet the most important element of the whole story is – let us put it this way – a feminist thread, for the whole action revolves around a question posed to Arthur by the Giant living in the forest cave: What do all women want? The Giant makes the king’s life dependent on finding the right answer to the question. The women asked by Arthur have various desires; yet for the Giant only one answer matters: every woman wants to have her own way! The right answer is known only to an old and ugly witch living in the forest. She agrees to give it to Arthur under one condition – that she will get a beautiful knight for a husband. Only faithful Gavein agrees to marry her to save the king. The knight’s loyalty to the king makes the witch turn into a beautiful girl, as a spell cast on her disappears.

Both authors – the writer and the composer – treated the whole story as a kind of farce with a moral. Grażyna Bacewicz really liked the satirical convention in which Edward Fiszer presented the legendary king’s adventure. This is a characteristic feature of her personality – avoiding grand themes requiring the composer to delve into the world of musical symbols, to self-identify herself ideologically. And from this she – an advocate of “absolute” music in a sense far removed from the romantic understanding of the term “absolute” – tried to distance herself at all cost. All her stage works, including the last ballet Desire, are in the buffo convention. The composer’s sense of humour enabled her to develop a unique kind of musical inventiveness, using sound comedy as the main element of building the dramaturgy.

The libretto of The Adventure of King Arthur, written in partly versed, rhythmic prose, is far removed from the flowing narrative of the original and Beata Hłasko’s translation, which must have been faithful to this style. And since the Arthurian stories are the work of many periods, the librettist did not hesitate to mix historical orders, at times using contemporary colloquial language, at times ribald phrases straight from Gargantua and Pantagruel, or drawing on the metaphor-rich love language of the troubadours – with its source in the Song of Songs – which Gavein uses to speak to his wife who has been turned into a beautiful girl.

Grażyna Bacewicz’s music is devoid of this stylising element. The composer uses her own characteristic language, using the orchestra’s ability to create comic effects to the full. What also needs to be stressed is the dramaturgical instinct of the artist, who created an integral work out of the music and the text, a work that is an indivisible whole.

The solo parts are divided among five sopranos, three mezzo-sopranos, one alto, two tenors, two baritones, one bass and one narrator (Bard) – in a radio recording the various roles can be sung by the same artist. An important role is played by two choruses: of men and women. The orchestra comprises two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, one bass clarinet, two bassoons, four horns, three trumpets, two trombones, timpani, side drum, xylophone, cymbals, gran cassa, celesta, two harps and string quintet.

A lack of references to any musical style of the past and thus lack of a historical concreteness in the action only increases the comic tone of the work and creates a distance from the whole Arthurian question. And yet there is a link between Bacewicz’s opera and tradition: the role of the chorus commenting on the action, often multiplying the lines of the soloists, sometimes complementing the action with solo voices standing out from the ensemble and representing members of Arthur’s court. A similar role is played by some instruments, for example the trombone, which, supported by the harps, strings and tympani, enhances the effect of the Giant’s ghostly laughter. The composer does not shy away from elements of simple sound illustration: when the Bard informs us of the arrival of the king in the Giant’s cave, we hear a horn; when the Giant strikes Arthur, the blows are accompanied by rhythmic strikes of the timpani, cymbals and short string chords. More sophisticated rhetorical means can also be found in the score: when, for example, the ambitious Arthur decides to do battle with the Giant, his affected, essentially grotesque recitative rises higher and higher, increasing the tension. For all these musical means serve a double role in the work – constituting an element of the dramaturgy or sound decoration, as it were, they also add to the whole action grotesque qualities, even when the fate of the king is at stake, as is aptly expressed by the chorale-like “lament” of the chorus. Hence the predominance in vocal parts of recitative turning into parlando and chanted speech. Sometimes aria-like elements are used interchangeably with speech, like in the Bride’s final aria. Other forms of vocal expression – from cantilena to dramatic recitative – are the domain of women at the court, whom King Arthur asks: What do all women want? The orchestra – in which we can sometimes hear, in an echo-like fashion, snippets of motifs from the 1958 Music for Strings, Trumpets and Percussion – plays a primarily illustrative role.

The Adventure of King Arthur was premiered on air on 10 November 1959. It was preceded by Jan Weber’s conversation with the composer and author of the libretto. Both stressed their desire to present the listeners with “something joyful and funny”. Edward Fiszer mentioned a reference to folklore as represented by the saying “Where the devils fears to tread, that’s where he will send a woman”. Grażyna Bacewicz created an equivalent form for the story, a kind of musical comedy which can be placed somewhere between a vaudeville and buffo opera.