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Music Text

By the composer after the novel by Samuel Richardson (E)



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Boosey & Hawkes

This work is available from Boosey & Hawkes for the world.


World Premiere
Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco
San Francisco Symphony / Michael Tilson Thomas
Composer's Notes

Clarissa the opera is based upon the famous epistolary novel by Samuel Richardson (1747-8). It tells the story of an heroine torn not only between duty to her family’s pressure for an odious marriage of financial convenience and her repugnance from their chosen spouse but also, and primarily, her emotional vacillation between fear of and unconscious desire for the glamorous libertine Lovelace, who provides the means of her escape from the desperate domestic situation. The first act shows her claustrophobia, her escape with his aid, followed not by freedom, only strife and dissension between the two resulting in a deadlock still worse than before. Lovelace holds her captive in an house of ill-fame, colluding with its keeper to stage a fire from which he can rescue her and compel her grateful love - a plan that "misfires" - for she eludes his designs and escapes.

The second act, with Clarissa recaptured, moves into psychological fantasy rather than quasi-realistic action, centring upon a dance-scene and duet in which their mutual but incompatible attraction towards each other brings her almost to melting-point. At the last moment she again refuses. Maddened beyond endurance he violates her. After this climactic turning-point the final scenes show him gradually dwindling away into nothingness as she blooms into a fulfillment of moral grandeur even while her body declines towards death.

The Clarissa-Sequence takes some highlights from this story and weaves them into a concert-piece independent of the direct narrative line. I, Prelude and Scena, cuts from the opera’s opening, a sort of physiological portrait of the heroine based upon her heartbeat, the enunciation of her name, and a hint of her ambivalent feelings about Lovelace, direct to the extended scena (with solo soprano) where, under her family’s lock and key she pours forth her secret hopes and fears, seems to hear in her delirium God’s judgement resounding through her father’s curse, and falls senseless as Lovelace, Deus ex machina, carries her off into apparent liberty.

II, Dreams and Fantasies, is largely derived from the second act dance-scene, with snatches of Lovelace’s previous amorous apostrophe and their subsequent duet worked in. The sources for III, Fire and Apotheosis, are more far-flung. It begins with a reworked fire-finale from the first act; but the crazed tumult abates into the crucial passage from the second where Clarissa trembles in the balance between acceptance and rejection before deciding for the latter, thus precipitating the crisis. It then moves forward to the music of her death. The closing apotheosis reproduces music from the end of the opera, but first heard is the Prelude, that represents her unviolated nobility of spirit.

The original opera was dedicated jointly to Benjamin Britten and Michael Tippett as the then (1976) living "masters of the native soil" who had meant most to me in my teens and twenties. This dedication, offered in fear and trembling, was accepted by both composers - by Britten, indeed, in the year of his untimely death. This dual acceptance was deeply touching to a successor who inevitably owed them both so much - for an English composer the twin deities of his country’s music, particularly opera, since the 1940s. Of course any re-working of the same music must always be dedicated at the same shrine; but I would like to include who in this Clarissa-Sequence the names of three conductors who have materially assisted the music towards actual sounds: Simon Rattle who first conducted some "bleeding chunks"; Oliver Knussen who presided over the first stage-performances of the complete opera; and Michael Tilson Thomas, who had already included the heroine’s principle scene in his first concert as Principal Conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra, and, after seeing the production, first conceived the idea of a new Sequence.

Robin Holloway, October 1998

Reproduction Rights
This programme note can be reproduced free of charge in concert programmes with a credit to the composer

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